Akua Allrich: Washington Rising
“ Artists can be so self-absorbed. But at the end of the day, as an artist you are speaking for people. You are speaking to people. You can't just throw shit out there and say, 'take it'; you have to give people something they relate to. ”
A native Washingtonian, vocalist Akua Allrich's music flows with a free, natural energy as engaging as her equally ingenuous personality. Although she graduated from Howard University's music department roughly a decade ago, Allrich has only recently thrown herself into forging a musical career. She originally opted not to pursue a singing career and turned instead to the challenges of raising a family and teaching in a private school. In the past few years, however, Allrich has returned to the stage to sing jazz vocals, much to the pleasure of Washington, DC audiences.
Possessed of a strong voice, wide range and vivacious stage presence, Allrich has accomplished much since making that decision. She has developed a compelling musical style fusing jazz, R&B and African influences. She has grown a loyal local audience and established herself in the increasingly vibrant Washington scene as a performer capable of not only packing the house, but bringing the audience to their feet. She has proven herself a flexible and bold performer willing to take risks, as evidenced by her recent performance at DC jazz hub The Bohemian Caverns, where she thrilled the audience with a unique blend of music celebrating the music and civil rights activism of Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. She also recently released an album, A Peace of Mine (Self Produced, 2010), debuting both her vocal and compositional talents.
Unconventional in approachboth to music and building a career Allrich is busy proving that there is no one path to success. She is also helping shine a light on the burgeoning musical culture of Washington, DC, to no small degree by anchoring her expression in the proud African-American tradition and unabashedly political roots of the city.
All About Jazz: You were born and raised in Washington, DC?
Akua Allrich: That's right. Northwest. An uptown girl! I grew up close to Silver Spring.
AAJ: How would you describe your early years?
AA: My early years? I was always a good girl. My parents were cool. My daddy is a musician. Music, cultureAfrican culture in particularart, that was my reality. I didn't know there was anything else until I was grown.
AAJ: Then you found out that everyone else's parents were really boring.
AA: They were totally different. It was like speaking different languages, even though we were all speaking English. It was different from other people's [upbringing], but it was great for me! My mom is a doctor. I call her the superstar family physician of DC. Everywhere we go someone is like 'Dr. K!' Everyone knows her.
AAJ: What kind of musician was your father?
AA: A jazz musician. He plays the saxophone. He has not played in a while. He had a stroke last year. He had a band called Nation they put out two albums. He played the saxophone that was his main instrument, but he went to school for music education so he is well versed in many instruments ... piano, all the woodwinds. But saxophone was his thing, alto and soprano.
AAJ: So you grew up listening to jazz, but have also absorbed a lot of African influence. Your album and the performance [I attended] were certainly infused with it. That developed right from the beginning?
AA: Oh, yes. I was born into it. My dadhis stuff had a lot of African influence. He was very vocal during the civil rights movement, in the '70s. He was really about social justice. He had a lot of poetry in his music. I grew up on Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. Any and everybody that most people don't listen to, that's who I listened to!
AAJ: The African interest, is that because of a family lineage?
AA: No. My mom and dad both claimed their Africanity in college. They both went to Howard University and so we were raised as African people. They are both from Mississippi, raised in Miami, and came up here to Howard University and that was it.
I was raised in the Akan tradition which is from Ghana West Africa. My parents are very methodical peoplethey don't just go along with fads or just a movement. They decided that this is our lifestyle, we are claiming ourselves as African people. So instead of being generalists, they decided to stick with one specific culture because at that time we didn't have the resources to trace our lineage. They were pulled to the Akan tradition and West Africa and that is how they raised us. That is how I got my name, Akua, which [means] female child born on Wednesday. That is what I have known since birth.
AAJ: Does the Akan tradition bring with it a particular musical tradition that you then followed?
AA: It has its own traditions, but not for me in terms of expression musically. I think it has everything to do with how I interpret music and the types of music I am drawn to. But not in terms of my musical expression, no. I get more from jazz because my dad is a jazz musician. My cultural and spiritual expression is one piece of it. We are Africans, but we are also African-Americans. So jazz and black music in general were in our house.
AAJ: And are you carrying that tradition on with your family?
AA: Yes, I am. But we have all kinds of stuff! My husband is Haitian, so that is part of it also. It is very rooted in African cultural and spiritual expression. The way I was raised gives me an open mind, a way to be receptive to other people and their cultural expression...because I think as Americans we can become very close-minded but when you are exposed and raised to a tradition that is fluid, instead of very rigid I think it led me to be receptive to all types of music.
AAJ: Have you ever traveled to Africa?
AA: I've been to Ghana about four times, and to Zimbabwe. I want to get to South Africa. I want to go to Nigeria. All right, I want to go everywhere.
AAJ: Was that when you were younger, or over the years?
AA: Over the years. My first trip to Ghana, I was 14. The last time was in 2007.
AAJ: What was your impression from these trips?
AA: The differences in people, but at the very core you are still the same. And the music is just intense. It is intense for me. I feel it in my spirit. It is awesome every time. When you get past personalities, you can soak up any culture.
