Kem's Redemption Song

The singer has battled drug addiction and homelessness, and now he's giving back.

Getty Images

Kem -- the singer, songwriter and producer responsible for the grown-up R&B singles "Love Calls," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Why Would You Stay" -- says music saw him through some of his darkest times.

He was drug addicted and homeless until not long before he independently released his first album, Kemistry. It caught the interest of Universal Motown, and the label signed him to a five-record deal in 2001. His third and most recent project, Intimacy, is an insightful collection of love ballads that debuted at No. 2 last summer on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart.

The Root caught up with Kem at the National Association of Drug Court Professionals' Drug Court Training Conference, where he had delivered remarks in support of the court's alternative, closely supervised treatment for nonviolent drug addicts. It's a topic that hits close to home for the artist, who says his recovery has been the cornerstone of his success.

Whether discussing Tyler Perry, George Bush or his competition in the music industry, Kem seems to remain effortlessly above the fray of petty controversies. His perspective is as steady and mature as the music that's earned him nominations for NAACP Image awards, Soul Train Awards, BET Centric Awards and Grammys. And while the themes that run through his responses could sound cliché from a less contemplative artist, he delivers them with authority: Share your message. Coexist. Give back.

The Root: You just gave remarks at a conference in support of the work of drug courts. Why is it important for you to be here?

Kem: As a recovering addict, I've been given a lot in my life, and it is important for me to give back anytime I'm asked. Until recently, I was unfamiliar with drug courts, but I spoke at a [drug court] graduation ceremony in Detroit a few weeks ago. I have a lot of appreciation and gratitude for the work drug courts do.

TR: You were homeless before you were discovered. Do you see music and the music industry as a viable way out of difficult circumstances? Or were you just lucky?

K: Music has always been important in my life, but my love of music in and of itself didn't keep me from self-destructive behavior, you know? I spent a lot of time drunk and intoxicated and incarcerated and hospitalized because of my addiction, and my love for music meant I had the greatest sound track for that -- music was part of it. [Laughing.]

My desire to be successful in the music industry helped me pull through some of the darkest periods, but in and of itself, no. My recovery is what has allowed me to enjoy living in my gifting. My recovery is my foundation -- my music is secondary.

TR: You've performed at an event for one of President Obama's cabinet members. Do you feel a responsibility to be political?