In an exclusive interview, Alicia Olatuja talked about her musical journey, the importance of female representation in the music world and inspiring women like her grandmother.
Alicia Olatuja first came into the national spotlight in 2013, performing as the featured soloist on the Battle Hymn of the Republic with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
Originally from St. Louis, Alicia grew up immersed in a wide range of musical styles, including gospel, soul, jazz and classical. She attended the Manhattan School of Music, from which she graduated with a master’s degree in classical voice/opera. After appearing in numerous operatic and musical theater productions, she started to perform more regularly in gospel and jazz concerts and worked with such esteemed artists as Chaka Khan, BeBe Winans and Christian McBride.
The Brooklynite will bring her scintillating jazz stylings to Brooklyn’s Kumble Theater, including a preview of selections from her yet-to-be-released second album, Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women, on Saturday, March 10.
In an exclusive interview with Brooklyn Reader, Alicia shared more about her musical journey, inspirations and the importance of female representation in the music world.
Brooklyn Reader: Alicia, you have had quite an exciting musical journey so far – how did that journey unfold?
Alicia Olatuja: I started singing in church really young when I was five, six years old. There, I realized “wow, it’s actually a special gift that I can share with people.” So I continued to sing in church. When I got to Columbia College in Missouri, I originally went for veterinary medicine with a minor in music. Jumping right into music as a major seemed quite terrifying. One day, I peeked into a music room and there was this student who sounded so beautiful, it made me really want to give it a shot; I decided to give myself two years to see if something would happen.
Well, I ended being casted in a world premiere opera at the opera in Memphis; I made my professional debut as a singer while I was still in undergrad. I used that experience to get into the Manhattan School of Music. After I graduated from there, I joined the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Then four years after being with the choir, we were invited to perform at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. I was super excited to be part of that history-making process. I sang a solo at the inauguration. It was a short solo, but it opened up so many doors that I had not received yet.
Jazz is such a great genre to feel the freedom, which is pretty much what Black American music does: It gives you that freedom to go wherever your emotions leads you to go.
BKR: With your music, you dabble in a variety of genres including jazz, soul and classical music. How would you describe your sound?
AO: I never really gravitated toward categorizing what kind of music I do. I think the responsibility of an artist is to simply express the music that is in you; you absorb it, internalize it and then you squeeze it back out. My sound is a mixture of every influence I have had. The musicians I play with usually have a history in jazz. Songs we play could be by Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan or Stevie Wonder. We transform the music and put it into this free jazz sphere.
I love the jazz medium because it pulls on improvisation and the newness of the music. When you study classical music, it is very codified and permanent, there is no deviation. Jazz is such a great genre to feel that freedom, which is pretty much what Black American music does: It gives you that freedom to go wherever your emotions leads you to go. Once a year, I also still try to do an opera or a classical piece, just to keep those skills sharp, to optimize my voice in a healthy and stylistic way.
BKR: Tell us about your upcoming album ‘Intuition: Songs of the Mind of Women,’ an album that is entirely inspired by women composers.
AO: Intuition, which will be released this year, is a celebration of women. It features great composers like Joni Mitchell, Sade, Kate Bush, Imogen Heap, Tracy Champman, Angela Bowfill and Violetta Parra, a great revolutionary and artist, but also contemporary composers like myself and Natalya Phillips, a young prodigy of Prince and who was expected to be released on one of his projects – before he passed. It’s just a really cool collection of songs from artists who are celebrated in different genres, which we’re arranging in a way that matches best my approach to music.
In 2018, there is really no reason that there is such a scarce amount of celebrated women composers, women engineers or producers in the recording world.
BKR: What inspired you to create this album?
AO: When I studied classical music, I realized that the body of work of female composers in the classical world is so scarce. It’s shocking and it can be discouraging. And also in the jazz and pop recording world, the amount of female producers is very small. I realized: “Something is not right here – this can’t be the actual representation of female composers.” In 2018, there is really no reason that there is such a scarce amount of celebrated women composers, women engineers or producers in the recording world.
Our voices and experiences, they impact society and they’ve been impacting the arts all along, so we should be a part of that creative process. Not just the singers, but also the producers, the arrangers and the engineers, to really bring to the forefront what we have to offer based on our experiences. I have always been inspired by female singers and composers, women in general. My grandmother is one of the biggest inspirations in my life. And we shouldn’t feel like our stories and experiences aren’t valid historically or artistically. So, I decided to do some digging to bring the incredible works of these women artists to the surface.
BKR: Can you share how your grandmother served as an inspiration to you?
AO: My grandmother raised three children pretty much by herself while putting herself through college. She got a master’s degree and graduated at the top of her class at a time when women were discouraged – and even more so women of color. And yet, she was able to push through those adversities, to have a grasp of what she knew would elevate her life and her family’s life. She is still our strong matriarch. She inspires me with her flexibility, her strength, her passion, her sense of humor and her determination to live her best life now. That is very forward thinking, even for today. But I know it must have been a bold, courageous and maybe even isolating choice in the 1940s.
BKR: What are the themes you present on ‘Intuition?’
AO: The themes are as varied as women are. And when people see how varied these experiences are, they realize it’s about a human experience and not just a female experience.
The topics on the album range from love and relationships, to the effects and experiences of going through a divorce, the difficulties of childbirth and -loss, to just being a woman and the passion that women have. And that’s why the album is called Intuition: It speaks of the internal, the heart, the instinct. But women aren’t just heart and instinct. We are also cerebral, smart, intellectual, rational human beings. We are incredibly strong: mentally, emotionally and physically – even our pain threshold is pretty high. We are very versatile and complex. The title of the album highlights everything that women are.
We all might be of different races, religions and political backgrounds, but we are still connected by the human experience. That unifying experience, that music brings, is a beautiful thing.
BKR: What can the audience expect from your performance at the Kumble Theater?
AO: What I always try to bring is a personal connection with as many people simultaneously as possible. I am always singing and speaking to the individual. Sharing this experience will show the audience that we all might be of different races, religions and political backgrounds, but we are still connected by the human experience. That unifying experience, that music brings, is a beautiful thing and that’s what I plan on bringing. I feel like right now more than ever, we need something that celebrates love, that celebrates our commonality and our humanity.
BKR: What other upcoming projects are on the horizon for you?
AO: It’s an interesting time for me because I have collaborated with many different artists recently. I am on Billy Childs’s most recent album which just won a Grammy, so there will be times when we will be performing together. Dr. Lonnie Smith just released his new album and I am on the title track; I perform with him whenever he is on the East Coast. And then, I am continuing to tour while also getting ready for the release of Intuition. It’s going to be a busy, but really awesome year.
The Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts Presents: Alicia Olatuja
When: Saturday, March 10, 8:00 pm
Where: Kumble Theater at LIU Brooklyn, 1 University Plaza, Brooklyn, NY 11201
How much: $30. Tickets are available online or via phone: 718 – 951 – 4500