Prolific gospel singer John P. Kee, who has built an avid fan base within the realm of gospel music, infiltrated the secular rhythm and blues industry in 1994 with his eleventh album, Show Up!, by combining church choir harmonies with hip-hop sounds. Kee has often been compared to gospel music legend the Reverend James Cleveland, and the sheer power of Kee's voice is reminiscent of Shirley Ceaser and Edwin Hawkins. Kee described his music to BRE magazine's Ruth Robinson as "simple Sunday morning hip-hop, it's got the thing that makes the kids move."
Born on June 4, 1962, in Charlotte, North Carolina, John Prince Kee was the last of six boys born into a family of 16 children. Kee's father was a religious man who insisted that his children embrace religion early in life, and all 16 kids were gifted singers who were members of gospel choirs. At the age of 13, Kee formed his first gospel choir, and by the time he went off to study voice and classical music at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, he was six-feet-one-inch and had already amassed five years of solid performing and conducting experience. His early musical influences were Thomas Dorsey and Frank Williams.
While Kee was in college he performed with such groups as Cameo and Donald Byrd & the Blackbirds. His formative college years were turbulent after he was lured into using and selling cocaine regularly; Kee even operated his drug racket out of a church at one time. It was only after he witnessed the slaying of a close friend in a drug deal that he turned wholeheartedly to religion and gospel music for solace and inspiration. Ironically, it was Kee's experience trafficking and using drugs that helped him relate to and feel comfortable with fans from all walks of life and of all ages.
In 1981 Kee formed the New Life Community Choir in Charlotte, which consists of 30 young inner city recruits. His ministry is aimed at attracting the young and providing a safe place for them to flourish spiritually. The singer told BRE's Robinson, "I thought we should go down to the police station and get mug shots of all the people in the choir who have been arrested and put them on the back of an album." Like Kee, most of the choir members struggled with drug abuse at one time and eventually turned their lives around through religion and their devotion to gospel music.
In 1985, at the age of 23, Kee became the first artist to record lead vocals on two selections for James Cleveland's Gospel Music Workshop of America's (GMWA) annual mass choir recording. Kee's songs were "Jesus Can Do It All" and "He's My All and All." He confided to Teresa Hairston of Score magazine, "James opened the door for me through the GMWA." Kee's songwriting and singing career began to bloom soon after the recording; he subsequently wrote and performed on "Jesus Lives In Me" for the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar album Give Us Peace. Kee was then able to finance a demo tape and was signed to the Tyscot Records label. In 1987 he released his debut album, Yes Lord, which was a low-budget effort marked by production glitches.
In 1989 Kee released Wait on Him with the New Life Community Choir. The LP was awarded three Stellar Awards, for album of the year, best traditional choir, and song of the year for "It Will Be Alright." The recording served to propel Kee to the forefront of the gospel realm.
The following year Kee and his choir released There Is Hope. A portion of the album's proceeds was donated for AIDS research and to a foundation that assists battered children. The album earned Kee a nomination for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award in the best gospel artist category. Later in 1990 Kee recorded his first solo album, Just Me This Time, which garnered the singer a Stellar Award for best male solo performance and a contemporary producer of the year award from the GMWA. Just Me This Time was also nominated for a Dove Award in the category of traditional black gospel recorded song.
In 1991 Kee and the New Life Community Choir released Wash Me, which received two Stellar awards and five GMWA Excellence awards. That same year Kee wrote I Can Call Him for the East Coast Regional Mass and recorded Never Shall Forget with the Victory in Praise Mass Choir. The latter album reflects the culmination of nightly services and workshops at an annual conference for gospel delegates and was awarded four GMWA Excellence awards. Later in 1991 Kee produced Surrender, an LP comprised of performances by New Life's female choir members.
A video for Wash Me was released in 1992 and earned a Stellar Award for best music video and a GMWA Excellence Award for best video concert. That same year We Walk by Faith was released; it won two Billboard music awards and four GMWA excellence awards. Lily in the Valley, released in 1993, is a second recording by the Victory in Praise Mass Choir. This won a Dove Award for traditional black gospel album of the year and a Stellar Award for best traditional album.
Colorblind, an album that tackles such contemporary issues as prejudice, was released in 1994 and was Kee's second solo effort and first release on the Verity Records label. It was the recipient of two GMWA Excellence awards, an Inside Gospel Award, and a Stellar Award. The album was also nominated for a Dove Award.
Show Up!, Kee's crossover LP, appeared in 1995 and features Kee backed by the New Life Community Choir. It debuted at Number Seven on the Billboard Heatseeker's Chart, the highest debut for a gospel album in the chart's history. Robinson commented in a BRE review, "The album might be filled with ole' time religion, but it's not full of solemn, sober pleas to the Lord. This is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping sho' nuff shout to the Heavens."
When Kee isn't producing, writing, and performing for his New Life Productions, he oversees an inner-city youth program in Charlotte. Divorced from his first wife, he keeps in close contact with his two children: a son, Christopher, and daughter, Shannon. In addition to music and ministry, Kee has pursued such philanthropic interests as building an inner-city playground, donating $3000 to an urban reading program, providing anti-drug counseling, and creating the Victory in Praise Music & Arts Convention.
Kee declared to Score magazine's Hairston, "[The New Life Choir wants] to be unique. The only way we can do that is for people to be able to identify with who we are and what we stand for. That's the key to where we are and where God is taking us."
Yes Lord, Tyscot, 1987.
Wait on Him, Tyscot, 1989.
There Is Hope, Tyscot, 1990.
Just Me This Time, Tyscot, 1990.
Wash Me, Tyscot, 1991.
Never Shall Forget, Tyscot, 1991.
We Walk by Faith, Tyscot, 1992.
Lily in the Valley, Tyscot, 1993.
Colorblind, Verity/Jive, 1994.
Show Up!, Verity/Jive, 1995.
Billboard, February 25, 1995.
Blues & Soul, May 17, 1994.
BRE, January 20, 1995.
GMMC (Gospel Music and Ministry Connection), February/March 1995.
Jack the Rapper, February 15, 1995.
Music Review, July/August 1994.
Score, July/August 1993; July/August 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Verity/Jive publicity materials, 1995.
B. Kimberly Taylor
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