By the time he was 19, the Grammy-nominated R&B star Kem was homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and meandering aimlessly in and around Detroit seeking his next high. Decades later, his story, he writes in his revealing memoir, “Share My Life,” which comes out April 4, is “a tale soaked in the blues.”
As a child, Kem said he remembers feeling worthless, lonely and out of place. His mother abused alcohol and he describes his father as a “tyrant.” He discovered drinking in his teens, and he did not stop for nearly a decade, with drugs in the mix, too.
He dropped out of high school, was estranged from his family and spun so out of control that his potential as a musician was only recognizable during fleeting moments of sobriety. Living on the streets, strung out on drugs, he said, was like “being in a higher circle of hell.”
Finally, at 23, Kem attended a meeting at a Salvation Army shelter where he lived. There, men freely shared their emotions, something he had never experienced at home.
It inspired him to eventually open up about his troubles. That was the beginning of him saving his own life. Now, Kem has had a platinum-selling album, eight No. 1 singles and is currently on tour with fellow R&B heavy-hitters Musiq Soulchild and Ledisi.
So much happened before then, though — and Kem chronicles the bumpy ride in 250 pages of candor, emotion and some regret. His post-addiction life is an ongoing story of triumph over tragedy that is magnified by his place as a celebrated artist anchored in love and triumph.
A husband and father of six children in metro Atlanta, Kem credits his deep faith for his sobriety and his success. He took some time during his tour to chat with NBC News about his book, his music and his recovery.
NBC News: You speak to the audience at your concerts a little about your turbulent past and power of your faith. What made you decide to now go all in with a memoir?
Kem: This year commemorates 20 years since my first album came out, so this is a monumental milestone year for me. I’ve been sharing bits and pieces of my story from the stage and in interviews over the past 20 years. But the book is a different animal. It’s the perfect vehicle to expound on the healing and transformation that is taking place in my life and has made me the man that I am and has informed my artistry to a great degree.
NBC News: Sharing such a deeply personal experience can be both therapeutic and difficult. What emotions did you deal with as you rehashed your life for this book?
Kem: It wasn’t emotional until I got into the booth to do the audio version of the book. Hearing the words come off the page, in my voice, was emotional. I don’t take as much time to reflect on what has been. I’m in such a “put your head down and let’s get to it” mode, so, to step back and to really think about what has transpired and how it has informed the man that I am today. . . it’s a humbling experience. I got emotional in a good way. I take the good and the bad, all of it. All of it wasn’t necessary, (laughs) but all of it was integral in getting where I am. So, I don’t have any regrets.
NBC News: The music industry is notorious for its drugs and alcohol abuse, and it can test people of strong faith. How do you function in the world opposite of your values?
Kem: I am a firm believer that like attracts like. So that doesn’t come into my sphere. It’s not on my radar because I’m not into it. I lived that life over a decade before I got into the music business, so there was a certain amount of grounding and foundation that was laid before I ever came into the music business. I’m grateful for that. And I surround myself with people who understand who I am. I don’t really have any constraints around what other folks do. But if you’re working with me, you’re not doing that when I’m around. I can’t control what you do, but I surround myself with good people. And that seems to have worked out in my favor over the years.
NBC News: Your mother was vital to your upbringing and your recovery. How do you sum up that relationship?
Kem: My mom, in a lot of ways, is my muse. I realize how much our lives parallel one another. Growing up, I always had my eye on what my mom was doing. She was and continues to be a major inspiration in my life, my creativity, my entrepreneurial spirit — and my lack of aversion to risk (laughs). She’s the one who tells me, “Put it out there.’ ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ I have that spirit. I owe it to my mother.
NBC News: It seemed like there was a complicated relationship with your father. He was not only strict, but hostile, you wrote in the book. How much of that relationship shaped who you were and who you are?
Kem: I think that we come into this world with the exact right parents we were supposed to have — bad, good or indifferent. My father, we butted heads. And now, being the head of a household and living in the house with my children and being a married man, having to deal with the wreckage of my past — I understand what my father was up against. My father, in many ways — it makes me want to cry even just to say it — is more of a man than I will ever be.
NBC News: You described your household growing up as noncommunicative, and your childhood self as shy. Have you grown out of your shyness and, as a family, have you all been more willing to share versus holding things in that can ultimately be damaging, as you described in the book?
Kem: There’s a phrase in the book: Silence has a voice. I grew up in the era of, “This is grown folks’ business” and you didn’t talk about grown folks’ business. Definitely, in the Black community, we keep our secrets, we keep our dirty laundry to ourselves. There’s always all of this stuff going on that nobody is acknowledging, but everybody knows is going on. There’s a phrase in recovery that says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I was shy and today I’m an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. My natural instinct is to be quiet and stay quiet, and to observe.
NBC News: You documented many experiences in the book, but it was fascinating that even under the influence of drugs or alcohol you heard music. How influential was music and the prospect of becoming a professional singer in the evolution of your life?
Kem: Music was always a light. It was that light at the end of the tunnel that I was always trying to get to it. In many ways music was pulling me through. In my darkest moments, I could sit at a piano and lose myself and feel safe and have refuge. Music was a sanctuary. It was one of the things God used to save my life.
NBC News: What do you feel when you think about Wild Pair, the group you formed way back in the day with a couple of friends?
Kem: I was at the peak, the pinnacle, of my addiction when that group was created (laughs). It was such a ride. It was exciting, exhilarating, terrifying. A lot of it is a fog. I had blackouts. I was drinking all the time. It was embarrassing. I was 19, 20, 21 and my friends saw my talent. But both my talent and my dysfunction were on full display. I could do a book just on that. It was crazy.
NBC News: You and your wife, Erica, seem to have much in common in the way of painful times as a youth. How much did that fact help your beautiful love story play out that you describe in the book?
Kem: There are so many coincidences, parallels in our lives that early on, when we started dating, and we started talking about these things, it was like, ‘Dude, this is our lives, our hearts are connected.’ Our stories were written for one another. There were just too many coincidences. This is where I’m supposed to be.
NBC News: What is your hope that readers get out learning your story?
Kem: My intention is to speak to the heart of someone who can identify with the triumphs and the tragedies of my life. My hope is that it helps them have better outcomes in their lives. Great healing and transformation are taking place in my life because somebody shared their story with me. And I hope that sharing my story in this book will do the same for someone else.
CORRECTION (March 31, 2021, 5:15 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the number children Kem has. He has six children, not two. It also misstated the number of No. 1 singles Kem has had. It is eight, not five.