When the world shut down last year, so did Alicia Olatuja. The St. Louis, Missouri-bred vocalist sat in her New Jersey apartment one day watching a video and started crying because she missed performing. The COVID lockdown had forced artists into a virtual atmosphere, in which they had to imagine the large crowds that they would normally see. But that was not so easy to do. For Olatuja, it wasn’t just live singing that she longed for; it was the chance to sprinkle seeds of hope and inspiration among the people who come to see her.
Since childhood, Olatuja has loved to sing. She handles multiple genres—opera, gospel, soul, jazz—with equal self-assurance and has become something of a chameleon, performing with everyone from vaunted gospel vocalist BeBe Winans and R&B diva Chaka Khan to jazz pianist Billy Childs and the late organ virtuoso Dr. Lonnie Smith. In 2013, a career-propelling moment came when she soloed with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration.
Over the last few years, brick by brick, she’s been building a jazz audience, recording and releasing two solo albums (the most recent being 2019’s Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women). Her voice is inviting and elegant on some songs, seemingly powerful enough to slow down global warming on others. Yet the magic that Olatuja believes binds her to audiences has been missing for the last year-and-a-half, and she was eager to reignite.
“I was feeling really sad and really down. And I was like, I must do something,” she says. “So I took a creation course. I read books. I went online, because I did not want to just throw something out there just for the sake of it. I wanted whatever this was to be as personalized as my performances would be. I studied super-hard and super-fast.”
In August 2020, she started the Vocal Breakthrough Academy, a five-week online program that helps aspiring singers and non-singers alike looking to break self-doubt learn to connect with themselves through singing. A year into VBA, she’s expanding the program and its student body is growing.
Olatuja spoke with JazzTimes about VBA’s impact and the new projects she has in the works.
“I’m all about trying to live the lives that I sing about.”
JazzTimes: The world is a lot different even from last year. Are you still working on anything that you started before the pandemic?
ALICIA OLATUJA: I really got an opportunity to finally bring to completion and pull together all the things that I’ve been doing that were more spread out. I created my own business, which I’ve been wanting to do since 2001. That’s when I first had the vision of how we can use singing as a vehicle for personal development, even if you’ve never sung before. I wanted to create a safe space to be able to do that exploration, to gain the skills technically, to be able to learn how to dismantle mental roadblocks that get in the way and hold us back from being our best self.
There’s so much noise from what’s happening in social media, what’s happening on the news. How do you drop into yourself and become aligned with your inner voice so that what comes out of your outer voice is a true representation of who you are? So right now, it is a five-week program, but there are many ways in which we’re expanding it because it’s been so powerful and so successful in this past year. It’s a chance for me to help people learn what took me years to struggle through.
What types of people are taking the course?
We have had vocalists take the course, and some of them have been in universities and conservatories—they have all the mental stuff, but there’s a disconnect there. And now we have people taking it who are financial analysts, trying to be able to have that authentic connection with themselves and others in a field where that’s not necessarily [believed to be] important, but it makes all the difference. We have nurses who are taking the course. And every single launch I’ve done has sold out, one after the other. I knew it was going to be a powerful thing. I wanted to see the positivity in people. That’s what I love to do as an artist on the stage. I’m making more opportunities for people to continue that growth; whether it’s self-discovery or a personal revelation or whatever it is, they’ve been able to do it through singing. And there are people who have never sung a day in their life!
What’s it like working with a student who doesn’t have any experience but wants to use singing as an outlet?
Really empowering for them, and really inspiring for me. When I first started Vocal Breakthrough Academy, there were so many different types of people coming in that were like, “I can actually use singing techniques to help me get more in touch with my family right now since I’m stuck in this house with them.”
It has been amazing watching people use music to take down those barriers they put up that they don’t even realize. There are actual steps. You cannot just start singing. It is not necessarily that simple. My goal is to make it that simple. But there must be a blueprint in place to help people start to unlock and dismantle things in an order that feels intuitive and feels good. So, when I’m working with people who’ve never sung before, it blows my mind that it’s working for them the exact same way that my professional Broadway singers or my jazz vocalists are able to do it.
I know how it’s changed my life—how the choices I’ve made as a vocalist and the skill sets that I’ve used to develop my voice have developed my life. And that was my experience. All I could do was say, “Well, this is my experience. Let me see if we can help you.” Then when you transfer it over to someone else and they internalize it and they go through their own work, you see the transformation, you see the breakthrough happen right in front of your face. It has given me so much more purpose and intention in what I do musically, because I’m all about trying to live the lives that I sing about. It not only has liberated and empowered me, but it can liberate and empower others in a variety of ways.
I hear from many musicians that when they learn something, they want to pass it on to others. Is that part of what inspired you to do Vocal Breakthrough Academy?
