Akua Allrich isn’t just a singer. Hear her this weekend at Bohemian Caverns, and she could be your teacher, your doctor, your guide. More than anything, she’s a vessel for history—embodying generations of struggle and staring into the present with steady grace.
Allrich’s vocal flexibility and generous intensity earn comparisons to Nina Simone and Oscar Brown Jr. She’s released two acclaimed albums featuring some of D.C.’s best jazz talent. But when she presents her sixth annual tribute to Simone and Miriam Makeba this Friday and Saturday, Allrich won’t just be there to amuse or impress you. She’ll open your heart and mind.
In under a decade, the D.C. native and Howard University alum has cemented herself as one of the top vocalists in the region. Beyond her sparkling voice—one moment a piercing belt, the next a sultry, bluesy growl—it’s Allrich’s youthful effervescence and visible passion for her audience and the music that keep her packing clubs all over the city. Nothing is sentimentalized, nothing put on in an Akua show, even when she takes up the world’s heaviest issues. Between elated yelps at other musician’s solos and waves of her trademark multi-hued hanky, she’ll turn to the audience, open her mouth and spill her soul. It’s hard not to feel like you know Allrich personally after one of her shows, and it’s impossible not to feel moved.
I caught up with Allrich last week for a conversation about empowerment through music, her development as an artist, and her long-running collaboration with the bassist Kris Funn. She and her band perform Friday and Saturday night at Bohemian Caverns, and next month she’ll begin her Red Bark Tour of the Southern United States.
CB: You had an upbringing that’s certainly a bit different than a lot of other musicians of your generation. Can you tell us about it and how it shaped you into the musician you are today?
AA: I’m from D.C., born in Howard University hospital. I was raised in kind of a countercultural upbringing, if you’d like, a pan-African upbringing. I was raised as an African woman, my parents reclaimed the Africanity in college. They both went to Howard University and were both a part of a lot of student movements and kind of a re-Africanization movement at that time. Out of Howard they and a group of other artists started an independent African school to educate and empower Black children and give them a solid base of who they are. That’s pretty much how I was raised. Arts and education and healing have been a solid foundation for me throughout my life. My father is both an educator and a musician and my mother is a medical doctor, so those are big deals in my family: promoting health and healing and education, and peace and love.
CB: You’ve said before that you hope your music promotes healing. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
AA: I think we can communicate the world through the art, and that’s really what I aim to do. I am always interested in uplifting people and making them feel strong, giving them a different perspective of their surroundings. I think there’s so many negative things happening now that I always try to find a way to shed a little light, to give a little sweetness to the world. In the end, life’s difficult. It’s daunting. I think as an artist my job is one to speak for the people and speak up for their situations. I have a platform that not everyone gets to have, and there’s a really big responsibility there that comes with that. This is how I was raised as well. The whole idea of art for art’s sake is really very individualistic and selfish, so my parents taught me that my art is here for a reason. It’s here to heal and shed light and transcend the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Part of my healing training is in also mental health. I got my master’s degree in social work, which I find very very helpful when I’m teaching, but also in communicating with people. That’s really all we do as artists is communicate, so my intention is to have an experience when performing, and not just be a self. The exchange of energy is huge for anybody, but I like to feel that from the audience and pay attention to them and create from that.
CB: Taking that ideal of music fostering connections, what drew you toward Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba? You must have been exposed to them quite young.
AA: Exposed in utero, for sure. My mom is a huge Miriam Makeba fan, my dad as well. They were born in Mississippi and raised in Miami so they experienced their share of racism and social injustice, so anyone who spoke to that spoke to them and for them. There was a lot of that expression in my household for social and human justice. D.C. was not the most progressive place back in those days either. Even in schools they had their share of injustice as well. Obviously, not that much has changed now, as we can see.
I think because I was raised with this music it was really second nature for me. What was interesting for me and what I took for granted was that it also speaks to so many other people. Miriam Makeba’s and Nina Simone’s music speaks to so many people, so when I came with the idea to do a tribute at Bohemian Caverns they were extremely open to it, and our first show was sold out—so much so that it freaked me out. Nina and Miriam did their job as artists—they spoke for people, but they also spoke to people’s hearts. There’s a delicate balance for speaking up for social justice and also speaking to just basic human emotion. You’ve got to think about love in all its facets: love for nature, love for civil rights and human rights, but also just effective human love, you gotta talk about it. Otherwise people get lost, they get tired of it.
