‘Child of Motown’ Rhonda Ross Kendrick leads camp

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

A slight, fashionably dressed woman with a familar smile under a cloud of natural hair stands before a group of 25 teenagers at Youthville in the New Center.

The classroom is just blocks from Woodward and Alexandrine, where struggling songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. pitched songs in a manager’s office almost 60 years ago.

The woman is Rhonda Ross Kendrick, she is the Motown founder’s daughter, exuding his happy warrior bravado. She also has her father’s habit of saying “Ah... ah ... ah” when his thoughts are racing ahead of his words.

“I definitely do that, although not as often as he does,” Ross Kendrick said afterward, laughing. “And I also chew my tongue, like him. When I do that, my husband and my mother both say ‘You look like your father!’ ”

Rhonda Ross Kendrick, left, works with Breanna Colton, 17, during the “Motown Edu” camp at Youthville in the New Center area.

She’s also inherited winsome features and mannerisms from her mother — that would be Diana Ross — and her silky, one-shouldered black top could have come straight from the ’70s wing of Ross’ closet.

But Ross Kendrick, now 44, married and the mother of 6-year-old Raif, is not strictly the sum of her parents’ DNA. She’s struggled to find her own identity as a singer, as the child of two musical legends but insisted on forging her own path.

Finding your unique gift despite the expectations of others — in her case, being in the shadow of two such strong personalities — was a big part of her message to the 25 youths attending “Motown Edu,” a weeklong summer camp run by the Motown Historical Museum. Coached by professionals, the students write and produce music and create electronic press kits for themselves.

On Thursday, singer KEM talked about his path to fame, going the independent route and developing his own following before signing with Motown. Today it’s Ross Kendrick’s turn to impart some of her father’s Motown philosophy, filtered through her own perspective.

“My mother is Diana Ross and my father is Berry Gordy, so I am literally, the child of Motown,” Ross Kendrick told the kids. “I needed to find a way to be true to myself, despite the fact that people already had an idea of who I was.”

Promoters — and fans — assumed Ross Kendrick would be a duplicate of her mother, either in her Supremes days, or “young ’70s Diana,” singing either commercial pop or Motown. “But I was really drawn to jazz,” she said. “I love Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln.” Her husband, Rodney Kendrick, a jazz pianist, was the first to tell her she had her own art to explore. “He said, ‘You don’t have to flow in the river of expectations.’

Ross Kendrick was her mother’s first child, born in 1971, just after her relationship with Motown founder Gordy unraveled. Ross went on to have two daughters with husband Bob Ellis: Tracee Ellis Ross, 42, Chudney Ross, 39, and then two sons, Ross Naess, 27 and Evan Ross, 26, with her second husband, Swiss businessman Arne Naess.

Despite her hectic solo career, which was at its peak in the ’70s, when she was having her daughters, Diana Ross managed to be a hands-on mother with children who seemed to have reached adulthood relatively unscathed, after growing up in a celebrity fishbowl.

Or as Ross Kendrick put it: “Somehow my mother raised five children, and we’re not in and out of marriages or rehab or jail, and we don’t have a reality show.”

Part of it was Diana Ross made it clear to her children that while they were famous, it was just a small part of who they were. “’You have to figure out who you are, and what you want to do’ she always told us.”

Ross Kendrick isn’t strictly a jazz singer anymore, that became a “box” she needed to break out of, she said. Rather than dressing a certain way, singing certain songs, she wanted to express herself in music that drew from R&B, rock and gospel, as well.

“I don’t have anywhere near the career my mother has,” Ross Kendrick said, “but I feel content.”

You might expect 15 and 16-year-olds to not know who Berry Gordy or Diana Ross is, but this is Detroit, and everybody has mothers who loved the Jackson 5; aunties or grandmas who attended the Fox Motown Revues or pirhouetted in front of the TV along with Diana, Mary and Flo on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

Zuri Snyder, 16, a student at Royal Oak High School, smiles intently throughout Ross Kendrick’s presentation and asks several excited questions afterward. She may be a Beyoncé fan, but, “I grew up on Motown,” Snyder insisted. Her favorite Motown artist is Diana Ross ( “I love her!”). “My auntie heard about this camp, and she called me,” she added.

Camper Gregory Cook Jr. of Southgate, a U of D Jesuit student, is 15, but he knew already that Ross Kendrick was Diana Ross’ daughter. “My mother introduced me to Michael Jackson and Diana Ross,” he said.