Absolutely. Like the minute you learn something, teach somebody else. You can also learn more while instructing other people about what you’re doing. I feel like it’s a responsibility to do it. But not just the skill set—the vulnerability of it. There are some challenges that we face that we do not always like to share with other people. And that’s a part of the learning process. A lot of people are always showing their wins, and I show my wins too, because I’m proud of them, [but] there are things that we’ve had to conquer and go through that are a part of why that success is so important. It’s not just my responsibility to be like, “I am singing this thing.” I realize now through this course [that] it’s my responsibility to use the roadblocks, struggles, life transitions that were scary, to help people find their way. I didn’t realize that I could use that as a power tool. You just think about your wins, but it’s your lows that make the wins make sense.
“How do you drop into yourself and become aligned with your inner voice so that what comes out of your outer voice is a true representation of who you are?”
Did you ever picture yourself being a counselor to people through your music?
I felt it more on my most recent album, because [it’s] all about celebrating and championing women composers and some of the stories are messy, some are painful, because women’s experiences span the gamut. Yes, we talk about love. We talk about passion and our divine beauty. But there’s also songs that talk about a beautiful young little black girl who for the first time gets that message that she is not beautiful because of the color of her skin. There are messages about women who have been victims of abuse. All those stories, tied into all the different reimaginings of these compositions that I found, really paint as close as I could a picture of womanhood, the power in that and how we have overcome struggles. When I do this show [performing the material on Intuition], people have come to me afterwards and cried on my shoulders and I’m like, “This is a beautiful moment. Let me really let this sink in so I can learn from this woman’s tears.”
From that I know my responsibility now has shifted a bit more. Now when I’m introducing the songs, I take you on a storyline ride. I really open the meanings of the songs. And that started to show itself as being its own type of therapy. I never thought that I would be getting my life coach certification. I never thought that I would already have clients and watch them experience the power that that type of partner experience can bring—because, as a teacher, you’re telling people what to do. If you’re following a model that benefits and empowers your clients, you are their thought partner, for them to find out what’s already inside of them. It’s a different philosophy.
It sounds like VBA has had a positive impact on your life as well.
Huge. It has got me through. And that is why I was like, “Let me wait until I see this thing through to figure out how to move forward, even artistically,” because this has changed me. And now what I pour out to the world must reflect that change. You cannot be in a hurried, anxious place because what you put out is going to pass through that hurriedness, that anxiety is going to belabor whatever you put out there. You must filter your artistry through what you’ve experienced. But let that story be fully told so that you can really move through that. My music has taught me about choices that I needed to make in myself, that I was being a coward and not doing. This music has really shown me the inconsistencies of who I am based on what I’m saying. That was the biggest lesson that I learned a few years ago that I really wanted to incorporate into the course, but also then find that reconciliation. So, when I get on stage, you’re not getting a version of something. You’re getting truly who I am and what I believe.
You’ve performed in a number of genres: gospel, soul, classical. What led you to jazz?
I grew up listening to all diverse types of music. In my house it was always a variety: classical choral music to 1970s soul, gospel to R&B. I never liked feeling boxed in. I was always open to say, “Whatever door opens and provides an opportunity for me to be able to use my voice to connect, I am going to be walking through it.” As a kid I was surrounded by a lot of great vocalists. But I noticed that a lot of my dear friends ended up having vocal injuries at an early age, and that could be super-defeating. I said, “I do not want that to be my story,” so I went to school [Manhattan School of Music] to learn how to work this instrument.
I wasn’t necessarily trying to become an opera singer, but then a ton of opportunities opened in the classical world for me at that time. Then when I graduated, it was like there was something else happening in me that needed to express itself. I performed with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, and they’re very versatile on how they approach their music because the congregation is very versatile. And then they ended up performing for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. And from that opportunity, Dianne Reeves put out a post on Twitter saying wonderful things. That led her to make a phone call to Billy Childs and say, “You should hire this person.” And he just took her word for it and hired me for like a year.
What new projects are you working on?
I just finished an album last week, me and Theo Bleckmann, an incredible musician, composer, singer. [It’s] called The Parsonage, a song cycle dedicated to a historical building in New York, on 64 East 7th Street. This building has experienced so much that this song cycle is like “if these walls could talk.” It goes through different decades, from when it was a coffeehouse for Russian nationalists [Les Deux Mégots] to when it was a place of experimental poetry [the Paradox, a macrobiotic restaurant/gallery/performance space] and Yoko Ono was there. He [Bleckmann]’s pulling in all these voices that reflect all the diverse types of people that have passed through the doors of this building.
For the new solo project, we’re kind of wrestling between two ideas. I’m really excited to tap into some different instrumentation that I’d always been a fan of. I love to work with my guitarist David Rosenthal—he’s been my right-hand man since I began this journey of being a solo artist—and so we’re going to be getting together soon and discussing the ideas and then seeing how [they] manifest themselves musically. It just feels like usually, whenever I’m doing albums, I put them together very quickly because they just flow out. But what I really want it to be is an authentic representation of who I am now, having gone through what we have all gone through together.