At the age of 16, KeKe Palmer’s resume reflects that of someone twice her age. As the breakout star of her generation, Palmer’s film and TV credits include: Barbershop 2: Back in Business, ER, Akeelah and the Bee, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Madea's Family Reunion, House of Payne, Shrink, and her very own headlining sitcom, Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP.
The multi-talented, award-winning actress has occasionally showcased her vocal prowess as well. In addition to release of So Uncool, her 2007 solo debut, she has also made contributions to soundtracks for Bring It On: Fight to the Finish, Make It Happen, Jump In!, Night at the Museum, and Akeelah and the Bee. In 2010, KeKe will release her highly-anticipated sophomore effort on Interscope Records.
In the midst of writing and recording for her forthcoming project, KeKe Palmer managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Brandy, “Super Jerkin’,” and the trick to juggling two professional careers.
Although a lot of people are familiar with your acting career, the same isn’t necessarily true about your singing career. Looking back on your life, at what point do you think the singing bug bit you?
Well, I grew up in the church, where my mother sang a lot, so it was something that I always knew I could do. I’ve just kind of been in love with it, since I was five or so. But my love of music was definitely passed down to me from my mother, singing in church and being in school plays.
In 2007 and 2008, you recorded music for Volumes 5 and 6 of the DisneyMania series. On Volume 5, you covered “True to Your Heart,” and on Volume 6, “Reflection,” both of which were featured on Disney’s Mulan soundtrack. I’m curious to know what those songs mean to you on a personal level. What role did you have in selecting the songs?
I love Mulan! And these were songs that I grew up with. I selected “Reflection” personally and “True to Your Heart” was given to me. Both songs both have lyrics that remind me to be true to myself and do things that come naturally. I had a lot of fun singing them, especially “Reflection.” Christina Aguilera did such a good job with that song.
Tackling two careers must be quite the balancing act. Why do you think you have been successful juggling both?
It’s a blessing that I get to do both. I started acting and once my acting career took off, it was kind of easy for me to get in touch with music people. That’s how everything started out. I’m just really happy that I get to do both things that I love to do.
As you’ve pursued your music career, what has been the most difficult obstacle for you to overcome?
Music, because I think people are so used to me being an actress. It’s hard for them to take me seriously in singing, so it’s just been me going out there and trying to put out the best possible music. I work very hard in trying to show people that I can do both.
Some time ago, I had the chance to listen to your first album, So Uncool. I was really taken aback, because I was thankful that you actually sang songs that fit your age and showed your personality. Since you’re 15 now, what challenges do you face when you’re marketing yourself to the public?
In the music business, a lot of times people don’t know how to market kids. Sometimes they go too young, sometimes they go too old and there’s no in-between. So in my music, I talk about what young females and young teenagers go through. For young R&B females, we don’t have that. We have it in country. We have it in pop. We don’t really have it in R&B, so my goal is to record music for young teenaged girls especially, through the R&B/pop category.
Your second album is going to be released with Interscope, although your first was released with Atlantic Records. What made Interscope stand out?
Interscope, they really know how to deal with young kids, and they really believed in me. Jimmy Iovine is the one who was willing to work really hard for me. I could really feel his excitement, so that’s why I picked Interscope.
So how would you compare this second recording experience to the first?
I feel more secure and have been allowed to be more creative. Atlantic was a really good label and I was happy that they chose me at such a young age, but we had a few creative differences. Interscope let me go my own way and make music that really spoke to me.
Looking forward, what goals have you set for yourself specifically for the music profession and outside the acting realm?
I want to record innovative songs – it’s so hard. It’s so easy to do music about love – that type of stuff. I want to do stuff that is different. I want to surprise people. I want to be great. I want to be a singer that musicians can look up to. I just hope that one day I can make it all happen. I don’t ever want to stop. And my ultimate goal is just to make great music.
Having developed such a large fan base at such a young age, do you ever feel pressured to be the perfect role model? A lot of people look up to you, even people who are much older than you.
