Excerpt From Café Gratitude: Memoirs of a Backup Diva

by Kudisan Kai

Talent or no talent, living a life that is constantly up in the air is not for everyone. For me, there was no other way to live. To outsiders, my life looked exciting, scary, careless, yet blissfully free. They want to know what happens on the road and how one can travel for months at a time, seemingly tirelessly. They want to know what goes on in the recording studio: Is it difficult? Can’t they just auto-tune everything now, so do you really have to be a good singer anymore? Again, if you don’t know when your next recording session will be, then how do you know you’ll have money for rent on the first of the month? There’s that money question again. More than anything, I was asked how in the world did I choose to sing rock music with my classical music background. One of my musician friends even asked me if it was because of my connection with Elton John.

At the end of the day, the question that circled around in my head was, “How do I continue to do backing vocals and sessions and pursue a successful career as a solo artist?” It was an honor to work with these great icons in the industry, but it was not my goal to be only a backing vocalist/session singer. When contemplating this question, what came to the surface was a laundry list of soon-to-be uncovered insecurities. Even with the résumé that I had, which had secured me gigs for more than 15 years, within a year and a half after graduating from Howard University, I was still insecure about my voice. I was constantly questioning whether I was worthy of being a solo artist. Scott Folks, an A&R executive from Electra Records, once asked me, “So what do you possess in your voice that should motivate me into giving you a record deal over anybody else?” At the time, I didn’t have an answer. He was inquiring about me as an R&B/jazz singer, not a rock singer. I was a jack of all trades and a master of many genres – that’s the job of a backing vocalist. However, this would be problematic when it came to pursuing a career as a solo artist. You have to be clear about who you are as an artist.

The next hurdle was my insecurity about my looks. Was I pretty enough? This shallow question was unfortunately tied into my singing and performance abilities, and would plague my career for decades. The age of music videos, accessible plastic surgeries, and high-definition TV complicated these issues. Having always had a weight problem exacerbated my insecurities, which in turn exacerbated my weight problem. In spite of my self-loathing, I pushed forward, continuing to pursue and excel in my career. Though I was never clinically diagnosed, I felt a deep depression about my performances and was always depressed about my looks. But at the end of the day, I put on the clothes that made me feel my sexiest, went on that stage, and did my job as best as possible in spite of my fears and low self-esteem. Deep in my heart, I believed I was fucked up.

Being raised in a family of non-artists always made me feel that I was different. Sometimes being an artist felt like a flaw, like something was wrong with me. Although I loved my family and friends, something in me knew at age 4 that Memphis was not the place for me. After graduating college and starting work in the music business, my relatives would even question my sexuality because I was always on tour and it didn’t seem to them that I was concerned about getting married and having children. In the next moment, whenever I’d come to my hometown to perform with Chaka Khan or any other major artist, those same friends and relatives would then contact me, wanting tickets and backstage passes. On the outside, their allegations didn’t bother me. But on the inside, they brought my cauldron of insecurities to a boiling point. I was not exempt from wanting the house, marriage and children. As for my sexuality, I could care less about what anyone thought. Observing the challenges of raising a family amid the abnormalities of Hollywood brought me to the conclusion that I would need to move out of the Los Angeles area to even consider doing so. With a flourishing singing career and a strong possibility of launching my solo career, I was still far from the thought of leaving L.A.

Me with Lisa Vaughn. We sang with Chaka together for years one of my closest friends (Photo on the Left), (Left to Right) Mortonette Jenkins, Sandy Simmons and Bridgette Bryant fellow backing vocalists and close friends (Photo on the Right).

Admittedly, there were times when being a musician felt one-dimensional, as if I was a “one trick pony” of a human being, never fully committed to expanding my brain, to being versed in subjects other than music. I am smart and well-rounded. So, I took advantage of my time on the road, pursuing other areas of interest outside of music, practicing languages in the prospective countries we toured, going to museums and other historical sites. A true lover of history, these experiences expanded my knowledge and global view as a person, as a musician, as an artist.

But, several questions about my lifestyle did begin to plague me: If I do decide to have a family, then where do I live? How do I continue as an artist with these multiple streams of income, and be normal living outside the bubble of the music industry? By the time I was 27 years old, in the middle of my first big tour with Elton John, these questions came to the forefront.

In 1993 I gave birth to my daughter Vaughn, the love of my life. At that point, the inner turmoil over becoming “normal” reached its peak, spouting like a kettle boiling over. There I was spilling tears as I battled through my anger and frustration with balancing life as a parent with my life as a session/tour singer, and falling farther away from my original goal of being a recording artist. This was compounded with the question of where to raise my daughter. What was the universe trying to tell me? For the next few years, I vacillated between staying or leaving this music business, until I decided it was time to seek a “normal” life, full time.

Me with my baby, Vaughn at about a year old (left), Vaughn at 21 (right), Vaughn at 23, now (center)

I left Los Angeles and headed up to the San Francisco Bay Area to work with Narada Michael Walden, a producer who had worked with Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, whom I had met at an L.A. nightclub. I thought that doing sessions for him and not going on the road would be the closest thing to a regular job. At least I’d be at home with my baby. I rented a house in Mill Valley in Marin County, just five minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. However, the collaboration lasted only six months, as Narada was not getting calls to work either. To make ends meet, I ended up returning to L.A., driving back and forth for session work, now with daughter in tow. Finally, I accepted a two-week tour in Japan with Narada and his star-studded band. Back on the road again, damn! I drove back to Los Angeles and left my daughter in the care of her godparents and the baby sitter, then headed to Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, Japan. When I returned to L.A., my 18-month-old daughter actually did not recognize me. She looked at me and I could see that, in her eyes, I was a stranger. I held her in my arms and kissed her. It took a few minutes, but she soon laid her head on my shoulders, indicating she was starting to remember.For me, this was horrifying. I knew that this could never happen again. Moving back to L.A. after my six-months stint in Marin County placed me back in the session life, but due to the changing landscape of the music industry, I was forced to tour again, bouncing between road gigs with Jeffrey Osborne and Chaka Khan for the second time in my career, living in L.A. then in N.Y.C. only to return to L.A. again between 1996 and 2001. During this time, I had to fly my daughter to Memphis and leave her in the care of my mother.

