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Akua Allrich: Washington Rising

Franz A. Matzner By

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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 approach—both 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, culture—African culture in particular—art, 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 dad—his 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 people—they 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?

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