Not necessarily, because I feel like it’s not hard to be a good person, you know? It’s not hard to do what you should do. The characters in the movies that I’ve done – Akeelah and the Bee and so on – have let me tell people to believe in themselves because that is something that you should be doing. You should believe in yourself, be proud of what you do and never be afraid because of where you come from. These are lessons that my parents instilled in me to share with other people, so it makes me happy. It’s something that I like to do. Being called a role model is just an extra thing. For me to go out there and tell people what I already feel in my heart and what my parents have told me, it’s easy for me to do that. If people call me a role model, then I’m very grateful. I’m very happy and appreciative.
Living in the spotlight can be a bit difficult at times. What was the hardest part, in terms of your adjusting your private life?
Oh man, some people can be judgmental. It’s something that you just have to take in stride. You got to realize that you’re doing the best that you can. Everybody will say something. As long as you’re comfortable and the people around you that you care about are comfortable, then you just got to go with that.
Have you received any advice from a fellow artist that you’ve held on to and used throughout your career?
I remember one time, when I met Brandy, she wrote in my journal. She said, “You are who you are because I am who I am; I am who I am because you are who you are. Because of the things that I’ve been through and because of who I am today, you can be who you are today. And because you are who you are, the next person can be who they want to be.” I was just really inspired by that. I love, love that quote she put in there.
Before I became a journalist, I was an elementary school teacher. And over the years, I always showed Akeelah and the Bee to my students.
Oh, man. That makes me happy!
What attracted you to the script? And what do you think makes the film so powerful?
My parents are mainly the filter for the scripts that I get. They read them and if they think it’s good, we’ll read them as a family. Akeelah and the Bee was one of those scripts. My parents thought it was really good. My mother just cried. She loved it, and she wanted me to do it, whether I was Akeelah or not. When we read it as a family, we all fell in love with it. My sister liked it. I liked it. My dad liked it. We saw the true beauty in there, the essence and the meaning of the movie which was you do not have to be a product of where you’ve come from. You can be who you want to be. When you let your light shine, people will say, “You know what? They’ve done it and I can do it, too.” That was what the movie was standing for. It’s an amazing message that needs to be said. I auditioned for the movie seven times and I finally got the part.
How does it feel to be your generation’s rising star? A lot of people have pegged you to be the breakout star for this generation.
It just feels cool. I want to keep working hard. I don’t want to back down, you know. Keep working hard, that’s the best you can do. Get focused and stay dedicated to whatever you’re doing. Whenever you do anything, you have to put your all into it and put your heart into it. If you go about it the right way, good things come to you. Good things come to those who do their thing. I just work real hard. All I can do to try my best. If it gets me there, it gets me there. If it doesn’t, I tried by best.
I’ve noticed that you’ve kept a current stream of videos on your YouTube channel. How important is it for you to stay in touch with your fans on YouTube?
I came across the YouTube thing from my friends. I was like, “Wow! They get to do these cool videos.” So I wanted to do my own YouTube videos, because my mom kept putting up videos of me performing that I didn’t think were personal enough. Over time, I kept doing one video after another after another after another. I just fell in love with that. I love making them and being able to be myself. People who view my channel can really see the kind of person I really am.
Your latest YouTube video revolves around your song “Super Jerkin.” How did you come up with the concept of having a dance contest?
“Jerkin” is really big in California, so I came up with a song. I thought it would be a cool underground single, to let people see a little bit of my style. So I put it out there and everybody loved it. People kept saying, “Are you going to do a video? Are you going to do a video?” So my mom and me and my online people came up with the idea that we get a contest going. We had two sets of contest. We had a contest where people would rap and be on the remix. And then we had another where people created choreography for it and I would learn it for the video. So we taped it in California, and then we put it online. The dance that won came out to California and they did the dance with me! It turned out really good and people loved it. It got bigger than I expected.
I was really surprised by the fact that you dance so well. I never really expected that. When did you start dancing?
Oh, thanks. I always danced. I was never, “Oh, I’m going to do a Michael Jackson move.” I just pick up steps easily. Whenever I put my mind to it, I can do anything! [laughing] When I was little, my mom used to dance and she would just say, “Do this.” She taught me how to do the moonwalk, how to do pop lock, and stuff like that. I’ve always just been able to do some moves. I’ve taken singing lessons, but I have never taken acting lessons or dancing lessons. Now, I’m trying to be in dance classes more consistently, like two days a week, so that I can get better.
For more information on KeKe Palmer, visit her official website.