Still, when Ross Kendrick tells the students that her brother Evan married Ashlee Simpson a year ago and just had a baby, and that her sister Tracee is on the hit show “Black-ish,” there are instant nods and murmurs. These are boldface names the teenagers recognize instantly.

Although she lived with her mother while growing up, Ross Kendrick connected with her father as an adult and absorbed many of his favorite sayings and philosophy.

There’s the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” one of the Motown founder’s touchstones.

“He lives by it!” Ross Kendrick said, laughing. “I don’t know it by heart — my father made his children who lived with him do that — but I can quote some lines.”

She has a go at it: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting, too...”

That’s as far as she gets. “The point of all of this is, if you do all of this, you’ll be a grown adult ready to pull out all the joy from life,” Ross Kendrick tells the assembled.

The Kipling poem prompts Motown Historical Museum board of trustees president and CEO Robin Terry, granddaughter of Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards, to speak up.

“Rhonda, my grandmother found that poem and gave it to each of her brothers when they were reaching adulthood,” Terry said.

“I didn’t know that!” Ross Kendrick exclaimed. “I’m going to memorize it, and teach it to my son.”

Another Gordyism: “My father also believed you should always learn from your mistakes, but you should also learn from the mistakes of others.”

Terry reminds her of another: “Logic is boss.”

“Follow what makes sense,” Kendrick Ross agreed. “Notice when something doesn’t make sense. Pay attention when it does.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that Ross Kendrick explains Motown history and philosophy so well — she’s heard it from one of its key exponents all her life and had many intensive sessions with its author.

“And here’s a piece of my own philosophy,” the singer/actress added. “If I can’t understand you, you’re lying. I’m not a genius, but I’m pretty smart. If I can’t follow this, something’s amiss. You’re leaving something out or making something up.”

One thing that’s changed her perspective tremendously is becoming a mother, Kendrick Ross told the teenagers.

She last drove around Detroit to see where her mother grew up and went to school 20 years ago, but now that she has a child old enough to understand, she planned to show him the places important in his grandmother’s life.

She’ll take Raif to see the Motown museum, for the first time. “He is at the age where he’s starting to understand what Grandpa Berry did and what Grandmommy did,” she said.

When “Motown: The Musical” played in New York, she took Raif, although he was slightly disappointed that “Grandmommy” Diana did not come out on stage, but someone played her.

Raif also believes that “Motown” always means the company his Grandpa founded and the sound he helped create. When a man sat next to him recently and said “I’m from Motown,” the youngster became excited.

Ross Kendrick laughs. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal. Detroit was called the Motor City, then Grandpa Berry called it Motown, because it was more like a town than a city. Then everybody started calling Detroit ‘Motown.’ ”

With Terry’s goal to expand the Motown museum’s educational outreach and Ross Kendrick’s knack for connecting with teenagers, they will collaborate on more things in future.

“Now that I’ve reconnected with Robin, I will be coming to the city more, and now that I have my son, he can come visit family,” Ross Kendrick said. She is also in talks about performing in Detroit soon.

When she urged the students to forget wanting private planes or money, but “figure out what you love, what you wouud do for free,” she’s thinking about her mother’s drive as a skinny teenager sitting on the front steps at Hitsville, determined to defy all her doubters and become not only a world-class singer, but a movie star.

She’s also thinking of her father’s persistence as a songwriter, despite having doors slammed in his face and rarely being paid. Although Gordy famously co-wrote “Money (That’s What I Want),” it was a long time before he saw any of that green.

“He was writing about what he loved,” Ross Kendrick told the Motown campers. “Find yourself in your art. It’s not about talent. It’s about something that is uniquely you.

“Have the courage to be yourself. The boxes that are out there, in terms of genres — neo soul, hip-hop, urban contemporary — they were created before you. You come in and smash the boxes, or start your own box. There were boxes before Motown was here. R&B. Pop. Well, with Motown my father came in and smashed the boxes.

“Motown had an idea of what the world should be, all of us dancing together, loving together, fighting for justice together.”



Rhonda Ross Kendrick on mom Diana Ross

“My mother was determined as a teenager. She was determined as an adult — she went solo, when all she ever knew was Motown. When I look back on what she was able to do and how much courage it took... she had name recognition but not a lot of financial success, and she had a family to raise. She was making mistakes and just getting back up and trying again.”

“My mother is sounding better than ever, I think. On the song, ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To,’ I was thinking, she sounds not just as good as the record, but better! I was thinking, she understands the song better now.”