“Failure has been my greatest teacher,” John Keenan said Tuesday afternoon at Perks Coffee Shop in Great Bend. The 28 year old Great Bend High School graduate was dropping off a stack of his newly cut CDs with uncle Greg Keenan, who will make them available to the public. The journey to create the album of songs, along with younger brother Mark and friend Scott Martz has been both illuminating and life changing.
Sitting across the table from the young man, older than he looks, the average person wouldn’t see a rapper or a music artist. Keenan, dressed in a grey T-shirt and shorts, looks as casual and easy going as they come. “I’m just me,” he says. He admits, after all he’s been through, transparency, honesty and “being as real as he can be” are his priorities, not the flash and tinsel usually associated with pop and rap singers today.
By the age of 13, Keenan was discovering his own musical prowess, along with younger brother Mark, who was developing a unique style of rapping. The two began composing beat tracks with a keyboard grandmother Mona bought for them, and an inexpensive sampler. But without the support of family and friends,
Keenan was fighting an uphill battle. He says, “In my family, it was the women that pursued music. The men were all businessmen and lawyers, and focused on education. Saying that I wanted to pursue rap was like a scandal. And in Great Bend, the other kids made fun of us and looked down on them.
“Where I went wrong was when I denied my dream,” Keenan said. He chose a more “secure” course of study, but after a year at Barton College, and a period of time at Kansas State University, the young man had become both an alcoholic and a drug addict.
“All of these stories start out the same way… I started hanging out with a crowd that was screwing around with alcohol and drugs,” he reflects. “Some people grow out of it, but I tell you, alcohol grabbed me around the throat. As soon as I could buy it legally, I was finished.”
He made his first trip through rehab. He stayed sober for two days. By 2006, he dropped out of Kansas State—and was temporarily committed to Larned State Mental Hospital in Larned, Kansas, suffering from delusions and hallucinations. Doctors feared him a paranoid schizophrenic and were prepared to deem him a long-term patient. Keenan managed to negotiate his way out of the facility if he completed an intensive treatment program—during which he made the game-changing decision to clean up and turn his life around. “I had nothing but time to reflect on my life,” he says. “I made up my mind that I wasn’t going be afraid anymore.”
At age 23, a counselor convinced him to try living at a home for recovering addicts in Wichita. He was reluctant, but finally agreed to try it for a month. A month turned into two, and then into a year. He ultimately spent four years there, getting his addictions under control, growing in strength, and finally owning his passion and making the decision to follow his heart and devote his future to becoming a musician. The song,”Lives We’ve Made”, speaks to why he chose finally to follow his heart and become a musician.
Keenan collaborated on “WIWW” with guitarist and vocalist Scott Martz, who cocomposed many of the tracks and provides guitars, vocals and production chops.
In addition, the album features Keenan’s brother Mark and his cousin Tyler, along with featured guests Kansas City rapper/singer Irv Da Phenom and veteran
Wichita rapper Kanzaz Chiefa.
“Martz was into old time rock and roll, and I was into rap,” Keenan said. “I showed him my world, and he showed me his, and we met in the middle,”
In February, Keenan moved into his own apartment, and finished recording and producing the album with his brother and Martz under the independent label Full Circle Entertainment. They contracted with a media promotion company to promote the album, and it became available to the public on iTunes on November 27.
On Feb. 4, 2013 he will acknowledge another milestone: five years of remaining clean and sober, thanks in large part to expressing himself through words and melodies.
“My music gives me something to focus on, to channel frustration, to convert heartbreak or pain into something positive,” Keenan says. But there’s also universality to “WIWW”: “I’m not looking to make a load of money from this; I’d like to offer others the inspiration to make different choices than I did. If someone is struggling and wants help, maybe they can gain some small thing from my experience. I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a lot and want to share it the best way I know.”
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