But the Cleveland native, who will bring his “Wanderlust” tour to Skully’s Music-Diner on Monday night, has put in nearly two decades of work in the industry.
“This is a long journey,” said Bernarr, 35, who was also featured on BET’s “The Next Big Thing” competition show. “I get tickled when people say, ‘new and up-and-coming artist.’ … Every overnight success has taken the minimum of 10 years to get the visibility, and mine has been 18.”
Music was always an integral part of life for Bernarr, who was raised by two musicians. His mother, Sharolyn Ferebee, is a piano teacher and vocal coach, and his father, Bernarr Ferebee, worked as a sound engineer for Earth, Wind & Fire.
“They’ve been uncles to me,” Bernarr said of the legendary group. “I always knew that I could sing. It was just, ‘What do I want to do with that?’”
Bernarr was inspired to pursue music as a profession when he hit the road with Earth, Wind & Fire as a production assistant. Eventually, he went from working for the group to working with the group, which he cites as a major moment in his career.
“(Lead singer Philip Bailey) is in the studio and he’s like, ‘Hey, how was that take?’ And I pressed the button and I go, ‘You know, I think you could do a better take.’ And he is like, ‘OK, run that back.’ … It’s just very interesting to try to wrap my head around that.”
Another life-changing moment was getting recognized by Erykah Badu, said Bernarr, who released an EP covering songs by the iconic R&B/soul singer, “8ight: The Stepson of Erykah Badu,” in 2010.
“She blew up my Twitter and was like, ‘You are phenomenal,’” Bernarr said. “And then, the following year, she sent out a tweet saying, ‘I’m looking for Durand Bernarr.’ And then she (direct-messaged) me her number.’”
Badu hired him to sing background vocals during her set at Coachella in 2011 and, most recently, during her 2023 “Unfollow Me” tour.
“That’s my friend, that’s a mentor, that’s a sister,” Bernarr said. “She’s so many things encapsulated into one. So, I’m very grateful for that.”
Much like Badu, Bernarr has distinguished himself as an eccentric artist both in style and sound. Scroll through his Instagram, and you’ll see him in an assortment of colorful, whimsical, daring and fashion-forward outfits. Listen to his albums, including 2020’s “Dur&” and 2022’s “Wanderlust,” and you’ll hear creative vocal arrangements (check out the song “Leveled”) and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
Though much of his recorded material is rooted in R&B, soul and gospel, Bernarr balks at categories.
“Y’all love calling me an R&B artist because I’m Black and I sing the way that I do,” he said. “But I’ve never said that I was an R&B artist. I’ve never said that I’m gay. These are labels that people put on me because they needed something to understand. I’m not meant to be understood. I’m meant to be experienced.”
Many people were introduced to the Durand Bernarr experience during his breakout Tiny Desk show earlier this year. Dressed as “Bobby Proud” from the animated series “The Proud Family,” he put on a dynamic show, altering some songs to showcase his ability to sing country, opera and a standout pop-punk version of his 2020 song “Stuck.”
“Being in that space and still being independent, that was a really gratifying moment,” said Bernarr, who hinted that both a live album and rock project may be on the way.
Another memorable moment was Bernarr’s performance of the song “Mango Butter,” known for its silly verses and infectious, self-affirming chorus.
“I can’t do a gig without doing that song at this point,” he said. “I’m just giving the people what they need or what they didn’t know that they needed, giving them permission to be themselves.”
Bernarr cites master of self-confidence and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard as one of his influences.
“Little Richard knew who the (expletive) he was, even in living in a time and place like Macon, Georgia, where being yourself like that could really get you killed. And so, I stand on the shoulders of men like (him), Prince, Rick, James, Sylvester, and B.Slade — all of these men who decided, ‘No, I’m going to be myself.’”
That isn’t to say Little Richard didn’t have his battles. At times, the late music icon and minister struggled to embrace his sexuality.
“My heart always wept for him because, even in his final days, he really was convinced that he was not whole, that there was something wrong with him that he had to denounce,” Bernarr said. “I always tell people that I am the version of Little Richard that religion did not get to.”
Still, Bernarr said his “Wanderlust” shows do invoke church — as well as “Black graduation, group therapy, improv comedy and standup.”
Just don’t call what he does a “vibe,” he said.
“It dilutes the experience that I am delivering,” he said. “I am an auditory adventure. The vibe is when you light incense, or when you get the cheap LED lights that you put on the corners of your ceiling to set a mood. I don’t even set a mood. I am the mood.”