The Houston Symphony wants to know: Do you remember your first mixtape? This weekend, Principal POPS conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Steven Reineke and the Houston Symphony present “R&B Mixtape,” a special concert featuring classic Motown and contemporary R&B mixtape favorites, including Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Whitney Houston, John Legend, Prince and Adele.
Backed by a trio of talented Houston-based singers (Chelsea Cymone, Jonquel Donte Holiday and La’saydra Simmons), the concert features two stellar soloists: three-time Grammy Award-nominee Ryan Shaw and multi-faceted vocalist N’Kenge (pronounced “ne-ken-jee”), whose versatility landed her the role of Motown icon Mary Wells in Broadway’s Motown the Musical.
“I grew up with that music,” says N’Kenge. “My mother was a Motown fan, from the Supremes to Diana to the Temptations.”
Born and raised in New York City, N’Kenge began studying piano and dance at the age of three. “I had so much energy as a child,” says N’Kenge, “my mother decided she was going to focus that energy into the arts.”
At 10, N’Kenge made her singing debut as Peppermint Patty in a grade school performance of Snoopy! The Musical. “I got a standing ovation, and the rest is history,” laughs N’Kenge. “I thought, ‘If this is what I can do to make all of these people happy, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Her mother, who had sung in her church choir, began coaching N’Kenge. “She wasn’t a professional singer,” says N’Kenge. “But she had a really great, soulful voice. She definitely was, and still is, my biggest mentor.”
While attending New York’s famed High School of Performing Arts, made even more famous by the 1980 movie Fame, N’Kenge discovered she had a “raw talent for opera.”
“My teacher taught me that having a foundation in classical training would allow me to cross different genres,” says N’Kenge, who would go on to get her master's degree at Juilliard. “I mainly sang opera, but then I got the gig to do Three Mo’ Divas.”
Three Mo’ Divas gave N’Kenge the opportunity to apply her classical technique to singing spirituals, music theater repertoire and popular music. Then came her breakout role as Mary Wells of “My Guy” fame in a musical based on the life of Barry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. “I think my mom almost fainted when she met Barry Gordy,” says N’Kenge.
While the music of classic Motown certainly spoke to the cultural and political changes of its time, many of today’s contemporary artists, from Beyoncé to Janelle Monaé, are creating music that is just as socially conscious and politically aware.
“The job of artists is to speak their minds,” says N’Kenge. “I tip my hat to all of these contemporary artists who are really speaking out and not being silent.”
So, does she remember her first mixtape?
“Oh, my goodness!” laughs N’Kenge, who is pretty sure her first mixtape was given to her by a childhood friend now living and married in Texas. “It was a real mix, not just one genre, from Whitney to Jesus Jones to Mtume’s ‘Juicy Fruit.'"
Feb 17–18 at 8; Feb 19 at 7:30. From $35. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana St. 713-224-7575. houstonsymphony.org