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winter 2023

The Star Polisher

Performance Coach KJ Rose Helps Bring The Best Out Of The Best—And The Rest Of Us
Written by: Waymaker Journal Team

When she was young, Keanna Henson once got so nervous that she fainted in a college pageant. “I had such stage fright,” says the now-in-demand performance coach and creative director known as KJ Rose who commands attention herself as a business keynote speaker and helps A-list artists own their time in the spotlight.

Dubbed “the performance whisperer” for her way of drawing out clients’ essence and polishing their presence, Rose has worked with a roster of top celebrities in television, music, and movies: The Lumineers, 24kGoldn, The Kid Laroi and more. Lil Nas X—with whom Rose worked for his Grammy award-winning performance of his hit “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus—has credited her with helping him develop his stage confidence.

I get you in flight, and then I pull away to make sure that you’re able to fly on your own.

KJ ROSE

“Vocal coaches deal with the instrument; performance directors and coaches deal with the behavior. Choreographers give you the eight count, but I make the eight count count,” Rose says of her role. She describes herself as a solid rocket booster: “I allow you to harness my energy, I get you in flight, and then I pull away to make sure that you’re able to fly on your own.”

Rose’s approach to bringing the best out of the best can also work for the rest of us. Whether you’re performing before thousands or interacting with a handful of people, you need to know that “no one can deliver what [you] were put on this earth to deliver,” she says.

Originally from Chicago’s South Side, Rose started out as a singer—she names Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, and Chaka Khan among her favorite artists—but didn’t like the spotlight. “There was a trepidation that I had with performing,” she admits. “I was able to do different ensembles, but whenever it came to me being in the forefront of things, it was just very tough for me to tell a story that I felt truly represented who I am through my gift.”

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida (where she earned a degree in business administration and management), encouraged her to stretch herself. “They’d be like, ‘We need someone to sing for this event.’ I’d be like, ‘Well, let me get you somebody.’ They’d be, ‘That somebody is you.’ They forced me to push through.”

Competing for a title one time, she passed out. “Who faints at a pageant? You had to walk to your different positions and you had to announce yourself, and that’s how much stage fright did to me. But I still got through it and I understood at that point that I was meant to do this and it didn’t mean it was going to be easy. It just meant that I had to outrun the stage fright and the trepidation.”

Rising higher

Touring later as a background vocalist—P. Diddy, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Janet Jackson—allowed Rose to observe “what it truly took to have a level of confidence that transcended the circumstances, that transcended the venue. I watched people figure out how to inspire themselves.”

When she started working at J Records, Rose thought she might get signed as an artist, “but they were not interested in my music. They wanted to use this thing that they saw in me, this X factor, to help their artists to truly show up.”

That gift is not about putting something into her clients so much as helping pull it out of them, she says. “I always tell them I am not there to give them anything they don’t already possess. My job is to help irritate and agitate areas that may have merely been lying dormant or areas of potential that they did not know existed.” All this requires some sensitivity: “A lot of times when I show up, it’s as if this is the record label’s idea and it’s as if something is wrong. I’m always saying, ‘If I’m in the room, that means they’ve made an investment in you.’”

Still, offering input calls for some diplomacy. “There are times I come in with a lesson plan that has to be abandoned because I don’t know what call they took before I got in there,” she says. “I have to adjust to their mood, but I never adjust to their energy. I always make them rise higher. I always set the stage for myself that gives them room to actually take a lift when needed… you always have to align to what is going to make them feel the best about themselves because they can’t get on stage with what you think.”

Part of Rose’s work involves helping performers recognize what makes them come alive. “Your external expression is merely a reflection of your internal thoughts,” she explains. “I’ve got to figure out what you think about yourself first.” Without that understanding, all the outward movements are “just walking around,” Rose says. But moving on stage “isn’t about transportation,” she adds. “It’s about delivering and pushing the narrative forward.”

Working with Lil Nas X, for example, meant exploring “what is the Old Town Road? Who are you? What are the strengths?” (“She helped me get some confidence to go out there and do a little two-step,” the singer told Billboard).

After watching Nasir “NAS” Jones’ first rehearsal when working with him, she told him, “Nobody can deliver the story like you. You are the only messenger that we have.” She offers encouragement and reminders like this because “a lot of times after artists have sung their songs hundreds of times, they forget about the origin of the story.”

Rose’s ability to help artists deliver their best selves has been embraced by the business world. She has worked with brands like Adidas, Amazon, Disney, and Google, where she encourages employees to see themselves as artists.

