Updated: Jan 5, 2019
Being a black man and expressing vulnerability has been traditionally perceived as a contradiction. Kenneth Whalum's sophomore project, "Broken Land" challenges that stereotype as he explores themes of heartbreak, self reflection, and transparency. This record is an allegorical journey that rides the lines of relational and social. We recently got a chance to sit down with Kenneth to discuss the album, what inspires him and the best advice received from his father.
Who is Kenneth Whalum?
I’m originally from Memphis, Tennessee. I’m a musician, singer, saxophonist, producer. I’m a black man. I strive to excel in every area I’m presented with. I’m up against some of the same battles and tests that other people who look like me face. I’m always trying to be positive. I’m always trying to do things that take me out of my comfort zone.
Explain the title Broken Land?
There's Disneyland, Opryland; even Banksy the artist has “Dismaland” which is sort of the opposite of that. That was the concept in mind. Broken Land is a place in my mind where things use to be okay. You're viewing and touring the ruins of that situation that are specific to you. The concept started as a place where good times were had, and provided the opportunity to view those times. There’s a social aspect to it and how men approach relationships and sometimes find themselves unable to properly emote.
What was the message you were trying to portray with this project?
I just wanted to be honest. I think that a large part of the problem centers around gender roles, especially as it pertains to relationships. We have these expectations of ways we are supposed to act, things you shouldn’t say and certain emotions we shouldn’t get into if we are to make the relationship work. In my life, I actually feel like it's been those times that hurt in the long run. There have been situations where I didn’t allow myself to go to a place I could have gone to in order to make the situation better. I just wanted to be honest. My policy is that honesty is always appropriate. It's always timely, it's always what’s necessary, even when it's difficult. I think as a man when you're getting to know yourself, over time you become okay with those truths that make you vulnerable. I just wanted to put those things into song. I don’t write songs thinking about the song. I just write my thoughts and marry it to the music later. I feel like the emotions come from the same place.
The beginning of your song, “Might Not Be Okay” ft. Krit, you came on the track & instantly made me think of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. I wanted to ask for your vocals, how’d you find your sound?
It's interesting that you ask that. I haven’t been asked that question in terms of vocals. I feel like I’ve been really intentional about not doing anything I don’t really mean, especially in any capacity as it relates to art. I feel like my vocals are just a reflection of my saxophone and the emotions that I carry out. I feel like there’s Coltrane in there, Marvin Gaye in there, Thom Yorke, Frank Ocean in there, Al Green. These are all my musical influences. I just want to be masculine and be myself. I didn't want to play any weird games with it. I just want to sing like I’m talking. I don’t want the message to differ from my thoughts. I’m not going to make it sound any more different than how I hear it in my mind. I just sing like I would be singing at my aunt’s house.
What was your favorite track?
It’s hard to say honestly. There all like real stories. I didn’t write them with other people in hopes of making hits. They all come from the same bank, sorta speak. "Motive" right now is my favorite just because it’s upbeat, you feel like it’s going a certain way and then it steps into the light in terms of the approach to the song.
What was the most challenging record to get out?
Probably “Don’t Look Back.” the last song on the album. It was a lot different from what I prepared to put on the record. It was another honest moment and it was a chance for me to get a different approach out. The song is written from the perspective of a bird. It’s a 12 string guitar. It’s a vulnerable song. I just sang it to live to the guitar. It was a whole different level of vulnerability.
What advice would you offer a black man who’s currently navigating his own “Broken Land” Experience.
Honestly man, I’m still learning. My own process changes every day. And I’m still learning how to live and how to be great on a daily basis. I can’t sit here and act like I got it figured out. It only helps me when I’m honest about the brokenness of the situation, whatever it is. I think that there’s is a huge gap between how black men have to handle certain emotions compared to how other men handle theirs. One is not greater than the other but there are certain things that are generational that are given to us. Black men. No matter how you're raised. There is a societal lens that people look at you through. It's our place to make the best of it.
I know you went to Morehouse for a few years. How did your time at an HBCU impact your music?
The good part about my music all I need to inspire it is my experiences. It inspired it a lot. That was the best time of my life. Being fresh away from home, on my own. It was a time for me where I was able to see what my boundaries were and where I wanted to be with things.
Can you speak to your family and growing up in Memphis?
My parents are really cool. They’ve been really supportive. I feel like I’ve put more of a self-pressure on myself just because I knew they are good people. I got more encouragement and guidance pushing me in the right direction. Growing up in Memphis I was always around music. Some of my earlier gigs were with Al Green and Isaac Hayes. I was able to play on Beale street as a kid. I got professional training early without even knowing. At 15, I was getting paid $50, It taught me to be on time and about my business.
What was the best advice your father gave you?
Man. That’s difficult. He is my greatest example. He’s so close to me. I feel like everything I’ve done has been an extension of him. I can’t even think separate of him. I just know he believes in me and he’s always told me that I should believe in myself.
What artist past or present inspire you?
I love Frank Ocean man. I just feel like he’s so honest with his music and his personality. I love Radiohead, been a huge fan for a long time. Kanye, I’m listening to College Drop Out right now. I feel a personal connection to his music. I also like D'Angelo and James Blake.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with Puff, Beyonce, Maxwell and most recently Jay Z on his 4:44 project. What’s been the most rewarding part of working with the music industry’s most elite artists?
I learned a lot from Puff. I think we have similar personalities and I just watch how he maneuvers certain rooms and how he goes about connecting certain dots in business. I learned a lot from Jay, mostly his way of moving to. He's' quiet but smart. They both have that quite black panther thing about them.
Now that the album has dropped, what can we expect next? Tour?
We're working on some dates for the fall right now. It’s looking good. We will be hitting a lot of major cities.
Finish this sentence. Stature, to me means…
How you stand. It’s what your posture is like in your environment.
For more information on Kenneth Whalum, follow his IG,@kennethwhalum.
Listen to his latest release "Broken Land" below.