CB: Like you’ve said, not that much, or not enough, has changed since Nina and Miriam were alive. What sort of modern day message do you hope to convey to your audience via their music?
AA: For me, it’s always the same message for everybody: that it takes everybody to do something. I really just want to empower people to realize it starts with you and it starts with you doing something in your small setting. That creates a larger movement in itself. Me speaking as an African woman, I have a particular circumstance in this country, but I speak for that a lot of times, but I also speak for everybody. Because honestly, none of us are immune to the injustices of this country and this world, so I always want to say that we have to band together, because divisiveness facilitates injustice. I just want to empower people and say, “It’s difficult, but we can do it.” At the end of the day your spirit smiles, and if your spirit smiles, you alright.
CB: Does having that open perspective and willingness to try new things help you develop the mechanics of your artistry—your ear and how you listen to music?
AA: Oh yeah. It has everything to do with faith and confidence in your instrument—just closing my eyes and having the faith that I’m good enough. I think that’s always a hangup for artists, like, is this good enough? Who I am is good enough. I don’t need to try to perform to be somebody else.
CB: I also wanted to ask you about your relationship with Kris Funn, your bassist. You two have a new project together coming out.
AA: My third album with Kris is about to come out, I think in early 2015. I’m still trying to work on the logistics. Kris is, he’s my partner. And he’s the MD for the album. But on the album we’re doing several different band makeups. We have some duo stuff, we have some trio stuff. The new thing I’ve been doing is the trio stuff, with me, Kris, and a drummer, and it’s been amazing. I think that’s my new, fun thing to do to stretch myself as an artist. It’s not easy to do a duo or a trio session and make it really touching to people. We’ll see what happens, where we go with it. We’re not putting a lot of pressure on ourselves for it, just so it can develop into whatever it’s supposed to be.
CB: Can you talk about how you and Kris started working together? I know before I first saw you I watched that video of you two doing “Black Coffee” at Twins, and it just felt like there was such a natural connection between you. How did you develop what looks like a telepathic relationship on stage?
AA: Right right! That’s so funny. Me and Kris went to school together. We were at Howard University together, and I guess we’ve known each other for about 17, 18 years. But you know how people just kind of click? We were like brother and sister when we first met and we’ve been like that ever since. So, musically it kind of develops from there, but we didn’t start performing together outside of school until I started back doing solo music, which was about six years ago. When we started, it was just really natural, like having a conversation. You know how you have a friend who you haven’t talked to in years, and then you come back and it’s like a continuation of the last conversation? Yeah, I think because we connect as really solid, great friends, the music just kind of opens up from there. We just let the spirit flow. There’s no trying to figure out what your personality is, we’re both in it. It’s just like ‘oh I see where you’re going’ and we just go. I can’t really explain it beyond that. I think a lot of it has to do with God, and I don’t know what it is. I’m just going with it!
CB: You do this Makeba-Simone show annually. Why do you keep coming back each year?
Yeah, this is my sixth year, and Bohemian Caverns treats me so well. Every year the show sells out and every year I grow from it. It’s just that we create something, and you can almost taste it. And the people who come, oh my God, they give us so much energy. You know, some people cry, everyone’s excited and clapping, and it’s all absolutely amazing to me. I get moved and we all just kind of take it to the sky, take it to the stars. That’s what want to do: reach beyond this place, go somewhere else. I aim to be empowering this weekend. In light of all that is going on in the entire world—and it just seems to be happening at the same time, or at least being revealed to us at the same time—I aim to be empowering to people, because it can be a downer. We need some uplifting and some empowerment, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.
Akua Allrich performs her tribute to Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba this Friday and Saturday at Bohemian Caverns, at 8 and 10 p.m. both nights. Tickets are $20 in advance, or $25 at the door. More information is available on the CapitalBop calendar. The band includes Allrich on vocals, Kris Funn on bass, Samuel Prather on keyboards, Mongezi Ntaka on guitar, Lauren White on vocals (Friday only) and Braxton Cook on saxophone (Saturday only).