D.C. singer Akua Allrich has been performing annual tributes to Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba for eight years, but with America’s recent cycles of tragedy and protest — from Ferguson to Dallas to Charlotte and beyond — the show has never been more in tune with the times.
“I say this every time I do this tribute: Their music is timeless in a good way and in a bad way, because we’re fighting the same fights that they were fighting,” Allrich says of Simone and Makeba, who both legendarily combined music and civil rights activism. This year’s tribute is Sunday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in D.C.
Allrich, a native Washingtonian with Howard University degrees in jazz vocals and social work, says the music of Simone and Makeba teaches that it’s possible to keep moving even when times are difficult.
“That’s what art does for us. It gives us an outlet so that we can still walk upright, and we can still be inspired,” says Allrich, who is in her 30s. “That’s part of my goal when I do these tributes … is, one, to stand up and speak up, but two, to empower people. And really give them inspiration.”
The annual tribute started at Bohemian Caverns, the U Street NW jazz landmark that closed earlier this year. Allrich — well-known in D.C. jazz and soul circles for more than just the Simone/Makeba shows — says that Atlas readily welcomed this year’s tribute. She’ll be backed by Kris Funn on bass, Mark G. Meadows on keyboards, Savannah Harris on drums, Agyei Osei Hargrove on percussion, Brent Birckhead on saxophone and flute, and Mongezi Ntaka on guitar.
“They came at the same thing in two different ways.”
The theater is helping her to try out an idea that she’d had for years: Serving drinks tailored to honor Simone and Makeba.
“Nina’s gotta be fire — somethin’ with whiskey, somethin’ hot. And Miriam’s gotta be somethin’ sweet. Sweet but strong,” Allrich says. “And I think that kinda sums them up — they came at the same thing in two different ways.”
The late Simone, known for the protest song “Mississippi Goddamn” and her deep involvement in the ’60s civil rights movement, is having a moment right now: The biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? was nominated for an Oscar and opened her to new audiences. (That’s also a Simone song in those recent Apple Watch commercials.)
“She was just a walking spirit,” Allrich says. “She didn’t understand this place.”
The late Makeba helped popularize African music globally in the ’50s and ’60s, and her personal life included marriages to fellow South African musician Hugh Masekela and American activist Stokely Charmichael. For anyone looking to understand Makeba’s viewpoint better, Allrich points to the multilingual singer’s live recordings.
“The cool thing about Miriam Makeba is that she explains most of her songs,” Allrich says. “She always describes what it means, what it was for, and what it means for her.”
After eight years of celebrating the two singers — Simone, who “just didn’t care,” and Makeba, who was “very classy, very dedicated” — Allrich says she’s still inspired by their individual pride and savvy. She grew up in a household filled with jazz, soul and R&B records and political conversations. Her father, Agyei Akoto, is a jazz musician and a founder of the private, African-oriented Nation House school in D.C. Allrich, who is married and has two children, teaches there.
“Being raised the way I was, my parents were always saying, ‘There’s no such thing as art for art’s sake. If you have a gift as an artist, your job is to speak for the people,'” Allrich says. “So it’s a gift, but it’s also a responsibility.”
Akua Allrich’s 8th annual tribute to Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba is Sunday, Oct. 9, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. There will be two sets: 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.