Alicia Olatuja at Harlem Stage
by Cameron Boyle
On November 18th, 2015, I "went to church" presided over by a heart-centered vocal priestess Alicia Olatuja. Alicia performed a free(!) concert at Harlem Stage as part of the Carnegie Neighborhood Concert Series. I'm not the only one who regards Alicia as sublime. Over a million people on the National Mall were spellbound at the 2013 presidential inauguration by her solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (see www.aliciaolatuja.com to see the video). And, yes, this urban vocal priestess does hail from Brooklyn, and she invokes her lyrics with a strong, lustrous tone and mixes a brew of classical, jazz, gospel and pop into her fluid vocalism.
As she introduced and voiced her intention behind each song (most of which she had written, all of which she had an intimate connection to), I knew what enchanted me most about Alicia was her "creative process" as an artist. I sat down with her to learn more. Her first song was Brazilian "Esperanca" ("Hope" in Portuguese). Having seen the video of her performing "Serrado" (also a Brazilian song) on the home page of her website, I asked her about her connection to Brazilian music. Alicia responded, "Two of my best friends are Brazilian. And I was in Rio two years ago. I was so inspired by the rhythmic aspect of the language, I decided to include it in my repertoire". The refrain is "You are my hope". Alicia said, "Hope is an interesting thing. It's like Pandora's Box from Greek mythology. Spirituality, hope and faith are sisters in any relationship".
Alicia's second offering was her own rendition of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature". For her, this song is about the difference between human love and divine love. When asked further about this she said, "We are all striving to receive unconditional love. It's difficult to give and to get. Human beings are not divine beings. We need to remember this and be forgiving of ourselves when we fall short due to our own human nature".
Her third song was "Wait". It's about two people in a relationship who are parting in the rain. They are hoping and longing for the time when they will reunite. Alicia here instructed the audience to accompany the prelude to the song with sporadic finger snaps which creative a very effective acoustic rain. Alicia told me about the Portuguese word "saudades" for which there is no direct translation in English. "It's about that deep longing and nostalgia which is like a beautiful ache in your heart and belly. 'Wait' is about that feeling, about the "saudades" you feel between saying 'goodbye' and saying 'hello' again".
Then Alicia delivered "Speak The Words". She introduced the song by talking about the "complisult" (the backhanded compliment), like when someone says "I don't care what everyone says about you, you're really nice". Alicia said she's received plenty of "complisults" and it's been a challenge to not take them personally. She recalls the words of her mama, "pay it no mind", and she inserts them in the refrain "Pay it all no mind, just keep living life". Alicia's message to others is "Let go of the negativity or you can't receive the positive when it comes because your hands are full". She reaped the rewards of this practice when a woman who was struggling with an acute illness told Alicia that her music was the only thing that made the pain go away. This, more than anything, moved Alicia and confirmed that a deep and genuine compliment renders all the "complisults" meaningless. See Alicia sing "Speak The Words":
Fifth on the songlist was "Transform", written by one of Alicia's students. Here she explores the transitions in life when we are vulnerable and raw. What can be shared and expressed in this period of time that can allow others to know and connect with us? Alicia said this is an emotional song for her because she is in a transitional time of her career and personal life. This is an artist whose messages are not superficial; she clearly enjoys probing and questioning the depths of human experience....and we all have a chance for self examination, contemplation and transformation.
The grand finale was "Amazing Grace", a straight-up a capella gospel version which evolved as an up-tempo soulful rendition accompanied by the band. And the band! Alicia has very special connections, as you can imagine, with each of her band members. She treats the audience to just how special by introducing the additional vocalist and each musician in the context of the song, giving thanks and praise to each one who then does a solo infused with his own amazing grace. This experience is what defined Alicia for me as "heart-centered vocal priestess". Her concert is a musical ritual for the spirit which inspires and transforms the congregation with socially conscious messages, sublime symbiosis with the band, and deep gratitude and love for the audience. Can I hear a hallelujah! Or an ashe!
Check out Alicia's acclaimed debut album TIMELESS which was released last year via World Tune Records.