How the North Preston singer learned to be true to himself and his roots
When Keonté Beals was growing up in North Preston, he dreamed of one day becoming a professional musician. Everything he did revolved around music: in school, in church, or with friends, he immersed himself in the craft.
Beals was raised in a family of eight. He shared a crowded room with his three cousins until he turned eight, when he and his parents moved into a bigger house with his father’s three other children. Later in life he became an older brother to two boys. He found himself again in another busy household, as he describes was filled with love.
“Growing up in North Preston really was something I wish everybody could experience.
I got a sense of what the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ meant up close and personal,” says Beals. “It is a privilege to come from the richness of the largest all Black community in all of Canada and it taught me to value who I am.”
If it wasn’t for growing up in North Preston, Beals says he wouldn’t be anywhere near where he is now in life. He was raised into a religious family at St. Thomas Baptist Church, to which he credits his introduction music. He sang in the church choir and tinkered on the piano as he rehearsed gospel hymns to sing in church. He still sings in the Baptist Youth Fellowship to this day.
Beals always used to consider himself a closeted singer, meaning nobody really knew he had a voice outside of his congregation. He was shy and he never thought much of singing being more than a hobby. It wasn’t until he was 13 years old when his aunt encouraged him to post a video of himself singing to Facebook. This was a turning point as people began to notice his potential.
“I began to beg my parents to put me into singing lessons,” he recalls. “I knew this is what I wanted to do in life and I was going to do whatever it would take.”
It was the first time he was ever recognized for his talents, but the feedback wasn’t always positive. As a teenager he admittingly hated his voice. He wanted to replicate the sounds of his favourite artists like Usher and Chris Brown, but it was always a struggle. He believed that if he didn’t sound like his idols, he wouldn’t ever be good enough.
“I was pressured into emulating some of my idols because if it worked for them, it must work for me,” says Beals. “But that wasn’t the case.”
Beals struggled almost every day to unlock a voice he could call his own. Understanding vocal range and mastering sound are constant challenges for singers. Music began to feel like a task rather than a pleasure. Then he began battling issues outside of music.
“I’ve had my fair share of depression and anxiety, and things I still carry today—I think many of us do,” Beals says. “I never felt good enough and didn’t fit in because I’m a quiet person.”
Beals was able to battle mental breakdowns the best way he knew: using music. He used singing and writing as coping mechanisms to confront periods of weakness. He also credits his mentor, Shawn Downey for helping him get through the tough times.
“When I first heard Keonté sing I knew he had potential, and I knew he had something special many people don’t have,” says Downey.
He says Beals uses a unique vibrato which differentiates him from other musicians. Rather than sounding like Usher, he has more recently been able to sound like himself.
“If it weren’t for my mentor I don’t know if I would have ever been able to find my voice,” says Beals. “Through learning basic techniques in a classical genre, I realized I didn’t need to sound like those other artists. I was able to find my own voice and my own individuality.”
Downey has known Beals his whole life. They were playing together long before they were recording together. He went from being the church organist to playing different instruments at shows and on Beals’s recordings. He is currently the music director for Beals’s entire musical operation.
“I started off playing rhythm, now it’s keyboard and bass. I could be playing any instrument any given time at a show or on a recording,” says Downey.
By the time Beals turned 23, he was already an accomplished musician. He currently writes all of his own music and plays piano. Plaudits include African Nova Scotian Artist of the Year (2019) and Music Nova Scotia inspirational recording of the year (2016). He also received an award of recognition from Women’s Institute of the African United Baptist Association.
Beals feels his biggest accomplishment to date was selling out his first big show in June 2019. “I was so nervous and I didn’t feel ready, but at some one point I realized that it was my time,” he says.
Beals is now on the verge of releasing his debut album in Summer 2020 titled King. The entire album is based on various facets of his life, from his childhood to contemporary life. The album is three years in the making.
“King is going to be my experience of being a Black man in today’s society. There will be songs about toxic masculinity, depression, and love,” says Beals. “There’s a lot of love.
The album is going to feature 10–12 songs, including co-writes, plus work by Downey on several tracks. “When you’re working with an artist who knows what he wants it makes the process a whole lot easier and the outcome better than you would ever expect,” says Downey. “Keonté is a phenomenal artist and a great musician.”
Beals also wants to help younger musicians find their voices. “Believe in yourself when nobody else does, not only in your craft but your ability to produce quality content,” says Beals. “Never forget where you’re from and have pride in your community. Those are two things you have to accept before moving forward.”