At 47, Rhonda Ross Kendrick is living her best life. A mother, a wife and the daughter of the most iconic figures in American and music royalty—she’s carving out her own legacy. With the last name Ross and inheriting her mother’s eyes, it’s not hard to decipher her DNA. Her parents; the legendary singer and global entertainer Diana Ross and biological father, Motown founder, and music hit master, Berry Gordy who both created an international phenomenon 60 years ago.
The eldest of Ross’ children, Rhonda was born during her mom’s first marriage to Robert Ellis Silberstein and was raised by both Silberstein and Ross. Her love for the arts allowed her to find creative freedom by attending and graduating from Brown University and relocating to New York City.
There, she pursued a singing and acting career—eventually landing a role on the soap opera, “Another World” where she was nominated for a daytime Emmy in 1998. In 1996, she married pianist and musician, Rodney Kendrick who was worked with Jazz legend, poet and activist, Abbey Lincoln. Ross’ and Kendrick’s union would blend their musical backgrounds and bind their creative method of finding her real voice.
Ross was in town a couple of weeks before her concert at Chicago’s City Winery to do some press runs. Bronzeville Life sat down with her to discuss her artistic process and the journey to finding a positive balance. Does it bother her that the industry validates an artist’s success on the merit of sales and chart position?
“Someone asked me the other day, why didn’t I want to be on the Billboard charts? It’s not that I don’t want to be on the Billboard charts, but I’m not willing to give up my authenticity and my honesty and my true walk with my art and my source, my God, my Spirit, and my integrity. I’m not willing to give that up to be more famous,” she answered. “There is a big audience for authenticity and realness and honesty in the arts.”
Ross took some time off and had the couple’s son, Raif-Henok in 2009.
She says, “By the time Raif was two, I had turned 40. I said, ‘Oh oh.’ I’ve been put on this planet to do something, and I’m not doing it. It started then, this sort of rebuilding, rebranding and rediscovering myself as an artist. There were different things to discover. Now, I was the mother, and I had different perspectives, I felt more grown up, felt more of a full woman in my experiences.”
The Uphill Battle of Motherhood
But the road to conception has not been an easy one for Ross who suffered three miscarriages. She said it was a time in her life that she questioned her own ability to feel full with each moment filled with hope and then disappointment.
“Each time, I was shocked because no one had told me this was a possibility. When it happened, I had all of these friends that had miscarriages, but no one told me. The third miscarriage was a second-trimester miscarriage,” Ross says. “They [doctors] tell women to get to the 12-week mark, and I was 18 ½ weeks. When that happened, ‘You know what? You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ You don’t know what life is giving us—minute-to-minute and day-by-day. You can’t say you’ll be fine after 12 weeks—that’s not true, and that’s not fair. That’s the case in life, you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Going into her fourth pregnancy with her son, Raif—the singer was conscious of being careful and attending weekly doctor visit. Eating well and exercising, she had no idea a routine diabetes test would result in extremely high sugar levels. Refusing to take insulin, she made the drastic change to her eating habits lowering her sugar intake and later becoming a vegan.
“First of all, we had these miscarriages, so I spent the entire pregnancies terrified of miscarrying again. That’s not the right place to be—that kind of fear is not cool to be carrying around. When Raif was born, he was perfectly healthy. He was born on August 7 and one week after that is my birthday, August 14. On my birthday, I felt a download from the Spirit. I heard a Spirit say, ‘you know everything you need to know for this child, and you need to trust yourself,'” Ross says.
Moreso, she says when her son was born, it gave her an injection of empowerment that she had not experienced before his birth.
“When this child came into my life; it was a sense of the buck stops with him. Nobody gets to trump me with him. There’s a significant burden of responsibility that comes with motherhood when you realize you have to make the final decision for this child—everything from education to health to his psyche to how you’re going to relate to him,” she says. “In those early days, it matters. Today, he’s nine years old, and I can see so much of him is already formed. Had I made different choices at one or two or three years old, he would be a different child right now. I’m very blessed,” Ross recounts.
Raif-Henok has taken over the national stage, presenting his famous grandmother a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys; showing his dance moves on the stage to interviewing celebrities on the red carpet on Access Hollywood.
A Marriage of Love & Creativity
What makes a marriage healthy and lasing? Ross admits marriage like all relationships take commitment and work, and for the first 11 years, the couple exclusively worked together.
“Rodney is brilliant. It was very much like a teacher/student artistically in our relationship. I am thankful to have had time at his foot and in his schooling,” she happily says. Having taken time away from touring to spend time with their son, she returned to creating music.
“By the time I came back in 2011, I felt I had outgrown the position of teacher/student. I had abandoned the student position. I had more to say with what I’ve been through as a woman; as a Black person; as an artist; and as a writer. I had more to say. I didn’t want to be kept in what I considered this box that Rodney saw me in. So, I fired him,” she continues. “One of the major components of why my marriage works with Rodney is because he is also creative. I couldn’t be married to someone who wasn’t because we can understand for ourselves and understand for each other that need for time and space physically and emotionally and psychologically to create.”
