As part of its salute to those who make Black History everyday, the US Marine Corps has asked Complex to sit down with one prominent person who does so: Kenny Burns. While most of us know Kenny as a flashy and dynamic public personality—he himself prefers the monikers lifestyle specialist and cultural curator—the interview shows a much more personal side to this entertainer-of-all-trades. Covering everything from his career to his charitable work to his college funds and IRA, it shows the many sides of this multifaceted man. Kenny discusses the keys to his success as well as the obstacles he has faced, both as someone in the public eye and as a husband and father of two. However, he is quick to point out that those obstacles don't really amount to much in the end. When you have a body of work you are proud of and have earned the respect of your peers, "there are no real obstacles."
"Black History Month, to me, means everything," Kenny says, adding that he loves that it occurs both at the beginning of the year and right after the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "It's like you go from one year to the next trying to leave all the past behind, if you will, and start anew and...you’re reminded of the contributions of the geniuses before us that paved the way."
As Kenny himself puts it, "I make black history everyday by not following [the] status quo." Isn't that how all history makers start out?
Scroll down to read Kenny's full interview. And to nominate someone in your life who embodies the spirit of Making Black History Every Day, visit the Marines Contest Hub. Share your story and we just may choose to feature your nominee in a profile piece on Complex.com.
We’re gonna start off with who are you and what you do. So, who are you?
I am Kenny Burns, the lifestyle specialist, a.k.a the cultural curator. That’s my new handle. I wanna add a little culture back to pop culture. So I decided to come up with a new handle.
What were some of your past obstacles?
One of my past obstacles—and I’ve done fashion, music, marketing—was just to get the attention of the people who I needed to. This business is all about relationships, and I think a lot of times, when you have a certain given light, people tend to shy away from that light without really understanding what your contribution could or should be. I think that’s probably the biggest obstacle I've faced. It's like, you see a picture of ‘Kenny Burns’ and you see this well dressed, put-together man, and you have this certain opinion of this person. And then you meet him and see how intelligent he is or how strategic he could be, and its better for your brand to have him. That’s actually how I created the lifestyle specialist brand. Before it was: we’re in music, we’re selling things, we’re trying to have brands, offset costs, participate in our music world. I found that corporate America really doesn’t know how to put the two together and then I was able to communicate that a little better, and show them an actual ROI on lifestyle. I overcame that obstacle by being able to achieve that.
What are some of your current challenges?
Besides being light-skinned? [Laughs]. No, just having patience. I think that we’re all in the business of immediacy, and you get this genius idea or this great opportunity for a client or this content that everyone needs to see, and it's challenging to get it out in the manner you need to in a timely fashion. Other than that there are no real obstacles, especially when you have a body of work like mine, and you have the respect from your peers.
What were the biggest personal challenges you had to overcome?
My biggest challenge, honestly, has been to balance family and selling fantasy for a living. I’m this gigantic personality who hosts all these events, I have these amazing clients that fly me around the world to do all these elaborate and exciting things. For me, trying to raise two boys and maintain the partnership with my wife has been the challenge. Now, has it been the challenge where I’m distraught and I’m dysfunctional? Not at all, because I have the best partner and she understands my lifestyle. As for the boys, you know me well enough to know that I’ve made time along the way, but at the same time, I have had to miss a game here and there and couldn't be there for some moments that should have been shared by the entire family. Those are the only real challenges, personally for me.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
To me, Black History Month means everything. And I love how it's right at the beginning of the year. You go from one year to the next, trying to leave all the past behind, if you will, and start anew, start fresh. Then February rolls around and you’re reminded of the contributions of the geniuses before us who paved the way. It’s a continuum. Even with Barack today, seeing him become President of the United States, and to be so calm and in control. It makes you want to be a better person. And then you're also reminded of Dr. King’s contribution with his birthday being right before Black History Month. So, you are repeatedly reminded of the contributions of all the great black Americans who set forth the way. As an 18-year-old kid from Washington, DC who got in trouble and lost his basketball scholarship, I wouldn't have thought I would become a very successful entrepreneur. There was no blueprint for me at that time, and defining success for myself came from other people’s dreams and other people’s sacrifices. And now I have a blueprint to share with my story.
Why is education so important to you?
Education is very important to me. I was raised by a single parent, and my mom, she used to call me a 'hot dog and bean baby,' because I swear to God that’s what I ate the majority of my life. She was the sole provider, but went to school and got her degree while she raised me. She got her Masters in the middle of my dysfunctional teenage years, and that showed me that you can do anything. I think we all know that life is the greatest teacher, but education prepares you for life.
