Music

How Free Peace’s Kenji Summers Found Mindfulness Through Mamba Mentality and Kendrick Lamar

For Mental Health Awareness Month this May, Billboard is teaming with Brandon Holman of the Lazuli Collective on a series of articles focused on mindfulness and the professional development of executives, creatives and artists in the music community. 

Today’s conversation is with Kenji Summers, an advertising executive turned certified mindfulness instructor. Summers is the first to label himself “a black man who does too much” and is on a mission to help overwhelmed professionals that grew up on hip-hop learn mindfulness techniques to reduce anxiety and avoid burnout. Through meditation groups, Summers uses his deep love of music and hip-hop to help people find peace. Here, he explains how landing his dream job made him realize he lacked a deeper relationship with himself and how Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers brought about his meditation club.  

I grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘90s, specifically in a neighborhood called Bed-Stuy. I was in between where Biggie lived and where Jay-Z grew up. At the time, my aunt Gerrie [Summers] was the editor-in-chief of Word Up! magazine. So, I was hearing in the house that I grew up in, the sounds of hip-hop, the culture and particularly the album, Life After Death the double album by Biggie. It was the first time I listened to a whole album.  

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I remember sitting in my room after I expropriated or borrowed the album from my aunt because she would get them weeks in advance sometimes. I had my eyes closed and I was just vibing to it and I saw all the stories that Biggie was rhyming about – as many details as I could at 10 years old. What that led me to was a love for music, particularly hip-hop and wanting to know more about what my aunt did. Seeing how people could paint those pictures, I wanted to spend more time understanding how people do that.  

Eventually, that led me to wanting to work at the intersection of music and messages or art and media. Once I realized there were careers in that space that weren’t just rappers, the person that I looked up to was Steve Stoute. He had transitioned from working as a president of a label and managing artists like Nas to starting a brand consultancy and an ad agency.  

I started to take more advertising courses as I was graduating from university. I found mentorship and I found people who were Black and of color in advertising. Having those experiences early on in music, I thought maybe there’s a way to bring my culture to this industry of art and copy. I worked for some years in advertising, trying to get people to buy things they didn’t need and often believing things that they didn’t really understand. I saw it as a gift and a curse.  

In advertising, I had to go to work every day and often it was very early days or very late nights and working on weekends. I would find myself smiling and ideas are flowing and then you put me in a meeting with my managers or the client and the words did not come out as smoothly. I would stumble over my words, repeat words i didn’t need to because I wasn’t sure if they were landing. I was nervous. I was shook.  

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I started to investigate. I started going to specialists, primary care physicians and neurologists. It was a neurologist that was like, “You might have anxiety. In fact, I know you have anxiety.” He said, “It’s not your brain. Your brain works just fine. It’s your mouth.” The neurologist sent me to another guy in his practice, who I know now was a mindfulness teacher and he said, “Alright, let’s sit. Let’s start at the bottom of your feet and let’s bring your attention to that part of your body.” 

Dude, I couldn’t focus on that. I was not trying to hear it. I was like, fix me. Give me a pill. Be in therapy, whatever you got to do. I don’t know what this woo-woo stuff is. [Instead of mindfulness], I wanted to stop drinking alcohol because maybe that’s the thing. I started drinking kava. Maybe I’ll start going to therapy. My dad’s a therapist, so maybe therapy was the thing all along. It was cool. It helped, but I still found I didn’t have a relationship with myself and I didn’t have the words to describe that I didn’t have an intimate relationship with myself.  

I was working at my dream job. I was working at Nike, which brought together the hip-hop and the advertising. They’re the best storytellers in the game. It was working at Nike that exposed me to the mamba mentality. There was something called mindfulness behind the mamba mentality. I found out there was this guy that Kobe [Bryant] worked with named George Mumford. I was stunned that he also worked with Michael Jordan. I started to read as much as I could about Goerge Mumford. I read this book called The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance. I started to hear my story in his story and he was talking about recovery. I realized, there are layers to this. To this day, I am still going through those layers and levels.  

Around 2018, I had been let go from Nike and I was in my practice, meditating daily. When I started thinking of a mediation club, I don’t want to just meditate in silence. I have participated in those environments and it always felt like something was missing, like I was leaving a part of myself out. I thought of Sufism and was like, they don’t leave that out. Music is very spiritual. So music had to be at the forefront of the mediation clubhouse. I started to consider it through Kendrick Lamar’s latest album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. The song “The Heart Part 5” that was released while I was on retreat. I listened to it on repeat. It was a mantra. There is a period, early on in the song, where he just stops the record, the music continues, and he just breathes.

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[During COVID isolation], I started doing the mediation club over Zoom. We just listened to several songs from Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers as mediations. Like I did with Life After Death when I was a kid. When the song ends, take up whatever space you need to take up. I just ask you take it up with dignity. You can sit up. You can lay down, just let the spine be divine. Let it be aligned. Then, what I think really brings it home, is we got to talk about your experience. It may be different. That’s when I started to see how I could use my certifications to hold that space, hold that container open for folks to get vulnerable.  

I am fortunate that I can get a text message from George Mumford on a Wednesday morning. But I also know that if I get that, I got to give it away. That brings me to the life I am in now. It’s cool that I got a chance to be helped, but now it’s time to spin the block and help others that maybe don’t even know there is a way out.  

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