In spreading her wings, Ross began working with other musicians and collaborating on songs. She said it allowed her to ‘find her way outside of her husband’s gaze.’ “To his credit, because he’s an artist, he’s spirit-led, and he loves me, he says, ‘go and do what you need to do—I ‘m here.’ He had no issue with it, no push back on it, he was supportive but not intrusive,” she says.
“I started writing, and I was working with other musicians who were inspiring me to different genres, and I created the record, “In Case You Didn’t Know.” My newest release which I’m super proud of.”
Eventually, the couple would be brought together to honor Ross’s father, Berry Gordy. In 2013, the entertainment mogul was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and she was asked to induct him as well as perform one of his songs.
“We chose “To Be Loved” which is one of his first songs even before Motown. I said okay I would do it and I was trying to figure out which pianist I would choose. I asked Rodney which chords on the piano so I can rehearse, but when he touched that piano, I said, ‘Oh God.’ I asked, “Please play it with me?” He said, “No.” and I asked him again, and he agreed.
She said they both entered a mutually creative place of collaboration as two musicians sharing not as teacher/student but as equal collaborators—and she loves it.
“I like to say, “I write music for grown folk.’ I define grown folk as old enough to know why you put on this planet and young enough to do something about it. That’s space, that late 30’s and 40’s space. You haven’t given up your dreams, but they are defined and crystallized for you. It’s a great space to be.” Ross says to prepare yourself for a beautiful show rich in cultural undertones as they pay homage to what makes Jazz and Soul dynamic and moving.
“Rodney and I are two separate artists who come together to collaborate. It’s a special thing to see us together. He has his own thing he does, and I have my own thing I do.”
Carrying the Torch
There’s no doubt the major musical influences in her life is her mom. She says it started when her mom was scheduled to film, “Lady Sings The Blues.”
“They [film studio] postponed filming for a year of her pregnancy. During that time, she studied for Billie Holiday. In her womb, I heard nothing but Billie. I love my mother’s voice, the way she sings—her intonation. She is my biggest influence—my first influence and as a child sitting at her foot and in her concerts,” she remembers. “I came out loving Jazz and loving the storytelling of Jazz. Not necessarily looking for the prettiest voice but the most honest voice and the most honest expression of the human spirit. So, Billie Holiday is a huge influence as I became an adult and out of Billie comes Abbey Lincoln.”
Ross explains, “Abbey Lincoln was a singer, poet, storyteller, and activist from the 1960s. In the 1950’s she was known as a beauty queen. She was the Black girl that could wear the Marilyn Monroe dress, and they were making her a like a Dorothy Dandridge but in the 1960’s she was figuring out who she was and her value. Her value came from something much deeper and important than the shape of her body or her facial features. She collaborated with Max Roach; they fell in love; married and she started singing about reparations and being a part of the Black power movement.”
Along with her mother, and Abbey Lincoln—Ross adored her mother-in-law’s voice and beautiful spirit. “She influenced me on her faith and was the least judgemental person I ever met. Yet, Mrs. Kendrick had the strongest faith I’ve ever seen. She was able to stand with what her belief soulfully but not shame anyone for having a different perspective. I’ve never seen those two things together. She was full of joy and singing for her was her way of praising–it had nothing to do with having to get a hit record.”
As each of these women filled her creative and spiritual cup with life lessons and the necessary tools to move forward in her journey, we asked Ross how she would preserve her culture and historical knowledge for her son?
“Self-love is my thing. I think when you love yourself, and you recognize your value, you as an individual, you as a family, you as a culture and community—you honor it, you study it, and you hold on to it within yourself. There are some ways we can hold on to our history physically, and you have to hold it in your heart. That’s what I’m doing for my son, letting him know the value that he comes from. Both in his literal DNA and in his cultural DNA. It matters. It needs to be held on to and passed on to his children,” said Ross.
As we wrap up our interview in her hotel suite, we talk about her upcoming shows and what we look forward to from her this summer.
“The Atlanta Jazz on May 25 and the Riverfront Jazz Fest in Dallas during Labor Day Weekend is coming up soon. We have some future dates in Europe. In the meantime, my mother tends to tour over the summer. This will be the third year, she asked me to open for her.”
No matter what stage she performs on or how small or big the audience—Ross says she remembers the advice of her late and great friend, Abbey Lincoln.
“Abbey loved Billie Holiday, but she would always say, ‘I won’t sing those songs Billie sang because a song is like a prayer and you are bringing it from the deepest space in your body, in your soul, and you are a ship—communicating to your Creator with this song. You need to decide what you’re going say’. I take that seriously. I watch what I say in general, but I watch what I sing.”
Rhonda Ross Kendrick and Rodney Kendrick @ City Winery Chicago 4/24/19
For more information and tickets, click here.