How has education contributed to your success?
Education has contributed to my success because there are things you need to know in life that experiences outside of school won’t teach you. And I think by learning those history lessons and how to structure my words properly, it has allowed me to succeed in my business today.
What are some things you do to give back to your community?
I'm currently a radio personality in Atlanta and every year we give back to the homeless. There’s an iconic man, Hosea Williams, from Atlanta and we support his foundation through V103 every year around Thanksgiving time. And it’s great. When I first started, I obviously wasn’t in the financial place that I am now. I couldn’t contribute in abundance financially, but we would always donate clothes. This year, we had a list of things they were trying to get for the food drive, and we bought all of the rice they needed. But you know, for me, it’s a continuum. I wake up everyday and get on social media to say: “hey, young world, the world is yours.” I believe that youth is the future, and I have a 12 and 8 year old, so I continuously give back as a mentor. On social media, I have these interesting quotes—today they’re called "KBisms." I used to say "Ken-fucious says." But I try to give life lessons from my experience that can help someone, saying things like “the dream is real” or “no one's gonna love you like you,”
What sets you apart from the crowd?
In the pop culture and entertainment realm, I think what separates me is that I’ve been able to maintain a family in an unforgiving business. That is one of my greatest strengths. I mean, how many people do we know in entertainment who stay married and want to have that family structure? I think that separates me, because it’s family first with me, all day, in the paint.
How do you make black history everyday?
I make black history everyday by not following status quo. I think that pop culture tells you that, you know: women, you should dress like this on TV; guys you should have these watches and this jewelry and all this fluff. I think that by defining success for myself I’ve learned how to create my own name. Of course, I love clothes. It’s probably my only vice, I'd rather have that than anything else. But I have responsibilities. There are college funds that have to be set up for the children. There are IRAs and all types of retirement plans that you have to start thinking about in your mid-thirties, At the end of the day, you have to plan. And, you know, I separate myself from the pack by understanding that quality.
What are some of your leadership qualities?
My greatest leadership quality is that I’m a people person. I think God has given me the gift to understand people and how they tick. When I was younger, I was put into a power position early and, when I got my first piece of money, I thought I was supposed to go give all my friends jobs and we were just gonna make it happen. (laughs) Like, "you're gonna do A&R, you’re gonna do promotions. You’re making 40 thousand." And it was like, wait a minute, they don’t have the skills to complete these tasks. But I gave them the opportunity, and I think that because I gave them the opportunity, they’re now the heads of publishing companies, they’re now owners of clubs—things they might not’ve had if they didn’t have those opportunities. And I think today, being older, my experience is my best contribution to the people I mentor and employ. A great example is my guy Ben. I had a Kenny Burns show online, and we would do these interesting vignettes. We would go to cities and we would show you where to eat, where to shop, where I’d host that evening. And Phil the God, he was working in a storage room where my wife worked for a summer job—she didn’t really work the whole thirteen years of our marriage except for two years, because I love her and I take care of my family. But it was a chance meeting. He wanted to do something. He didn’t know what. My guy who was doing the edits for the Kenny Burns show at the time couldn’t do an edit. We were in Philly, and it happened to be where Phil was from, and I decided to give him a chance because he kept saying “Kenny I can do it”. And now he’s directing movies and all types of great things. And Ben, who now works for Studio 43—I was looking for a video guy for social media, and he happened to shoot something with me in it, and I gave him a shot. And this was a guy who, you know, had never really traveled the country, and now he’s everywhere, he’s sought after. So, like I said, I think by putting people in a position to win is my greatest contribution and my biggest leadership quality.
Speaking of making black history everyday, can you talk about raising two sons who are African Americans?
Absolutely. Growing up in a single parent home, I always said that I would have a single-family unit. And when I had two boys, I always said two things: I’m not going to spoil ‘em and I'm going to teach ‘em everything I know. Of course, while I have taught them everything I know, I’ve also been spoiling ‘em to death. I think that because I grew up not having as much, I don’t see the problem in spoiling. Living in the suburbs now, if you will, the cultural piece comes into play daily because they don’t see the struggle that Daddy went through and I can explain that process by showing them examples. I’m very fortunate that we've had the first black president as my kids are growing up. My oldest is twelve and my youngest is eight, so they saw in their lifetime, a black man achieving the ultimate office. And now, as they get older, they’re seeing what Daddy actually does. Before they just saw me going out all the time, or traveling. But they didn’t understand what my contribution was to pop culture or even what I did for that matter, they just knew I was gone all the time. So, being able to give them a better life than I had and better education opportunities, and being able to show them more from traveling the world, it's very gratifying. But my children won’t understand what color means in the way you and I did, or our parents did—and my mother is half white—or our grandparents did. So, I love the world that it’s becoming.
