Singing for the soul
She’s a singer, a mother, a dreamer and a black woman in the music industry: “There is room for everybody.”
By Shauni Rogers
On a Sunday afternoon at Norman’s Bistro, Kelly Renee kindly orders a pineapple juice and plays a snippet of her own song, “Letting You Go.” We sit at the corner booth, silently listening to the melody off her unreleased album. At 39, Renee is an independent soul singer-songwriter in Chicago, where she hopes to finish her album, build a local fan-base and grab every gig she can in a year’s time.
Originally from New Jersey, Renee studied film at Pennsylvania State University. And in fact, apart from her singing career, she also has sights set on being an independent filmmaker. But since Renee prefers to take it one day at a time, we discuss her music, which actually could be her every day.
“Music is life,” Renee says. “If I’m feeling down, I turn on a dance song, if I want to be uplifted, I’ll turn on a gospel song. If I want to be silly, I turn on the radio [laughs]. It just feels good to me.”
Her first opportunity in music was singing background for a hip-hop artist’s track, who at the time, went by Seven. Renee says that singing on the track was just a favor, and that she hadn’t been doing any of her own recordings prior to taking part in Seven’s music. “I had always had a love for music, and so I thought maybe I should start to see what I can do with my own singing,” she says.
For her current album, Renee is teaming up with D.C. Producer, Chuck Slay. “We think alike, we enjoy a lot of the same music and we both respect constructive criticism. I respect him and trust him,” she says.
As a child, Renee was exposed to genres such as R&B, disco, jazz and dance music. Singing came naturally, just as her connection with soul music did.
At its core, soul music is about telling stories through pain, personal experience and joy. It’s the very reason so many people can resonate with the sounds and lyrics of it. “I think that being an artist is being a storyteller,” says Renee. “You can hear someone singing their story and you can relate to that. I hope to tell a ton of stories through my music.” Her song “Letting You Go,” tells a tale of a toxic relationship and the strength it takes to walk away.
“Soul music moves me the most,” says Renee. “The voices, the instrumentation…it makes me feel something and connect with their stories.” She credits Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway as being two of the people who caught her attention to this style of music.
The most sought after artists typically carry a theme or a recurring story. Renee believes that her stories vary throughout the songs she writes and the turns in her career. But the feeling she wants to ignite most of all, is love. “A lot of my messages are about love,” says Renee. “Loving yourself, loving each other, love in relationships… and just loving life.”
Likewise, family values are incredibly important to Renee. And she leans on the unconditional love and support she received growing up, to raise her own music-loving son.
“He’s everything to me. He inspires me to be the best me,” she says. She wants to be the example her son has when he begins chasing his own dreams.
She’s a singer, she’s a mother, she’s a dreamer and she’s a black woman in the music industry. It goes without saying that the industry is a difficult and competitive one to navigate, particularly for independent artists. But Renee is positive that race is not a limit. “Music is huge, so I definitely think there is diversity,” says Renee. “There is room for everybody and room for more. Entertainment is one of the top places you will see black women across the industry as artists.”
However, as for discrimination, Renee has had her battles with sexism in the work place. She recalls one instance where a male co-worker told her that her place was “putting paper in the copy machine.”
It’s worth noting that “workplace” is not the same as a studio. While she’s writing and singing, there’s no place for discrimination and sexism. When she’s making music, she’s in her own world.
Renee’s story is a lot of things. And whether she’s telling it through her music or her relationships, she wants you to know there is always more.
“I am a black woman, but there are a lot of things that can help me tell my story,” she says. “I am a woman, a parent and I’m from New Jersey, and that is also a part of my story. Even if someone can’t relate to your story, it can give them a little insight and understanding into someone else’s.”
Edited by Marlee Septak
Photos by Kelly Renee