AAJ: People often say that music plays a more central role in daily African life. Is that something you found to be true?
AA: Honestly, I think it is the same there as it is here. It just sounds different. We've carried over the same traditions here. That plus the way I was raised makes it easy for me to go there and be immersed in the culture and still feel at home. There is homesickness, but I can absorb this culture and have it be part of me. There is some kind of music for everything, and it's great.
AAJ: Let's go back and talk about your musical training. You were immersed as a child, but at some point you must have transitioned to serious studies.
AA: I started piano when I was about four, but it never stuck. I use it as a tool, but I don't really play. I didn't decide to sing until my second semester at Howard University. People would say I had a good voice, but I didn't go to churcha lot of people grew up singing at churchbut I never did that. I started second semester, my godmother told me to sign up for singing.
AAJ: So you did not originally start in the music program?
AA: No, I started as a biology major.
AAJ: What went wrong?
AA: Fs! Fs went wrong...I got Fs. I wanted to be a doctor like my mom, but the universe said, "no, you are not." So I decided I would do music therapy, something with therapy in it. And they didn't have jazz as a base, you had to do classical musical. But I wanted to do jazz, so I ended up in the jazz vocals program. I was surprised when they accepted me because most of the people [there] had been singing forever. And there I was, just starting, just singing. My godmother was very instrumental in that because she is a teacher there and wanted me to do it, so I tried.
AAJ: Since then it has obviously become a major focus of your life.
AA: In school, definitely. I graduated in 2000. I sang for about a year, but I didn't like it, I didn't like being in a smoky club. I thought I would get lost in the sauce of the music business. And I wanted a family, so I said, "no, I'm not doing this." So from 2001 to 2007, I didn't sing professionally. In 2007, I thought, I have my babies, they banned smoking in clubs, let's try this again. The banning of smoking was instrumental to me!
AAJ: It is interesting that you say that. People always associate that atmosphere with the jazz scene to such a large degree.
AA: I am glad you are saying that. I could not do that. But when they banned smoking, I was able to try again. I had my family. I had my husband. So we were both ready. He was gung ho. Ever since then it has been poppin'! I think I had my first solo gig last January 2009, and it has been moving ever since.
AAJ: That is very inspiring, considering the dominant story line you hear is quite the opposite. You can't have a family. You have to be a tortured artist. If you are a woman, you have to choose between family and music, and if you are a man, you have to drink...
AA: And ho, run around....
AAJ: You are proving that this is not the case.
AA: I could not do that. But I was so passionate about music that I had to find a way to make it happenwith my family, not at the expense of my family.
AAJ: Let's go back to your music. You sing in many different languages. Zulu, Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, others I can't pronounce and so skipped. Do you speak all those language?
AA: No, no, no. I just sing. I love languages, so if it is in a different language, I will [study] and ask others for help to learn how to pronounce everything. I don't want to ask someone after that speaks the language and hear "you have got it all wrong, you aren't saying anything!" I like the challenge. And I also like to express culture and different cultures. That is what I enjoy. I may not know every word, but I will make sure to research the meaning of the song.
AAJ: In your performance, you seemed to be pulling not only from the traditionally American jazz tradition, but from the African jazz tradition as well. This is clear when you are singing Miriam Makeba pieces, but it also seemed to be the case on other tunes.
AA: For me, it comes more from the artists I have been exposed to than particular genres per se...I was exposed to Miriam Makebafor exampleso long ago that that is just jazz to me. And Harry Belafontewhich is Caribbean-style jazzand then there is Fela Kuti, which isn't jazz at all, it's Afro-funk. Because I was exposed to all these together so early, they come together in my mind with jazz as the base.
AAJ: I just want to point out that you are making it very difficult for those of us who have a predilection to label and define everything.
AA: [Laughs] I know!
AAJ: One could say you are describing the very definition of a cross-cultural fusion, where from the very beginning the influences are fused together. It also seems that the globalization of musical cultures is changing things. At the same time we maintain genre and style divisions, they are also becoming ever blurrier. Music can travel so quickly and the cross influences so immediate that those divisions are pretty permeable.
AA: It breaks down everything. It breaks down so many barriers. It allows you to emote and express and to relate to people and to each other. You can be from totally different walks of life and if you hear a song and like it, you can have a conversation. I don't know you from Adam, but there is something to connect onit can move people's spirit.
AAJ: Do you think there is a risk that if you break down all those barriers you lose the value of maintaining a culturally distinct tradition?
AA: I think so. I think it is very important to celebrate the uniqueness of every culture. I think it is important to know and respect [each] culture. It is also equally important to recognize they are distinct. People always say we are a big mixing bowl, we're all one, you know. That's good, you have to treat people as people and with respect, but you also have to preserve the sanctity of a particular culture. If you blend and merge it enough it will become something else, and you will forget what is what.
AAJ: That produces a tension with folks, perhaps especially in jazz, that are prone to say music is just music. You know, there's just two kinds of music, good and bad. That may make sense at one level, and certainly in jazz history the motivation behind the statement makes sense as musicians tried to push back against some of the early stigmas, but at the same time there is a risk there. So let me try to finish with a question, I noticed in your performance and on your album that you had pieces that were clearly in the jazz tradition, clearly rooted in the African tradition, and others that were clearly fusion.
