An Evening with Multi-talented Entrepreneur, Opera Singer, International Music Artist, Broadway Rising Star: N'Kenge
“The Amazing Woman with the Golden Voice”
"Hailed by several as a "Sensational Powerhouse of a Singer packed in a little body" N'Kenge made her Broadway debut in Sondheim on Sondheim alongside Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis. Additionally, she starred in the World Tour of the Michael Jackson Tribute Show. Now, N'Kenge returns to Broadway, as Mary Wells in the acclaimed Motown the Musical!
Our founder Maggie Delany recently spent an Amazing evening with N'Kenge at the Royaltin, for our exclusive interview:
EPN:When did your parents know you had such a great gift?
N'Kenge: If you ask me or my mother you’ll get two different answers. (laughs) I'd say it was at the age of 10. I was playing the piano for my 5th grade class play auditions. That year we were doing the musical "Snoopy". During one of the breaks I played and sang one of the audition songs "Poor Sweet Baby”. When my teacher heard me sing, she said, “Sing that again.” When I sang it again, she immediately cast me as Patty. I never sung before in my entire life. When my mother came to see the show she didn’t really know what I was doing in the show. All she knew was that she was coming to support me. I was the smallest person in class so they had to sit me on top of the grand piano to sing "Poor Sweet Baby" to Charlie Brown. I got a standing ovation and I looked over at my mom and saw her so happy. I remember having this amazing feeling of being on stage. I've been hooked ever since. My mother's answer would be at the time she was pregnant with me. She told me that I was a very active little baby inside her tummy. When she would play music, I would be completely still and when the music stopped, I would begin moving around her stomach very aggressively. She said sometimes it felt like I was standing straight up in her stomach. When I was six months old my mother said I used to make singing sounds to the sound of the running water when she was getting my bath ready. At the time she didn't know what it meant but now she does.
EPN: You went to Julliard. Can you tell us about your experiences there? How it started? Why Julliard? Also tell us the process to get into Julliard?
N'Kenge: After I received my Bachelors Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, I made a decision to try for Julliard to do my graduate studies. I was so excited to have been accepted with scholarship. The entry process is very competitive especially for the graduate program. You're competing against thousands of applicants from all over the world. I was one of 20 students accepted that year for the Masters Program. I always dreamed of going to Julliard. I never had the courage to apply for the undergraduate program. I didn't think I could handle the rejection. Going to Manhattan School of Music for my undergraduate degree was the best decision I could have made. It was such a supportive environment. My vocal teacher Edith Bers who I stayed with even at Julliard was excellent and gave me the foundation I have today. MSM allowed me to sing everything from Musical Theater to Baroque Opera. I was on the Dean's list, I took a few classes at Barnard and I was even invited to join one of the jazz combos and would have accepted if I only had more hours in the day to BREATH. By the time I graduated, I was ready to tackle the graduate program at Julliard and any other challenges I could find in the world. (laughs) The entrance process for Julliard required me to prepare a recital that demonstrated a variety of languages and musical style periods along with numerous teacher recommendations, an excellent transcript and a resume of performances and outreach activities certainly helped. During my three years at Julliard, I had an amazing opportunity to be cast as a principle Artist in one of the Julliard Opera Center productions which was unusual at that time. The Opera Center was the professional program and Master students were normally only used to sing in the chorus. I got reviewed by the Opera News and after I graduated I went straight to New York City Opera House to sing a Principle role in one of their productions. Julliard released me to do solo recital concert tours through Columbia Artists Community Concert Series while I was studying there. It was the perfect school to get an intense education and begin building your career simultaneously. I had the best of both worlds.
EPN: Did you have an artist who inspires you/ who you looked up to?
N'Kenge: I had many idols because there were many genres I wanted to sing from a very young age. My very first vocal teacher Yvonne Hatchett trained me classically and was the first to discover my potential for Opera. Soon after that I took a school trip and saw a dress rehearsal of Leontyne Price's farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera House of Aida. To see a legendary woman who was also an African American was something I had never seen before. I was a young child coming from the Bronx who thought of opera was only for an elite group of people who wants to do those funny sounds. It was very foreign to me at first. When I saw Leontyne Price and saw how beautiful she sang and looked, I thought, “I want to do that!” Years later she I was able to speak to her and found out that she was teaching master. My idol for pop was giving a Masterclass at Julliard and I was able to speak to her. Such an amazing woman. Whitney Houston is another idol of mine. Everything about her I loved! My most important idol would be my mother. She is such a strong and intelligent business woman. If it wasn’t for my mother who believed In me, encouraged me and told me I can do whatever I wanted to do as long as I work hard for it, I would never be where I am today.
EPN: You have accomplished a lot! One of your highlights as we were reading your bio is when you were performing during the Inauguration four years ago for President Obama.
Did you ever think you’d be performing for the President of the United States? How did it happen and how did you feel?
