Describing Billie Kawende as an African diamond might not be such a crazy comparison. When a rough diamond sees the light of day, it needs to be validated, cutted, & polished before it becomes the faceted gem that many people dream off. Transforming a diamond requires specialized knowledge, tools, equipment, techniques and….time. All elements that were implemented to sculpt Billie Kawende into the artist that she is today.
If you are born a Kawende, singing and performing is a must and even a way of income rather than a fun hobby to explore. Billie came from an extremely musical household, ruled by the iron fist of her father who is a musician and performer himself since age 16. Billie’s father played a crucial role in the transformation of Billie – his daughter – to Billie - the artist. After leaving his native Congo and switching it for the Ivory Coast where he stayed for a while with Billie’s mother and her brothers and sister, Billie’s father ended up in Belgium where he immediately provided for himself through his core talent: music and performing. Armed with his guitar he played traditional African music both on the street and in local bars. When Billie arrived in Belgium with the rest of her family she was only 18 months old. From then on Billie’s father introduced the entire family into the art of performance and entertaining.
Billie was only a toddler when she found herself on a stage, not really aware of the fact that this would turn into her life passion. Together with her father Billie performed at local city events, weddings, charities, you name it, he ‘Kawende Kids’ where there. It’s during that period that Billie learned the hard way that performing is an art form, and that you have to work very hard to get the attention of an audience. At the age of nine, Billie was already recording day and nights in a studio providing vocals for a local children’s choir. The hours in the studio, the pressure of her father and the discipline that came with making music were a heavy weight for young Billie and for a while she resented doing music and started to detach herself from it during the period between 10 and 12 years old.
Looking back to that rather tough period in her musical upbringing, Billie says: “Music is important for my father. He IS music. All his dreams and aspirations for his children where directed towards a musical career in any form or way. Late studio hours and being sleepy at school were not unusual for us. But now, I’m tremendously grateful that my father was so hard on me. It taught me a lot and it prepared me for my journey.”
At age 13, Billie rediscovered her love for music, influenced by the likes of LL Cool J, Foxy Brown, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston. She came to the point where she realized that becoming a singer is what she really wants to do in her life but when she announced her future aspirations to her godfather, she didn’t really get the feedback she wanted to. She was told by her godfather that only the happy few get to the point of becoming a star and that there was still a lot of work ahead for Billie, both in the vocal as performance department.
The hesitant reaction of Billie’s godfather stubbornly motivated Billie to pick up music where she left it a few years ago and at age 16 she enrolled for an Art Degree with a specialization in music. Where Billie’s father was responsible for grooming her as a stage performer and entertainer, art school is where Billie received a more intricate, technical education. She learned to play the piano, worked on her vocal chord techniques and was introduced to jazz; a genre Billie wasn’t really familiar with before. Getting introduced to singers like Ella Fitzgerald was an eye opener for Billie who eagerly soaked up this new way of singing.
Through art school, Billie started to perform again, this time challenged by the more professional difficulties like setting up her own gigs, looking for musicians to accompany her band and find like-minded producers she could work with.
After she got her degree, Billie immediately went straight back to the battle field that is live performance. Anything Billie was invited for, she accepted. Local gigs, weddings, small bars, intimate clubs, open mic events, you name it. Billie figured that although she prefers another level of musical work, she purposely chose this road, realizing that is part of her journey as an artist and she needs any type of stage experience she can get her hands on.
During that period, Billie met a local booker who showed sympathy for her journey and believed that she was destined for more until one fine day this booker gave Billie her first official opening gig for artist Michael Kiwanuka. From then on, she became a rising name in the Belgian music industry, the one to watch, with opening acts for artists like Craig David, Brooke Fraser and even Estelle.
When she wasn’t performing, Billie was looking for like minded producers who could help her create music of her own. When she met local producer Jeroen Swinnen,(Novastar, Daan, Vive La Fête) she finally felt like she found a producer who could create and direct her towards something uniquely ‘Kawende’ instead of forcing a musical box, style or genre other producers tried to lay upon her.
Sculpted by the discipline of her father, shaped by her musical heroes, and pushed and motivated by local musical influencers, at age 25, Billie is officially ready to fulfill her destiny of becoming a true songbird with her own material and musical style. A true gem.
‘Under My Wings’ is the first single of Billie Kawende’s work with Jeroen Swinnen.