Heroes: Diana Ross

Heroes: Diana Ross

The only daughter of Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, Rhonda Ross Kendrick, takes the stage with her legendary mom.

The only daughter of Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, Rhonda Ross Kendrick, takes the stage with her legendary mom.

Photography: Saskia Lawaks

Text: Natasha Stagg

Diana Ross, from her start as the leader of the record-breaking girl group the Supremes during the early days of Motown to her celebrated solo singing and film careers, has been an icon of music and style for over half a century. This summer, she and her eldest daughter, esteemed jazz singer-songwriter Rhonda Ross Kendrick, toured together for the first time. Here, Rhonda describes how that felt, and what it means to grow up a Ross.

RHONDA ROSS KENDRICK Touring with my mother is an indescribable joy. We get one-on-one time together that is hard to come by when one is an adult. To have this time to watch movies and order room service is a real gift. Additionally, I get to share the stage with a legend. I have been to and backstage at her shows since I was a child, but this tour offers an even closer view of how she loves her band and crew, how she takes care of them, how they take care of her, her business acumen, and all that she does to make sure the audiences enjoy the show. I see the stamina that it takes to do that night after night at 72 years old. She is an incredible role model.

NS How are your acts different, and how are they similar?

RRK As a social artist, my songs are in conversation with the environment around me—how to survive it, thrive within it, make sense of it, digest it, and be truly free in the midst of it. My songs talk about race and gender, self-responsibility, self-love, spirituality, and many other subjects that grown folk chew on all day, every day. In that regard, our shows are different because my mother’s music has never been overtly political. It didn’t have to be: when she started in the 1960s, her presence, independence, beauty, talent, and confidence were political in and of themselves. Our shows compliment each other. We are both singing about love (on the other side of fear), community, and solidarity (on the other side of struggle and separation).

NS You’ve said you’re the best-kept secret in the Ross family. Why do you think that is?

RRK When I graduated Brown University over 20 years ago, I was approached by producers and record labels who wanted to mold me into a pop star, but my mother had taught me, as she taught all of her children, to knit together a life and career that was authentic to who we were: a career that we would do for free. Back in those days, I was a budding songwriter and I knew, instinctively, that I needed to continue on that road of authenticity. I met my husband, the great pianist and composer, Rodney Kendrick, and we wrote and performed together for many years. For whatever reason, our music stayed under the radar, but that’s okay with me. I am very proud of those years. They gave me time to develop and grow and discover what I really have to say as an artist.

NS The story of your parentage is pretty amazing. When did you first get a feeling that Robert Ellis Silberstein was not your biological father, and that Motown founder Berry Gordy was?

RRK Berry and my mother’s bond is and has always been incredibly strong. Even once they were no longer connected romantically, they remained the best of friends. So Berry was always around. My sisters and I called him “Uncle.” When I was about 12 years old, my mother decided that it was time for me to know the truth of my parentage. I am so glad she did. Secrets are no good for anyone. And once the truth was out, it allowed everyone to come together. I am very close with both my fathers and love them both to pieces.

NS What stories about your parents did you grow up with?

RRK They were both tenacious and single-minded. That was a huge part of their success: they didn’t pass the buck and didn’t make any excuses. They also both thought outside of the box—no matter what anyone else thought, they walked the road untraveled.

NS What is your involvement with the Motown EDU Summer Camp?

RRK I have been the keynote speaker for the past three years. I tell the students my story of carving out my own identity in the midst of the giant legacies of my parents and I counsel them about their own artistic journeys.

NS What are some of those words of wisdom?

RRK Stay true to who you are. Don’t let anyone (not industry professionals, not family, not friends) convince you to portray yourself as someone else. And keep your eye on the details. Read and understand your contracts. If you don’t understand them, make someone explain them to you until you do. Pay attention to where your money is coming from and where it is going. Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Some people are afraid to do that because they think it makes them look stupid. On the contrary, not asking them is what makes you look stupid.

Diana Ross at the Chopard “Wild” Party, 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Rhonda Ross Kendrick’s In Case You Didn’t Know is available now

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