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TheCelebrityCafe: What made you decide to pursue a career in music, and could you talk about your performance at the Apollo Theater?
Kwanza Jones: It’s one of those things where I always sang, but I didn’t know I was going to be a performer until after school. [I had the thought that] maybe I’ll be president! That’s why I did Princeton instead of pursuing entertainment right after high school. It’s not until I did the performance at the Apollo [when I really decided what I was going to do]. I was either going to do the business side or the creative side [of music].
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Apollo but it’s sort of encouraged and expected that the people can boo you off the stage, so you better come prepared! For me, it was not nerve wracking but it was still one of those things where anything could happen - it might not have worked. But I won the crowd over! The Apollo is definitely not like the traditional theaters - it’s a little more involved.
TCC: You are very involved with the Girls Are Not For Sale Campaign. Could you talk a little about the campaign and what inspired you to become a part of it?
KJ: Girls Are Not For Sale is a campaign that is part of an organization called the Girls Educational & Mentoring Service (GEMS). It’s a campaign that is in place to stop the trafficking in the U.S. of young girls. People think [trafficking] happens far away but it does happen here. There is a lot of human trafficking and sex trafficking, and it’s happening to girls that are 12 or 13 years old.
What hit home for me is that when I was in junior high, I was walking down the street and was almost taken. Parents always tell you to not talk to strangers, but I guess I sort of did. Someone was [under the guise of] asking for directions, and I moved towards the van because I couldn’t hear them. A man pulled me into the car through the window and started driving away.
Luckily there are four kids in my family and we love each other, but we know how to fight! That fighting paid off and I was able to get the door open and get out of the car.
That’s how I was able to get away. What would have happened if I hadn’t gotten out of that car? Anything could have happened. When I first heard about [Girls Are Not For Sale], I was inspired because they are giving girls a fighting chance. They are trying to help girls who have been victims get out of it, show them that they don’t have to be in the control of various people - pimps, boyfriends - who ask them to go with some other guy, family members who need help, etc. They give girls a fighting chance. A lot of people don’t even realize [that trafficking is happening], but it is so significant in the US. What goes on behind closed doors, you just don’t know. GEMS is trying to make it known that trafficking still does happen. It’s a form of slavery that just has to be known.
TCC: On your website (www.kwanzajones.com), you described climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and said that “climbing that mountain was a lot like the way I do things in life: prepared and not afraid.” How did you come up with that philosophy of life, and how do you stick by it everyday?
KJ: Boy that’s a tough one. It almost comes naturally in terms of feeling that you always have to be prepared and ready for any challenge. The age difference between my parents is around 35 years, so I grew up having parents from two different generations. Growing up I heard stories from my dad about how things weren’t always handed to him and how you always have to work hard. I took those lessons to heart and said, ‘okay that’s what I have to do.’ That includes not always doing the most comfortable things, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. [My attitude is always], ‘Let me see if I can do it.’
Like anything, you do your research for a piece you’re writing so that you’re prepared with what sort of questions you want to ask; I approach everything in that same way - once I decide to do something, that’s it. I’m committed and all in and I want to go into it giving myself the best chance to succeed. Breaking everything down into little steps and being prepared also helps in making things happen.
[When it comes to] keeping and maintaining that whole philosophy, everyone has bad days. There’s always bumps in the road but you just have to keep trying to remember that you know who you are at core as a person. For me, maybe I’m a fighter! Being prepared is a way to always have a great bottom line, and for me, fighting for what I want is at my core. I always remember how I am and who I am. I always remember that when things [aren’t going my way].
TCC: Could you talk about Supercharged? What was your biggest influence behind this album?
KJ: I call the songs on Supercharged an energy drink for your ears because it’s just an album that’s fun and it’s energetic! It definitely has a more pop appeal but it has some dance undertones.
People have told me that ‘Your music has messages.’ When I’m writing I’m not thinking about. For example, ‘You can do it’ [laughter]. I’m thinking how does it sound or do you like the song? People aren’t drawn to the lyrics sometimes because usually you don’t know what you’re hearing. You have to like the sound and then come back to it [and then interpret the lyrics]. If it helps you approach your life and relationships in a different way, then great. I was trying to have an album that talks about how people have conversations about their relationship. It’s hard to sometimes get out of the relationship if it’s not working for you - sometimes you know its just not right but you don’t know how to end it or what to say. Sometimes your thoughts are ‘I’m staying in this for the wrong reasons…I don’t know how to get out of this.’ But my album says that you can be supercharged and say exactly what you want.
In my song, "Everything Around You (I’m Not Happy)", somebody’s not happy in a relationship. It’s not a break-up song, but it is an ultimatum song. [On her website, Kwanza said that this song is a kind of perspective check - if something’s not working, you can either accept the situation, or ‘cut the rope and move on’].
TCC: Is Supercharged different from your first two albums? How so?
KJ: Majorly so!! This is the first album where I worked with a lot more producers on it. I usually co-produce all my albums. Previously, the last two were a lot more organic. The first one I did after just learning how to play the guitar. It was really stripped down and really raw, which was why I called it Naked. I wanted it to have the singer/ songwriter feel - an alternative, folk, indie rock feel, and I was successful with it. But it wasn’t at core in terms of my live performances, it didn’t correspond with who I am as a live performer. Live, people are blown away by my energy saying, ‘Your energy is out of control!’
The second album was almost by chance. It's based on the climb [of Mt. Kilimanjaro], and at that time, I just wrote a song a day. It has a pop rock feel mixed with world music and different things from my experiences in Africa. It was a concept album that wasn’t really the core of what I do, but it was so fun!
Supercharged is really the one album that embodies the energy that I have. The sound of it is the most striking difference - it is a lot more danceable because when you’re going through a difficult relationship conversation, it’s nice to have your [upbeat] song there [to back you up]!
TCC: A broad question, but what inspires you the most?
KJ: In general, it is different experiences. That’s why I travel a lot and outside the U.S in particular because I think what happens a lot is that we can get so caught up in our own world and we become blind to what else is out there and what other people are going through. Traveling helps you get a change of perspective, and interacting with other people really inspires me. And you know I try to always do something different. Who wants to be 100 years old if they can’t live with quality? I’d rather have fewer years and experience as much as I can!
And you know every single time I’ve grown is when I’ve pushed myself or been pushed. And I’ve never realized that before. I like the challenge of seeing what more I can achieve or experience. In a way, a fear of staying stagnant inspires me to do more and it translates into my music as well.
Also when my friends come to me with their issues, that inspires me. I give advice for some of my friends in my songs!
TCC: What are some of your favorite artists?
KJ: One artist in terms of her energy is a little old school, but definitely Tina Turner. Looking at all of her old footage… it’s like whoa! She’s a big inspiration and we share the same birthday! She’s the mainstream, popular artist that I look up to.
When it comes to someone a little less well known…Nina Simone [is someone] I really really love. I found her music playing in a movie and I immediately wanted to know more about her. She’s the type of artist who takes risks… a female version of a Ray Charles who would just do anything from blues to jazz to country to pop. They have no limits and to have longevity as an artist is an inspiration. I’m happy to be on the billboard charts but there has to be a distinguishing line where it’s okay to be different.
[And more our generation], I love Shakira and her out of control energy!
TCC: What is your favorite part about performing?
KJ: Just being able to completely let go, and just having an experience that I’m sharing with the audience and they’re digging the things that I’m doing. Nothing can replace that whole live experience! You can watch concert footage but nothing is like being in that space and in that moment and having that shared experience, that communal feel from performing live. From intimate audiences to performing in front of thousands in a large venue…I love to jump up and down and run in circles!