‘Funky and liberated, with a touch of class’: Carl Kenney’s style journey

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024

By Stella Griffin

When Carl Kenney Jr. walks into a room, all eyes are immediately on him. Having held numerous respected positions in the Durham community and beyond, such recognition comes naturally.

However, what initially draws the eye is Kenney’s flair for style and fashion. 

His personal style, which he describes as “funky and liberated, with a touch of class,” varies from African-style patterns to all-black turtlenecks and pants to formal attire.

The day I interviewed him for this story he was in a full suit complete with a lavender pocket square, tie and amethyst chain links.

“Today was about feeling better,” he said, highlighting his choice of purple as the color of royalty. Dressing for personal mood and desire is not a luxury Kenney has always felt he had.

“I was 26-years-old when I graduated from Mizzou — University of Missouri School of Journalism, and I would come to class every day with a suit and tie,” he said. 

Kenney worked hard to achieve success after facing the challenges of young fatherhood, loss, and financial struggles in his younger life. As a result, he felt that he needed to dress the part to get it. In this case, wearing a suit and tie to class, he imagined himself as a radio station executive.
He was inspired by a piece from Howard Thurman that talks about the concept of ‘irreducible essence.’

The idea behind the concept is that “you make that transition from what you imagine as your possibilities into becoming that so quickly that you can’t even see it coming,” Kenney said.

Kenney proved the concept to be true for him and became a general manager at a Kentucky radio station upon graduation.

Having already been ordained as a minister, he was serving in both aspects professionally. His youth and perceived lack of qualifications by many he worked with and for, further pressured Kenney to dress for perfectionism and the perception of others.

“When I first met him, his style, I would say, was ‘Southern-Baptist-Church-Conservative,’” Glenda Jones, owner of Sincerely Yours Salon and Spa and Kenney’s longtime friend, said through laughter.

Jones met Kenney at a crucial and difficult time for him, as he was facing intense change in both his personal and professional life. 

Kenney made appointments with Jones, in which he decided to loc his hair as a way to show his commitment to honor the way God created him as opposed to worldly perception.

There were lots of changes going on, and I believe that it was at a time where he was challenging the status quo and what was the norm in favor of what was natural,” Jones said.

Normal is not the same as natural, Jones emphasized. She gave the example of the pressure on those with textured hair to straighten or press it. She often provides services to clients like Kenney who aim to lean into their cultural background.

Jones’ mindset changed Kenney fundamentally. 

“I needed to fix something inside, and she gave me permission to be free,” he said.

Jones said that through the process of Kenney coming in for services at the salon over the span of months, she began to see change in him.

“I believe, in some way, he saw in me something that helped him to be bold and stand in his authentic self, even in how he dressed and wore his hair. It became a little more African-centered, a little more unconstructive and a lot less conservative,” she said.

While years have passed since this defining time in Kenney’s life, its effects still show today as he serves as both a UNC-Chapel Hill Professorand the editor in chief for the Durham Voice.

“Some days I will come in here with my African stuff. I come in here with all the ethnic beauty of who I am, and some days I come in here, as one of the students says, and I’m a jazz musician. Some days I’m coming here and I’m the spoken word artist and some days I’m coming here and I’m the businessman,” he said. “It’s different things, but they’re all part of my personality, and I celebrate every part of who I am.” 

To those who may be in the shoes of his younger self now, he gives these words of wisdom:

“Find who you are,” he said. “Claim your individuality in every way.”

Edited by Ava Dobson

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