St. Louis native Alicia Olatuja first burst on the horizon, captivating her fellow Americans and the world with her exquisite vocal artistry – unleashed after being cast as the featured soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in a powerful performance of a treasured American classic that has long inspired hope and patriotism during President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
While it may have been a scene unlike anything she’d ever conceived of or hoped for during a childhood filled with pinafores, ponytails, pink satin slippers and Barbie dolls – she realized that this was her moment, the reason why she had even embarked upon the road less traveled to make music her sole focus.
“I wanted to be a vet because I loved animals,” she said. “It was a good, safe career. So, I majored in premed and minored in music at Mizzou [University of Missouri]. I didn’t have any role models who could help me. We didn’t know anyone making a living as a professional musician. I had no blueprint. But one day I heard this girl singing in one of the recital halls. She was really singing. I figured if she had courage like that, I did too. I wanted to try. I didn’t want to have any regrets so I gave myself two years to see if music was really for me.”
Since then, she’s been about the business of becoming a singer – one dedicated to learning her craft and willing to push boundaries and herself. In her rendering of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the company of President Obama, she cast an aplomb possessed by only a very special, gifted few: Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone – the list goes on.
Now with the final touches already made on a tribute to female composers revealing her mastery of multiple musical styles, from soul and jazz to classical, Latin and gospel, Olatuja anxiously awaits the release on Feb. 22nd of her sophomore album, “Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women” – a compilation that’s undeniably both appropriately titled and timed.
Produced by Kamau Kenyatta and Ulysses Owens, Jr., selections include masterpieces penned by Brenda Russell, Sade, Tracy Chapman, Angela Bofill, Kate Bush and Linda Creed.
Her motivation for the project: “Championing women.”
“We have to be each other’s cheerleaders if we want anyone else to cheer for us. That’s how all movements have grown – others get on the bandwagon as they see the new wave coming. Hearing what women have to say in a new way makes sense to me – it drives me. I want to bring the artistry of women and their works to the forefront,” said Olatuja who says she grew up in a home filled with women who emphasized education and encouraged a love for all kinds of music.
“My father lived in a different state, Washington; I lived in a home with a big sister, my mother who was a teacher and my grandmother – an incredible educator, nurse and counselor. We had a really special matriarchal energy all around us and it had a profound impact on my life, how I grew to understand relationships and to appreciate the importance of them,” she said.
When pushed to define her genre and clarify where she fits along the musical spectrum, Alicia, described by Downbeat as one who “possesses a special instrument” and by the New York Times as a “singer with a strong and luscious tone,” simply pushes back.
“When I get behind the mic, I’m not thinking about whether I’m going to sing jazz or perform as a jazz musician. I love jazz and its many different worlds, forms and variations. And I’ve had great opportunities as a jazz singer that you’d expect a pop or R&B singer to have. But people like singers who can actually sing. You can’t hold the human experience locked into one genre.”
“I just sing what I feel and hear. I learned that when I first began to sing in church. Once I learned to give myself permission to try whatever I believed, whatever I could emotionally identify with and to give the fullest to what I’m feeling at any given moment, that’s when the music began to take over.”
“I’m a singer – not of any particular style or genre. I break the rules of classical chord structure. I try things, even on stage in front of an audience that don’t always work. And that’s okay as music, for me, exists in that one unique moment. It’s not like painting where you can come back and analyze your work. Music calls for spontaneity and a willingness to improvise any time it feels right.”
“But I don’t mind if people really want to call me a jazz singer since my musicians, my stylings and my repertoire all happen to be associated with jazz,” she said laughing.
She says she wants her new release to be the beginning of something special, even more something that’s long overdue.
“We’re hearing what women have to say in many new ways – that’s what I want to be a part of. But finding music written solely by a woman is still difficult. More often it’s done in a collaborative way. In the classical world where I studied in school, it’s almost impossible to find female composers. How many female producers or engineers can you name who are making it today? We have to start somewhere.”
“So, I celebrate both the older and the newer works. I encourage those from the next generation. I want people to hear what I’m doing and champion me as well. I want to sing in such a way that I can encourage people to step forward – to take their place in the world. I want to share songs that, even after I’m convinced that they’re finished works, that they can continue to even inspire me.”