N'Kenge: When I sang for President Clinton at the White House for the Christmas Holiday one year, I thought it was unreal. Fast forward to the Inaugural Ball for our first Black President. Words cannot express the feeling I had. Being apart of such a historical moment in American History was absolutely overwhelming. My mentor Barry Gordy created that lifetime opportunity for me. He got in touch on my behalf with Suzanne De Passé who produced and booked the talent for the Commander-in-Chief Ball that year. I flew out there from LA with Mr. Gordy and Smoky Robinson who also performed and introduced me that night. Jon bon Jovi, Jordin Sparks, Josh Groband and myself were the entertainment for the evening with George Lopez as the MC. When I look back on that entire event, I truly lived a fairy tale. I will always be grateful and thankful for that amazing opportunity.
EPN: Have you ever been compared to any other artists/current stars?
N'Kenge: I've been compared to a few depending on what I'm singing. If I am singing opera, I've been compared to both Kathleen Battle and Teresa Stratas. If I am singing pop music I've been compared to Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. When performing Musical Theatre, I have been compared to Christine Chenoweth and Heather Headley. . . all women I completely idolize and admire and to be compared with any of these great ladies is a great honor. I just released a 2013 remix of my single TAKE ME OFF from my EP now available on iTunes and I'm interested in knowing who I'll be compared to now. Check it out on YouTube and tell me what you think www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E6hSyWTIAg
EPN: Tell our readers how have you used this gift that you have to pursue your career goals and your entrepreneurial spirit?
N'Kenge: My entrepreneurial roots have definitely come from my mother Annette Hoffman. My mom had a staffing firm for 25 years. She was a single mom raising me while she built her own agency to be one of the largest minority woman owned agencies in New York State. I saw such strength and motivation in her. She was the best role model any child could have. I was interviewing prospective applicants at age 15 and was the Regional operations manager of all three of her offices while I was going to college and performing. I continue to do entrepreneurial work through my production company Café Ingenue in which I produce full production shows for private corporate events and I founded a school Simpson Arts that provides private lessons in all areas of music. Through my solo concert tours, I developed programs and master classes that were presented in the schools and I'm always interested in giving back to the community and being involved in new projects that I see have great potential.
EPN: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years from now?
N'Kenge: Let’s start with ten years... Haha. I would love to be producing my own musical on Broadway. I have so many ideas, I'm bursting out the seams. I would also love to have a hit album and a hit movie under my belt. Winning prestigious awards wouldn't hurt either. I am currently working on a few great projects and very excited about how they will materialize. I know if I stay focus on the prize, I will be able to achieve anything that my heart desires. I am not afraid of working hard or dreaming BIG!
EPN: Now the big question, Motown the musical…tell us about how you have got involved and the strenuous rehearsal schedule you have and being able to still do what it is that you do in life?
N'Kenge: I am so excited about Motown the Musical because I have been involved with the show from the very beginning. There is an amazing cast of 40 fantastic singers and dancers. In addition to the show auditioning the best of the best here in NY, Motown the Musical did a national audition tour and a few of the cast members were cast through that tour including the two little boys playing little Michael Jackson. In the Musical I play Marry Wells who is the first female superstar of Motown. She had the first number one hit in the country with her signature song MY GUY. The Beatles named Mary Wells their most favorite female singer and they even recorded with her. She was an amazing artist and I have a big responsibility to portray Mary Wells as the Queen of Motown she was especially since she is no longer with us.
EPN: How do you prepare for a role like this?
N'Kenge: I've read Motown books, the Mary Wells book, I've researched the Internet viewing any kind of news along with watching tons of YouTube footage. Berry Gordy and my manager Shelly Berger have been a wealth of information when it comes to Mary Wells and the Motown days. I love the story Berry Gordy tells me of how Mary chased him down to present her song "Bye Bye Baby" she wrote for Jackie Wilson. She considered herself a songwriter, not a singer. When he insisted that she sing the song for him, he immediately told her she needed to record that song for Motown herself because he loved her rich strong voice. It's so amazing how that encounter with Berry Gordy changed the direction of Mary Well's life completely.
EPN: What advice do you have for young women or even young men who have discovered that they have that special gift early on? Privileged or not privileged?
N'Kenge: First, it helps to have a supportive circle. However, not everyone are fortunate to have that. Whether you have it or not, if you've recognizd a special gift you have, you MUST pursue it with all your heart. Find programs that cater tode developing your natural skills. Surround yourself with people who have the same drive and passion. It's always great to feed off of each other. Be creative and create opportunities and projects for yourself that will showcase your special gifts. When my mother realized that I had an interest in the arts, she put me in everything she could. I was enrolled in many after school programs including Harlem School of the Arts. Some programs require a tuition but many offer scholarships as well. Whatever you decide to do, make it your own. Distinguish yourself from others and know what makes you different from others and focus on those special features. Find the encouragement within yourself because you may not have the supportive circle to help motivate you. Believe and truly invest in yourself and others will follow suit.
EPN: Look out world for N’Kenge. We absolutely love you.
Cover photo: Vivian Reed - VJR Photgraphy/ Hair & Make-up: Starr
Additional Photos: Chiun-Kai Shih / Hair: Q Hardy Make-up: Chico Mitsui Stylist: David de la Cruz
Follow N'Kenge at www.nkengemusic.com