We spoke before about the value of fulfilling one’s fullest potential. Never settling.
I truly believe in never settling for second best. I think that we have one life and if you really think about it, I mean, you look at all the things that happen in everyday life and how quickly it can all end. And I think that if you have a dream, you have to go for the dream. Not "I’m gonna do it when I’m 21" or "I’m gonna wait until I’m 25" or "By the time I’m 30…" I’m from Washington D.C. and I’ll never forget, when I was in high school, Puff was throwing parties at Howard University, and I’m 15, 16 trying to go to the college parties. And I’m thinking, "okay, he just signed Jodeci, I got to get my first artist by this age, and I have to have my record label by this age." And I found that my process wasn’t Puff’s process. And everybody knows the history since then. You have to define success for yourself, you have to define what your role is going to be early. Otherwise, later in life, you'll be like, "oh damn, I could have done this," or "I wish I'd done that." You know, I wish when I came to Atlanta the first time I knew about buying property. I got a friend that owns the parking lots across from the Georgia Dome. Same age, better opportunity. Better knowledge of the surroundings. Father was in real estate. Now Arthur Blank is trying to give him an ungodly amount of money for the parking space. But my point is, don’t wait. You’re waiting on what? Time waits for no one. When I got into radio three years ago, I didn’t wait on V103 to give me a job. I started an Internet radio show to battle their highest rated shows in order to get their attention. And you have to do things like that. You have to have an idea of what you want to do. That’s gonna change many times in your course, but you have to have an idea. And it will morph and it will mature but ultimately that process becomes your body of work—that process of getting to where you’re going. You can be a great promoter, but parties should not be your end all be all. That should be your entry to relationships with artists. You can still be local and have success. And being local is enough for some people. Owning the corner store is great, but define success and that happy place for yourself. You can’t depend on status quo to define who you are. Status quo is not for everybody.
So when it comes to qualities such as leadership and giving back, is there any particular person in your life that you see those qualities in?
Absolutely. For me, the people that have influenced me the most in my life were my mother and aunts. I was raised by all women. My father wasn’t a consistent piece. He gave me all the style in the world, but the two men that I would give the most credit for helping mold me are my uncle Oliver, who’s recently passed, and my Uncle Leo. My uncle Oliver was a very successful realtor in Washington D.C., where I’m from, and he gave me an understanding of commitment and what it was like to keep a family unit together. And then my uncle Leo was probably my biggest father figure. I mean, I actually lived with him for eight years of my childhood. And he was—sorry, he is—a Brigadier General in the Marine Corps. As you know, marines are very strict and regimented, and they have a certain way they do things. And I think that side of him coupled with his creative side—he contributed to the design of the F150 for Ford--they put in perspective for me that I could actually have discipline. You know, being creative sometimes discipline doesn’t really mean a lot, but seeing someone as you grow up having both qualities helped me position myself for success and helped me understand both qualities and how they can work together. Being disciplined and being creative.
Would you say he was an inspiration for your leadership qualities?
A lot of my leadership qualities came from my uncle Leo. That discipline carried over into my education, it carried over into sports in a way that I committed myself to what I was doing. I mean this was a servant of the United States of America who had to go all of these places on weekend trips and be away from the family, but at the same time, he was committed and he would be there when, you know, it was time for hockey. I would not even have thought to ever play hockey in my entire life, but because we were living in Detroit, Michigan, that was something he introduced me to. He opened up my spectrum. I was all basketball and football but he showed me things. And that discipline that came from my uncle and from Marines in general is a quality that I implemented into the way that I did business, the way that I treated people, the way that I served my community. And you know, I owe a lot to my uncle. He was a definite, positive light in my life and a big father figure.
How do Marines make black history everyday?
Marines make black history everyday by dedicating their lives to make sure that we here in the United States of America have an opportunity to pursue our dreams. So, to every marine, and to everyone who serves in our military forces—without their commitment and without their protection, we would not be able to do the things we do. We have the biggest military in the world because we are committed to securing the opportunities to pursue those dreams. And we owe the Marines—and all military forces, for that matter—everything for that.