There’s a place where Julian Kennedy goes that belongs to him, and him alone.
It’s a place inside himself, within his artist’s soul, where his gift lives. It’s where the music exists, waiting for him, coursing through his veins and biding its time.
And when we’re lucky, Kennedy taps into that secret place, opens up and shares his gift with the rest of us.
Magic that he harnessed here at UNC Greensboro and showed to nearly 7 million viewers of the “America’s Got Talent” television show back in August.
It was life-changing stuff. And now the 21-year-old Kennedy is ready for another life-changing event in the coming days, when he’ll graduate from UNCG’s College of Visual and Performing Arts with a major in jazz studies and a concentration in piano performance.
Kennedy isn’t sure how he’ll feel when graduation day arrives. But he certainly knows how to access emotion. Music taught him how.
“Whenever I sing, I always want to go to a place where I can feel the song,” Kennedy says. “Maybe I’ve been hurt in the same way that the songwriter has been hurt, and I want to tap into that. And I always like to take my time whenever I sing. A lot of singers will do what’s called riffs and runs, which is great. But at some point, you’ve just got to let the song sing to you. You’ve got to let the music speak to you like you’re really having a conversation. And you really want those pause moments, where you’re really feeling it.”
It was a feeling, after all, that led to Kennedy getting together with sophomores Christoff Hairston and Tavis Cunningham to form the soulful trio 1aChord.
By now the story is familiar. The three CVPA students met for the first time at UNCG’s Fountain View Dining Hall one afternoon. Read the story here.
“We met by happenstance,” Kennedy says. “We were all in the cafeteria, just talking about our favorite artists: Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Cynthia Erivo, and so on and so forth. We talked a lot about The Clark Sisters, and this one song of theirs, ‘Name It and Claim it,’ and we just decided to sing it. We went to the foyer area and Cristoff set up his phone to record it. We did a few takes. This one take – one that we honestly didn’t like – we ended up posting because Tavis had to go to class, and we didn’t have time to do another.”
The Instagram post blew up, especially once The Clark Sisters reposted the video.
Courtney Harrell, a producer for “America’s Got Talent” and a former singing contestant on “The Voice,” contacted 1aChord.
“She said we had a great talent, and she reached out to us and encouraged us to audition for AGT,” Kennedy says. “People thought we won an audition or something, but really the opportunity came to us.”
The trio did very well on the NBC talent show, impressing the celebrity judges with their soulful harmonies and reaching the semifinals, garnering millions of views through their standing ovation-worthy performances.
Without UNCG, the trio says, there would be no 1aChord.
And now, there are life-size pictures of the three men in the Fountain View Dining Hall, and Kennedy is often recognized on campus and around Greensboro.
“It’s overwhelming. It really is,” Kennedy says. “But I enjoy it so much. I definitely want to keep performing. And I also want to become a producer someday, so I can help other artists as well.”
MUSIC A REFUGE
It all happened because Kennedy found a home at UNCG.
Kennedy grew up in High Point with his mother, Lavondra, and his older brother, William, who was born with cerebral palsy. It wasn’t always easy for the family, and Kennedy – who is autistic – remembers being bullied in elementary and middle schools.
“People didn’t understand how different I was,” Kennedy says. “Some people would call me names, and it was hurtful. But within that spectrum, there was an AU inclusion program I was part of. Different teachers went to class with the person who has autism, and they checked to see if they were doing okay. Those teachers absolutely made a difference in my life. All of them did.”
And so, too, did music. Especially church music.
“I’ve been singing since I was 3 years old, and I started singing in the church youth choir when I was 6,” Kennedy says. “Then I started getting into the piano when I was 7, and started sight-reading music in middle school. Music has always been my niche. Always.”
The gospel music of his youth has remained his constant companion.
“Music in general does speak to me,” Kennedy says. “Gospel music speaks the clearest, because it has more of a meaning. A message is brought forward. Gospel heals as it speaks.”
Outside of church, Kennedy stuck with the piano, and he also played euphonium in Ragsdale High’s marching band. He was even a drum major his senior year.
Music was always Kennedy’s refuge, and he knew he was good at it. He just didn’t know how good.
“I wouldn’t say I’m better than anybody else, because we all have the same gift,” Kennedy says. “We just use our gifts differently. And then whenever I see somebody else with a great gift, whether it’s music or not, I support that person and their gift. … When I was like 16 or 17 I had an idea I was pretty good, but as far as me really gaining an understanding that I’m good at this was probably when I first started at UNCG.”
THE G BELIEVES
When it came time to go to college, Kennedy drew interest from a handful of schools. But some didn’t know whether Kennedy could make it because of his autism.
Kennedy says Dr. Bryan Terry, then the vice chancellor for enrollment management, paved the way for him at UNCG.
“He did his absolute best to get me into one of the programs,” Kennedy says, “because he could tell I loved music.”
Kennedy auditioned for general piano, and as part of that audition he played a jazz standard. Dr. John Salmon introduced him to jazz studies and encouraged him to follow that path.
“I played ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington for the audition piece for the jazz program,” Kennedy says. “I got into not only the program but the School of Music, which was huge for me.”
UNCG changed Kennedy’s life.
He lived on his own for the first time, spending two years in the Cone Residence Hall, one in Jefferson Suites – “the best dorm ever,” he says – and his senior year in Spartan Village Union.
And he found people that set him on his musical journey.
“The jazz studies program really helped me out a lot,” Kennedy says. “It’s not just about knowing eighth-note lines, or learning my instrument with the piano styles of Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Art Tatum, or Phineas Newborn. The program really helped me to become a better person. Because looking at my professors, I see nothing but great communication skills, compassion, and emotional control. They’re role models. They really help us out a lot.”
Kennedy plans to keep performing with Hairston and Cunningham as 1aChord, and he has projects of his own in mind.
At the center of it all is that place of his own, deep within him where his gift lives.
UNCG helped Julian Kennedy find a way to share that gift, to give music to the world, and to heal himself.
“I look back to those days when I was bullied, and it was awful,” Kennedy says. “I honestly didn’t know I had autism when I was younger. And I was so hurt. I was emotionally hurt. I didn’t know I was different than others at that time. But looking back, I’m very proud to say that I am different. I know some people doubted me, but look at me now.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Feature portrait by Rio Snapped It Photography
Embedded photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications
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