If you don’t know your dopeness… we’ve got a problem.

Having worked in corporate America for many years, she recognizes the need to “revive hearts” before drilling down into the practicalities of improving job performance. She gets people to “dive into everything about them that is wonderful” by identifying their strengths and gifts. “If you don’t know your dopeness and if you can’t shout your dopeness before anybody else declares what your dopeness is, we’ve got a problem.”

But once people understand that what they do is very unique and specific, “it makes them a little bit more interested and confident to actually contribute to the collective,” she says. “So often we go through our careers and whatever our professional journeys are, and it becomes routine, so that we forget our why.”

Showing up

Rose also shares her wisdom in her book The Rose Effect: Eight Steps to Delivering the Performance of Your Life (“The perfect optimistic energy entrepreneurs need to keep going,” according to one online reviewer).

Talent will sustain you, but it is not what opens the door.

While honing your talents in the way she lays out is essential, don’t overlook the importance of simply showing up, she says, remembering the time she got to sing on Biggie Smalls’ Playa Hater (from his 1997 album Life After Death). “I know they weren’t looking for me,” she says of the break. “But I was available at 11 o’clock at night, and I was willing to come from Brooklyn.” The lesson: “People won’t always know what you’re capable of. Talent will sustain you, but it is not what opens the door… Nobody can give you something that you already possess.”

What advice would Rose give to her 20-year-old self, back when she was a student? “Stop trying to force yourself into moments that you see everyone else is a part of,” she answers. “You won’t make choices based upon what everybody else is doing. You won’t make choices based upon people’s very limited idea of what you’re capable of. And you’ll understand that it may be a lonely road, but it is very specific to why you are here on this earth.”

In rebranding herself from Keanna Henson to KJ Rose—centered on her middle name—she was drawing a line in the sand and setting the stage for her next act. “I would take meetings, and immediately they would say, ‘Oh, Keanna Henson, the background singer.’ It was like that was my new moniker altogether.” Her thinking was, “Yes, I did appreciate that time in my life, but no, I am on my way to doing other things.”

The new identity not only acknowledged a new chapter in her life but honored her roots. There were Rosas and Roses in her family, “and when I dug deep into what legacy is and really embracing my ancestry, I realized that Rose was ‘rise,’ right?” she says. “Every day, I am rising to a degree where I know that it was not me; I didn’t do this on my own.”

Family remains important to her—“They are my source; they revive me”—and Rose has advice on how to show up well for loved ones. “Grace,” she says. “How we would extend grace to a friend is different to how you extend grace to family. Grace has no timeline with your family; it is perennial.” It’s not taking things personally, she adds, being kind and treating them the way you would want to be treated.

“It’s communication that makes you connected to your family. It is never squandering moments. The time that you have with them: be present in that. We’re always looking for the next win, but sometimes you are existing in a win, and the win is your family.”

KJ ROSE: MY WAYMAKERS

I want to name everybody. I’m going to group my entire family and then give my brother [Allen “Jax” Henson] extra love because he was my biggest advocate. We were in a group together; he always faults me for leaving, but he was a waymaker for me. Moments when I didn’t see it in myself, he would just give me so much encouragement and love to be a little bit more present and to be a little bit more confident.

Secondly, Cynthia Johnson [Vice President, Urban Promotion at Epic Columbia Records], who’s from Chicago. I remember writing songs when I got to LA, but not knowing where I fit in, not knowing if it was good enough, but playing the song for her in the car and just watching her body have this reaction of, “I didn’t know that she was capable of this.” Fast forward to it being on WGCI.

And then everybody who’s ever hired me… everybody who has ever said, “I see you.”

THREE STEPS TO TAKING CENTER STAGE

KJ Rose coaxes the best from her clients with three core principles. Consider how they might work in your life:

Show up. “What makes you feel alive? What are the things that you understand you were qualified for? We take deep dives into what their strengths are and then a little bit of their challenges. What areas do they feel they could use a lift in?”

Embrace your force. “What’s the one thing about you that cannot be compromised? What’s the thing that can’t be hijacked? For me, it’s energy… I allow artists to harness my level of energy until they figure out what their own story is, until they get to their own.”

Understand your power. “There is something in your story that looks like nobody else. There’s something about your uniqueness that nobody else can deliver the way that you deliver… it’s understanding that your story looks like nobody else’s.”

From an interview with Louis Carr