Cover Feature

The Journey of KEM

How the R&B Star Moved From Prodigal to Platinum, 
as told to Allen Satterlee

I am the eldest child with three sisters, born in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve never met my biological father. My stepfather has been in my life since I was three-years-old. When I was four we moved to the metropolitan Detroit area. First, we lived in Pontiac for about 10 years and then we moved to Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Both my parents worked, but we didn’t know our parents were struggling. We had both parents in the home, always had enough to eat and at Christmas always had presents, toys stacked to the ceiling. In many ways we had a normal family dynamic. 

We left Pontiac my freshman year of high school for Southfield—quite a culture shock. We were one of the first African American families on our street. There was a large Jewish community and there still is. I delivered papers throughout the community and became very familiar with a lot of the Jewish traditions. We went from living in a blue collar community to a suburban lifestyle. I was really out of my element. The kids and families in Southfield had experiences that we didn’t have. They had seen more, experienced more. I was like a fish out of water. 

I was also starting to come into being a teenager and a lot of things happened to me that set the stage for me to try to find solace in alcohol and drugs. What I discovered about myself later was that as a child I was probably clinically depressed. Because I lacked better coping skills I started using alcohol and drugs. Alcoholism is something that is present on both sides of my family: my mom is a recovering alcoholic. She went into treatment and my parents learned new tools and developed a healthier way of living.

I was just beginning full-blown drug and alcohol addiction. I could no longer be a part of my family dynamic, at least not in the house. They were trying to become the best versions of themselves and my behavior and addiction were impediments. So, I left home at the age of 19 and began my downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. I flopped around the neighborhood for a while, different friends’ houses. My friends would sneak me in and let me stay the night. I continued to drink and use drugs.  

Deal With It!

After I burned all those bridges, I ended up going to a shelter in Royal Oak, Michigan. At a church someone came up to me and told me I was obviously younger than anybody who was in the shelter at the time. He said that whatever I was dealing with I needed to deal with it or else I could end up being in the revolving door of shelters for the rest of my life. It really scared me. 

I was at that shelter for I don’t know how long and did the rounds. There’s a dance we do when we’re in that lifestyle. We go from shelter to shelter in the community. We know where all the soup kitchens are, who’s passing out lunch at what time on what day during the week, where to go get free bus tickets. 

My first experience with the Salvation Army ARC (Adult Rehabilitation Center) was in Pontiac. I initially went to get off the streets. Any recovery would have been just a by-product, but I was eventually discharged for using. I went to the classes they had there. I would go for periods of time and not drink. But I was always using something and not fully coming to terms with my addiction or with what it would take to overcome it. I learned some things but I was not yet ready to get sober. 

After that I went to the Salvation Army ARC in Detroit. I was discharged from there for drinking. I spent some time on the streets. I went back to that ARC after having spent the hardest week of homelessness. I was pretty beat up. I was sleeping outside on the Detroit River, on the eve of my biological birthday, when I surrendered. I didn’t know at that time that’s what happened. I gave up trying to do things my way. I became open to what ideas and suggestions that people had. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to facilitate change in my life. 

A Safe Place

It was definitely a different mindset than the one that I had before. There was relief in knowing that my immediate need was met and that I didn’t have to be on the streets. I felt calm. I felt safe. And I knew that I wasn’t going to do anything to get kicked out again.

I wasn’t going back on the streets. I didn’t know how I was going to manage to do that because I had made all these promises before to myself and to others about staying clean and doing the right thing. I made these promises before with the idea that I knew how to do it. But this time, I didn’t know how it was going to get done, but there’s an adage that I love that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I was ready to be taught how to live. And I was saved. I mean I was saved. That was the most significant moment in my life. That was the place. It was a refuge. I just don’t know how things would have shaken out had I not had the foundation of The Salvation Army at that time in my life.

ARC Inspires Album Title

When you’re in the Salvation Army ARC, there are mandatory church services. We had a devotion every morning. Those things were definitely instrumental. In fact, my next album’s title is based on a memory of doing those devotions in the morning at The Salvation Army when everyone came down to the cafeteria. I would get up and read from Daily Bread. So, the title of my next album is called “Devotion,” based on that specific memory. Putting God first. How does that apply to my life today? Have I lost some of that? There’s no greater work than putting God first. I get caught up in all of these other things but the Bible says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). If I put God first, everything else is taken care of. Jesus talks about His yoke being easy (Matthew 11:30). Jesus is saying, “If you put Me first, that other stuff will take care of itself.” 

I went to the Salvation Army ARC in Detroit. I was discharged from there for drinking. I spent some time on the streets. I went back to that ARC after having spent the hardest week of homelessness. I was pretty beat up. I was sleeping outside on the Detroit River, on the eve of my biological  birthday, when I surrendered.
Mother & Son celebrate his "Best R&B Song" nomination in 2011, for his song Why Would You Stay at the 53rd Grammy Awards.

A Mentor’s Impact

While I was there at The Salvation Army I met someone who became like a mentor to me named Ronald Clowny. His life was being transformed and I started following him around, doing the things that he was doing and hanging out with the people that he was hanging out with—people who were told the truth about themselves and people who believed that there was a God and they weren’t it. 

Recently, I had a chance to visit Ronald. I hadn’t seen him since I left The Salvation Army maybe 25 years ago. He came to Detroit and I thanked him. He didn’t know the impact he had on my life. He had been watching my professional career but he didn’t know his impact. I was jealous of what God was doing in his life. And I was jealous enough to let his life witness to mine. I wanted what he had and I had an opportunity to thank him before he passed away about a year ago. 

Delivering On Stage

In my concerts I have a time that people call the testimony part of the show. I started telling people I’ve been freed from the bondage of alcohol and drugs. It’s me trying to plant a seed or reinforce what those people in the audience may already know. There is hope beyond your circumstances, and there’s a place to go. There’s a solution whatever you may be dealing with. Everybody has a proverbial mountain that needs to be moved. Once I was able to put together that by being on stage I had an opportunity to witness, my career started to take off. It became more than me being successful. It really became about me carrying a message of hope and encouraging people to put God first. That’s the only thing that you have that can’t be taken away from you. In my darkest hour, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

I want people to know that no matter what you’re going through, no matter what your circumstances may be, God has a plan for your life. And if you make Him the center of that, make God your priority in your relationship, there is nothing that you can’t overcome. The details of your life will take care of themselves. God wants you to know that help has arrived. 

Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is Editor–in–Chief & National Literary Secretary.


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