Alicia Olatuja to Perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater on November 20
Almost Predestined for the Spotlight
“The university commissioned a new opera to celebrate the Lewis and Clark expedition,” Olatunja said. “They were holding auditions and the actual world premiere
of the work would not happen for three years. I auditioned for it thinking that I would be ‘Tavern Girl #5.’ When I auditioned, I ended up getting the lead female role as
Sacagawea. I really wasn’t expecting it. It really threw me. But it also answered that pact I made with myself. It pretty much said, ‘You’re going to be focusing on this
opera for the next three years, so that bargain you made with yourself, here’s the answer.”
The opera gave her serious professional credentials and upon graduating, Olatunja headed to New York to study for a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of
Music. It was where she wanted to be.
“I always wanted to come to New York,” Olatunja said. “We performed excerpts of that same opera in New York during my sophomore year. It was the first time I
was ever in New York. And when we landed, it was almost immediately that I knew I was where I should be. I heard that some places resonate with you and I really
felt that New York resonated with me.”While in New York, Olatunja attended the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church and of course got involved with the choir. Fate struck
again and the choir was asked to perform at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 and Olatunja sang a solo. And her career has been on a roll
“After the inauguration performance, one of the first calls I got was from Julliard’s Jazz Big Band,” Olatunja said. “They were going on tour and they asked me to join
them and tour with them. It was just so crazy because the solo I sang for the inauguration was a mixture of classical and gospel. So the fact that the jazz department
of Julliard gave me a call to tour with their big band was extremely unexpected, but just a great experience. And it just continued to let people hear that side of my
voice. It let me work with different jazz musicians in New York because I only knew classical and gospel musicians and a few jazz musicians. It really did open up
a new world of musicians and music and performances opportunities that I wasn’t focused on.”
Alicia also got to perform with the likes of Chaka Khan and BeBe Winans around this time.
“There is an artist by the name of Gavin Gregory,” Olatuja said. “He was actually one of the artists who was in the original The Color Purple. And Chaka Khan was in
the original The Color Purple for a series of dates, which was super-exciting. He did a concert and Chaka Khan as a special guest and he also had BeBe Winans. He
had me there as a vocalist as well. I ended up singing with Chaka and next to BeBe Winans who was a huge inspiration for me growing up. It was a really great
experience. Chaka can really belt it out like it is nothing. We yawn, she belts. That’s how easy it is for her. She is so sweet and so kind. She left a message for the
other artists just praising us and praising the contributions we made to the music. She is just very, very kind.”
In 2014, Alicia cut her first album “Timeless.”
“I was ready to present something to the world that was my voice and based on my experience,” Olatuja said. Timeless was that album. I really wanted to have an
album that had arrangements — as well as originals of my own — of artists whom I felt had always influenced me since I was a little girl all the way up to adulthood.
And it just seemed that the music of Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder never gets old. When you listen to it, everything applies. The production is so
great. And the music, lyrics and vocals are just timeless. And I just wanted to do an album that captures that essence as well as my originals.”
Olatuja basically hit the road to promote the album and she’s been on the road ever since.
“It’s been really great, especially when I started working with Unlimited Miles, a booking agency and management company,” Olatuja said. “They came and heard
me performing songs from Timeless at the New York Winter Jazz Fest about 3-4 years ago. They were just really blown away by the performance and we started
working together and they have been so wonderful in making sure the music is getting in front of the right people and the right audiences and opening up the
audiences in people’s minds to just how applicable jazz can be and how current it actually is, which is what I am always striving for through Timeless.”
In February 2019, Olatuja cut another record, Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women.
“It’s been really exciting how it has been received,” Olatunja said. “I really wanted to do an album that celebrated and championed women composers. I just feel
like what is happening in our society and culture and also me as a woman, a composer and singer, people are ready to hear what women have to say in new and
powerful ways and it seemed like the timing was right. It’s just been really beautiful. I am very grateful how audiences have been responding to the music and me
as an artist. Seeing how people are responding to Intuition, an album that is dedicated to women and is all about bringing those works to the forefront and
reimagining classics and bringing new material to audiences has just been great to see how audiences in Japan and Serbia or Germany and Paris as well as here
in the States have been receiving the music. Music is so great. It’s amazing how people from all over the world are connected in such a beautiful way.”
When people come to the show on November 20 at 8 p.m., Olatuja and her band will take the audience to another place and space than the one that they may have
experienced that day.
By Jonathan Gramling
For Alicia Olatuja, a jazz singer who will perform at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall on November 20, her
musical career almost seemed to be predestined as one opportunity seemed to magically appear as another one
ended. And it all seemed to begin when she was in kindergarten in St. Louis, MO.
“I always loved to sing and music has always been something that has been a constant encouraging activity in my
family, not necessarily as a profession,” Olatunja said in a phone interview. “Music was in the house and singing was
always going on with my mother and my grandmother. And so I would sing in kindergarten and I would chase this poor
little boy named Leon around. I will never forget his name. And I used to sing, ‘I’m Saving All of My Love for You’ by
Whitney Houston. He was terrified. But my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. March, was a music teacher. And I remember
she pulled me aside one day and she told me, ‘Alicia, I’m going to tell you something, but I don’t want you to get the big
head.’ I was like, ‘Unh?’ She said, ‘One day, you’re going to be a great singer, but do not get the big head. You don’t
know what that means yet, but you will.’ It was so funny. I was very confused. But it was the first time that I received
that encouragement from someone who validated the future that I had not seen yet.”
Fast forward to entering the University of Missouri-Columbia and Olatunja was divided between listening to her love
of animals and becoming a veterinarian or pursuing a musical career. She gave herself two years to pursue the music
and if it wasn’t going anywhere, she would get the veterinary science degree. She didn’t have long to wait.
“We’ll be mostly performing songs from Intuition,” Olatuja said. “We
may sprinkle a little bit of Timeless tracks in there as well. We’ll be
with my East Coast band. I’m not quite sure exactly who is on that
particular gig as far as every instruments goes because sometimes
it changes. Everyone in my band all have their own bands. They all
have their own albums. They are all brilliant artists in their own
right. Sometimes it’s all about aligning our schedules. Nevertheless,
it’s going to be an incredible line-up. I know the audience is going to
love it and have a great time. And we’re going to have a great time
with them. The performance should be uplifting and transformative.
And it should be unifying. It should make you feel connected, just not
to me and the composers, but also to those who are sitting to the left
and the right of you. Music has that incredible ability to transcend
language, race and culture and sex and time and age. You will feel
that connected energy.”
It almost seems that Alicia Olatunja’s musical career was
preordained the way that it has fit together, a circumstance of talent,
hard work and the timing of opportunity. Come out and experience
the magic of Alicia Olatunja.