Center stage and loving it

The Baltimore Sun

It was nearly 1 p.m. and Kia Calloway was nowhere to be found.

"Kia Calloway is on her way," said the band onstage, which kept announcing her impending arrival. "She should be here shortly."

Another few minutes and the organizers at the African American Heritage Festival were going to have to cancel her slot, they said. She was one of about 10 performers tightly scheduled on the main stage yesterday, the last being none other than renowned R&B; singer Patti LaBelle.

And then, just in time, there Calloway was. In a short, clingy peach dress and gold spiky heels, the 24-year-old was gulping water and rushing to get on stage after fighting her way through traffic. Under the lights, she sauntered in, looking every bit the superstar.

"I've been your superwoman for so long and I'm ready to be your wife," she crooned, strutting across the stage.

Calloway - a self-described R&B; singer mixed with a little hip-hop and pop - was among a handful of vocalists who performed at the festival at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which began in 2002 and attracts thousands of people from far and near.

"A lot of people in Baltimore still don't know about Kia Calloway," she had said a day earlier. "This is about telling them who I am."

The main attraction of the festival - which runs through tonight - is music, ranging from soul and gospel to hip-hop.

But other entertainment abounds, much of it focusing on African-American and Afro-Caribbean history and culture.

There are carnival rides for the young at heart. Educational and informational booths for the more serious. And vendors selling an assortment of wares, including T-shirts and African art.

Not to mention the food and drink, including funnel cakes and lemonade, Jamaican specialities and Baltimore's own lake trout.

When Calloway went onstage, the crowd was a fraction of what was expected in the evening, when LaBelle was scheduled, but for a hometown girl in the early stages of finding her way in the music world, it was a thrill.

The modest, enthusiastic crowd gathered under a blazing sun, swaying to the tunes of Calloway's smooth voice. They clapped their hands when she told them to. They repeated after her when she asked them to.

Most of her messages were directed at women. "You know, ladies, sometimes we get sick and tired," she said. "We get to a point in our life when we just want to say, 'I've had enough.'"

Some in the audience were Calloway's friends. Andre Vaughn is a friend from Woodlawn High School. "She's a performer, a young, up-and-coming singer," said Vaughn, 31, who was bopping along to the music. "She makes me dance."

Tyesha McCardell, 24, knows Calloway from when they worked together at Sinai Hospital in 2003. "I have the CD," said McCardell, who sang along to the songs. "I like the rhythm, the words. It's deep. She actually says what she feels.

"She has the potential to really make it," McCardell said. "I really think she'll be famous some day."

Headliners in years past have included Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan, along with local favorites.

Performing at AFRAM is quite an honor, said Calloway.

Even more of a thrill, she said, is performing just hours before one of her earliest musical inspirations, LaBelle - the biggest name at the festival this year.

"I am very, very flattered," she said, of being able to perform on the main stage. "I'm so excited to be on the same stage as LaBelle. I'm really excited to meet her."

Sultry and playful on stage, off-stage Calloway is all giggles and excitement.

She is not just any Baltimore woman with stars in her eyes. Her father was killed before she was born. Her mother used drugs and died of HIV when she was a teenager. She was raised by her grandparents, who are also now dead.

"A lot of artists have two parents by their side," she said. "I didn't have that. The only thing that I did was I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. And I followed my heart. And I kept at it."

The East Baltimore resident began singing at the age of 3.

Back then, she sang along to her grandparent's music, to songs by Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross and LaBelle.

She's the first singer in the family and has no idea where she got the talent.

"My grandparents played a lot of the old-school music," she said. "I grew up in my room just singing. ... No one in my family had the talent of singing. I'm kind of blessed to have the voice that I have."

Calloway took some voice and piano lessons and sang in just about every choir available to her, while also dancing and acting a little.

She graduated from Woodlawn High School and attended the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus for two years before dropping out to pursue singing full time.

She formed her own management group - Calloway Management - two years ago. She independently released her first album last year, titled It's Not A Game.

Most of her music is downloaded and sold on Web sites such as myspace.com and burnlounge.com.

Calloway performs mostly local shows, doing a lot of "Baltimore Believe" events and AIDS benefits, while also singing at clubs and schools. "I believe in giving back to the community," she said.

After her performance yesterday, she was off to a CD signing. Fans are starting to ask her for autographs at shows, which she finds thrilling.

She hopes that she can serve as a role model to young women in Baltimore, young women like her, who grew in unfortunate circumstances.

"I try to be someone who is definitely doing the right thing," she said. "I just feel like being a strong woman, with my mom being on drugs and with me not having my father there, and me not getting pregnant. ... I feel like I have a testimony to give to a lot of young children."

For now, Calloway is dreaming of fame that spreads outside Baltimore. A producer and label for upcoming albums. And eventually, she hopes to be a producer and manager and owner for her own label.

"Something huge," she said. "It's got to be something definitely huge."

The AFRAM festival opens today at noon, with acts including a Temptations Revue, featuring Dennis Edwards and Ali Woodson, and soul singer Charlie Wilson closing out the program tonight.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

For Sun pop music critic Rashod D. Ollison's review of music from the festival, go to baltimoresun.com/music. To hear some of Calloway's music, go to baltimoresun.com/calloway.

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