AA: That is my way of maintaining distinctions, which is important. Whereas my own personal compositions, I have a lot of fusion elements, jazz fusion, but there are also [other] distinct genre elements as well. My center may be jazz, but it is important to acknowledge those elements. That may be why I talk so much at my shows.
AAJ: Let's keep going with the show. You put on a quite a performance that draws on a wide range of influences. You also seem to know just how to move a crowd. You performed a very poignant version of "Mississippi God Damn," which I noted really got the crowd going. Why is that song still relevant? Why does it get everyone...
AA: So riled up? It's true. It does...The song is the definition of injustice, which is constantly going on. Particularly for the African-Americans of this countrywe like to wish that it's gone but it isn't and I think the song is unfortunately still relevant.
AAJ: But do you think you should change the title to "Arizona God Damn?"
AA: [laughs] What I like to do is throw things in like "New Orleans God Damn," or "California God Damn." It's true, there is always something going on. There are other songs, too, like "Sinner Man," you could sing that song for centuries. For example, when you think of the oil [companies]. You are talking about someone who is just sinning, and you have no control over it. All you can say is that you will get yours. I think all those old tunes are so relevant, even today. It's sad.
AAJ: Beyond the artistic conviction displayed, you also showed a lot of personal connection to the song. You said that your parents were very engaged in civil rights and music played a role in the movement. Do you feel you are carrying on that tradition?
AA: I do. I was raised that to be an artist is a large responsibility. Artists can be so self-absorbed. But at the end of the day, as an artist, you are speaking for people. You are speaking to people. You can't just throw shit out there and say "take it"; you have to give people something they relate to, that they are going through, so people can taste it.
AAJ: A lot of people, especially as they delve into more esoteric forms, seem to promote a division between art and politics.
AA: I think that is a cop-out. Honestly. It's fear that they won't be more popular because it's true that if you are outspoken you may cut off some folks. I'm not a starving artist. That was always my aimnot to be a starving artist so I can say what I want when I want to say it. You heard interviews with Nina Simone where she was constantly speaking up. But I heard one later interview where she said, "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have recorded 'Mississippi God Damn' because it killed my career." As true as that is, I would hate to feel that way about my music. I am hustling to do other things as well so I can say what I want. If it is successful great, if not, I am still OK.
AAJ: It sounds like you were raised in DC, where politics is what we breathe.
AA: Exactly. This is the center of it. The injustices [laughs].
AAJ: Right now the country is going through a volatile period, and at the same time Washington, DC, is changing dramatically, going through a bit of a renaissance. What's your perspective on what's going on here and around the country?
AA: I don't even [want] to watch the news. I don't want to hear it because I get so pissed off. But I think that people are becoming more honest about where they have stood for a long time. I would rather confront blatant racism and division than not really know where you stand...it feels like to me people are figuring out where they stand.
Now, with the music in DC, it's amazing what is happening.
AAJ: DC is such a historic town for jazz and it produces many of today's great jazz artists. There is more and more music in the city, but as a community and as a touring destination, DC is continually overlooked.
AA: It's trueand it has been forever. I'm constantly thinking about go-go as an art. Once you go a little past Virginia, no one knows what you are talking about. That, in and of itself, is very indicative of where DC has been for years. Nobody notices DC
AAJ; Why do you think that is?
AA: I don't know! I think it does go back to the politics of DC. Since its inception, this is a place where people take and nobody gives. At every level of politics and society, DC has been that place. DC doesn't have tolls. Why doesn't DC have tolls? Nobody lives in DC, everybody drives in to DC, but no one has to pay for it. We pay taxes, but we are not a state. At so many different levels it's ignored. People say it's just the capital. It's just the capital! Everywhere else is "real," but not DC
AAJ: But over the past years the music here has been growing. It has been expanding. More people are coming and there are more indigenous voices that choose to stay here. As a native, would you agree?
AA: Yes, recently in particular, DC has developed in a major way. Not just jazz. Jazz, R&B, everything. It has become a major place to play. It was always New York, Philly, and sometimes you'd throw DC in there. I don't know what happened, but it's a bustling little metropolis now. Which is great.
AAJ: There are also more local venues that really appreciate the music.
AA: Yes, that's been great. To have the small venues. So instead of fighting to get the big, big shows, and not being able to fill them, we have some smaller places and for a vocalist in particular, that is where you get to hone your craft. It's pretty great. It's weird. It wasn't like that in college. Then, for a jazz musician is was like, "why are you doing this?" But now, cats can get a gig any day of the week. I think it's awesome. It's definitely a different place.
AAJ: Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Or is that an unfair question?
AA: I think it is probably unfair but I'm going to try. I would like to do some kind of tour. I would like the music from my album to be exposed to different audiences. I'd like to take it to different continents. Take it all over America. But I would also like to record another one. I have a million songs. I want to do standards, just jazz standards. I want the music to have its own life.
Akua Allrich, A Peace of Mine (Self Produced, 2010)
All Photos: Courtesy of Akua Allrich