—article by David Menconi
Growing up in Rocky Mount, Keenan Jenkins would hear his parents playing r&b on the radio. Hitmakers like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston seem like an obvious reference point for the smooth sweet soul music he makes as XOXOK. But his biggest inspiration for getting serious about music came from an unusual source.
“I was a teen in the late ’90s, a ‘TRL’ kid watching MTV and listening to every pop and rap song there was,” he says. “And what really made me want to pick up a guitar and create music myself was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was hearing their guitar and thinking, ‘That’s a nice sound and I’d like to make it, too.’”
He took his performing name from the sign-off of a long-ago letter from a friend whose name also started with the letter “K” (XOXO, K) while advancing from third-grade recorder to middle-school clarinet and eventually guitar as a solo artist. After he graduated from North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, college brought Jenkins to Chapel Hill, and he’s never left (he currently lives in Carrboro).
At UNC, Jenkins earned a psychology degree with a music minor and then a PhD, writing a dissertation about techniques of confronting prejudice in one-on-one interpersonal situations – how to respond and ask questions when someone crosses the conversational line into racism and sexism.
“I was trying to encourage people how to get past the discomfort and awkwardness, and say something,” he says. “It’s tough, a struggle to explain the impact of how insulting something feels when a friend says it, and it can take more than just one conversation. Persistence and kindness is key, up to your breaking point, of course. We shouldn’t have to put up with people disrespecting us.”
Similar threads run through XOXOK’s music as well, which is a delectable r&b-flavored pop that leads by example. Following a 2019 mini album, the five-song collection Worthy, he released a series of singles last year and is gearing up to make a full-on album. One of its songs will be “On Game,” which he worked on recording during a stint in February as artist in residence at Chapel Hill’s LEVEL Retreat.
“I’m working on a much larger statement, an album about race – me and everyone else in the world right now,” he says. “I’m trying not to rush it. A lot of people have rushed out a lot of really good and timely protest songs since last summer. But knowing what this country is like, what I’m working on will still be relevant a year from now. It would be great if it would somehow be passé by then, but I’m not naïve.”
Meantime, he’s working at the day-job editing academic manuscripts while playing and recording when and where he can.
“I’ve had to really work on singing because I still don’t feel like I’m naturally good,” he says. “Back when I started singing in high school, I was trying to emulate Red Hot Chili Pepper’s high background vocals and it came out kind of a weak falsetto, no concerns on pitch. I just wanted to sing high. It’s changed and I’ve grown to like my lower register. But I still love falsetto. I also love the reaction when people see this six-foot-three-inch guy with a deep voice burst into high notes.”