My life was completely out of balance. Again I decided that rather than be in the center of the music business universe, I’d prefer just being “normal.” After watching the 1987 Diane Keaton movie Baby Boom incessantly, being a keeper of a General Store in the middle of nowhere seemed appealing. I moved two hours away from N.Y.C. onto a 72-acre farm in Dutchess County, New York, up near a small village called Rhinebeck. While living there, I was contacted by an acquaintance whom I’d only met once. She remembered that I had expressed interest in teaching when we first met and asked if I would be interested in teaching part-time at Berklee College of Music in Boston. This was an answer to my prayer. Now, I could leave Chaka Khan’s tour and be at home.

For two years, I made the four-hour commute by car to Boston to teach at Berklee twice a week. But one morning I fell asleep at the wheel, flipping my Jeep Wrangler on black ice on the Taconic Parkway, about an hour south of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Luckily I was the only passenger and was not hurt. For me, this was a sign that it was time to make another change, as the teaching job did not provide enough money to really sustain me. I decided to return to L.A. to settle in and only do recording sessions. In the summer of 1998, I drove across the U.S.A. from New York to California on Interstate 80 with my 4-year-old daughter in tow. That trip alone is worthy of another book.

Back in Los Angeles, session work was becoming sparse. I was offered tours with Beck and with The Black Crowes, but turned them both down, trying desperately to maintain the home I had rented in Topanga, take care of my daughter, stabilize my finances, and strengthen the roots of my session career. However, it all seemed futile, as the Screen Actors Guild strike in the late ‘90s snatched my commercials off the air, leaving me broke and numb. I even attended the Landmark Forum, a series of life-coaching seminars. Then, like the huge neon signs that light up Hollywood Boulevard, it became clear that I should leave the music business altogether. I was finally ready to head back across the United States, this time straight to Boston, to accept a full-time Associate Professor position and hone my skills in the Voice Department at Berklee College of Music. Little did I know that my experience as a professor would enrich my life as an artist and, even more, confirm my true identity.

The first three years back at Berklee were awesome. But, by the fourth year, the artist in me would not remain held up in a corner of my heart, choking. I escaped from Berklee back to Mill Valley, California, of all places, via marriage to a guy I had met 12 years prior, only to divorce him and return to Boston for five more years. My daughter’s graduation from high school prompted me to ask myself if I had enough energy left to return to the music business for one more try at my ultimate goal, being a solo artist. This return would include pursuing a career as a songwriter. I solicited help from the Universe and so it was decided. If an opportunity came up to return to singing anything, then I would seize it.

Once again, like the neon lights on Hollywood Boulevard, the Chaka Khan/David Foster Hitman Tour shined down on me like a beacon in the night in the fall of 2012. Here was my chance to get back into the music business. However, the age-old questions returned: What about your solo artist career? Are you returning to another decade of background singing? Really? Isn’t this going backwards? This time, being older and wiser and more strategic, listening to my heart and not my head, I did the tour. In 2013, I resigned from Berklee and returned to Los Angeles to sing my music and pursue my dreams. Everyone told me “but the music business has changed.” I knew this. I was there when it all changed. Perhaps, I play a role in this newly changed music business.

(Left to Right) Me with Tamar Kali and Militia Vox, black female rock singers from NYC! We were doing a show for the book launch entitled What Are You Doing Here by Laina Dawes in Brooklyn at St. Vitus Bar.   

Maybe that is my destiny, my reason for being back here. To some people, that sounds crazy and naive. Some believe there is a mixture of innocence and audacity here. At this point in my life, having acquired more self-confidence and honed some priceless skills that have afforded me several careers, I know that the Divine – which is all knowing – speaks through my heart. This journey is fraught with a level of homelessness I had never known before and was not certain I would survive. The invaluable lessons learned during this time were humbling and transformative. These have been the most difficult experiences of my life, but they made me into the person, the singer, and the artist that I am today. Over and over, the question would return, “What kind of singer are you?” To fine-tune who I am as a singer meant I needed to be clear about the answers to other questions: Who am I as a human being? What kind of artist am I specifically? What are my contributions to the world? Why am I here? That title “Artist” weighs heavy, sometimes like a crown of thorns. But, it is a crown nonetheless. The Divine prepares us for a higher purpose not only as celebrities but as human beings. On this journey, I found out what that higher purpose was.

I learned that surviving to tell one’s story is an example of how God does not give you more than you can bear. I believe the Divine places us on courses to survive all of these experiences as a witness, to reveal to others what possibility is and what resides on the other side of hopes and dreams: Our heart’s desire. Imagine how productive, loving, and happy everyone would feel in a world living out their heart’s desire? Pursuing what’s on the other side of hopes and dreams is an ageless quest. You can choose it any time. Wouldn’t it be awesome if every being on this planet took that chance to pursue their dreams, relentlessly, through the pain and seemingly insurmountable opposition, to the other side of their experiences in spite of their fears? This is a significant part of being a true artist in any vocation. Many people live in fear of something. But, the difference is that successful artists continue to move forward, living their lives, pursuing their dreams in spite of their fears. Here are the confessions of this back-up diva.