In 1899, Jacksonville's James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." Johnson's brother, John Rosamond, then composed original music to accompany the poem. On February 12, 1900, a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where JWJ was Principal, sung "Lift Ev'Ry Voice and Sing" as part of a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. Eventually, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official song.
Change the time and location to the 1920's and New York City. Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in the northern section of the Manhattan borough, is experiencing a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement. A new black cultural identity was cultivated as African Americans exercised their birth-given right to expression and self-actualization. At the center of this movement are poets, playwrights, and authors such as Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name a few. As part of an older generation of artists, James Weldon Johnson, who by this time relocated to Harlem with his wife, continues his role as an educator, this time serving as a mentor to emerging and mid-career writers.
By 1929, the movement made its way to Jacksonville's LaVilla, one of Florida's first black urban neighborhoods. Ashley Street, which was commonly referred to as the "Great Black Way," was lined with entertainment establishments. These nightclubs and theaters played host to iconic jazz and blues musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday. In 1946, a 15 year-old Ray Charles, prior to his stardom, moved to LaVilla to stay with family friends after the death of his mother. For over a year, Charles, only a teenager at the time, performed at the Ritz Theatre as a pianist. This cultural activity led to LaVilla being nicknamed the "Harlem of the South."
In 1947 the City proposed the development of the Jacksonville Expressway. The 18-mile path of concrete and asphalt cut directly through LaVilla. The placement of the Expressway was intentional, serving to avoid areas deemed most valuable and to eliminate "blighted" neighborhoods and act as a barrier to stop the spread of "blight." By the 1960s, families who resided in LaVilla were displaced as their homes were demolished by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand the Expressway. This displacement and demolition continued through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Through it all, one thing could not be deconstructed or displaced - the intrinsic human desire for self-expression. Though the buildings no longer remain, LaVilla's cultural contributions run deep in Jacksonville's identity as a city. The words and music created by the Johnson brothers rippled through time and continue to be celebrated to this day.
There is a new generation of artists who are now carrying on the torch that was lit by the the Johnson brothers 100+ years ago. These artists are leveraging their artistic crafts to preserve Jacksonville's history and culture while paying homage to those who came before them. Akia Uwanda is one such artist.
Uwanda is a multi-disciplinary performance artist. She carries her influences with her, reminding herself of their sacrifices and contributions, their dedication to not only the betterment of themselves but the betterment of society at large. Whether she is performing as a musician or on stage with a theatre company, Uwanda performs with soul. This is because Uwanda knows that art has the power to transform.
Uwanda released her debut album, "Lift" in the summer of 2017 after performing at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The album's title, as well as the title track, are a direct reference to "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." The album takes you on a soulful yet whimsical journey through Uwanda's life and includes element of jazz, funk, R&B, and soul.
Uwanda harnesses her artistic attributes to give back to communities in Jacksonville. On the first Friday of every month you can find Uwanda singing on stage at St. John's Cathedral Church as part of Clara's at the Cathedral, an initiative implemented by the Clara White Mission. Every Friday from 11:00 am - 1:00 pm the mission, through their Culinary Arts Program, provide a lunch buffet open to the general public while also providing students with extensive hands-on training in production, presentation, and front of the house restaurant service.
To stay connected with Uwanda, visit her website and enroll in her mailing list. By doing so you will receive the latest news and event info. You can also connect with Uwanda on social media. You can find Uwanda on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can download "Lift" through Amazon and CDBaby.
10 Questions with Akia Uwanda
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
My routines change based on the projects at hand. If it's an event I'm hired to do, then I ask the client about their ultimate vision and goals for the event. From there I then aim to exceed their expectations.
My personal events are geared towards giving all participants an "EXPERIENCE".
The concept, instrumentation, or rhythms can hit me while I'm driving or in a store. Sometimes I get inspired by my mood or something that I'm listening to. When lyrics or a beat arise in my head, I grab my phone and start recording. My iPhone serves as a portable studio.
I then either go back and write the song based on what I've constructed, or I wait until I get with my music producer, Larry Wilson. We'll then put the concept down musically and write the lyrics once the music is laid down.
"Lift" was a two-and-a-half week project from beginning to end. I couldn't do this year's Jazz Fest again without a full album. As soon as I found out I made the lineup I then made a plan to do the album. The mastering was just getting finalized the Wednesday before Jazz Fest, and 1 day before my performance. "Lift" was a dream come true!
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
I've learned that through perseverance, dedication to my crafts, and patience, I can express myself artistically and spiritually tap into the true purpose for my life. I have also learned that mentorship from those who are where you want to be is essential to your personal and professional growth. I am an open vessel eager to learn new things every day and not afraid to ask the questions WHY and HOW.
How do you define success in what you do?
For me, success is fulfilling my purpose based upon goals reached. Sometimes those are monetary gains and other times those are small accomplishments derived from the bountiful pieces in this puzzle we call LIFE.
What would you like to see in Jacksonville as an effort to grow the city's creative economy?
I would like to see visual and collaborative economics. What do I mean by this?
The talent is here. The profit and non-profit organizations are here. Believe it or not, the money is here!
There seems to be more focus and capital available for visual artist than for musicians and performing artists in Jacksonville's creative economy. However, music is threaded into the fabric of every day life and the many environments in which we function. As a collective, we must emphasize the importance of collaborative activities - especially as it relates to grant requirements and programming. This will result in diverse people from different parts of the city attending events and activities, through which they will enjoy various art forms and spend money to grow the economy. Through this type of stimulation, we would see an increase in the number of participants, the impact on communities, and a more vibrant city, which the investors, grantors, and event producers could feel great about.
What drew you to jazz?
Music is the elixir to my soul. The forgiveness of improvisation in jazz is a very special characteristic that I adore. You can freely be yourself in jazz. The complexity of the rhythms and rhymes come together in simple harmonious sequences that stimulate my thirst for more. I LOVE MUSIC!
As an artist, what role do you see yourself playing as a preserver of culture, history, and legacy?
Jacksonville has a great history of art and culture. Someone told me that I'm the first female Jazz singer to represent the city of Jacksonville, FL as a performer at the Superbowl. I smiled and thought "I hope that's true."
Promoting both sustainability and accountability are vital to creating a legacy. I have made a commitment to myself to lead by example and be a positive influence. I strive to be a leader in not just the artistic community but the community in general. I've used my acting and singing talents to be a social conduit, bridging people of all walks of life together.
Since 2012, I have raised money through my Premiere Signature Jazz Dinner Parties and then made anonymous donations to various youth arts organizations. I also founded a non-profit organization, THE AKIA UWANDA PROJECT. For the last 7.5 years I have served as a volunteer at the Clara White Mission by singing every first Friday of the month as part of the Clara's at the Cathedral program. Providing entertainment and marketing myself is not my only goal for volunteering. I also do it to help fill those seats so the Mission can feed the homeless, as well as to give the culinary students great music to help them get through their day.
What does "Lift" mean to you and what is your focus now that the album is released?
"Lift" is my debut album and it provides listeners with a glimpse into my life, but in a musically, colorful way. When listening to the album, I want you to feel good. I want to inspire people to love, dance, sing, vibe, reflect on their own lives, or just be in the moment with me.
The title track on this album is actually a new rendition of the famous Black National Anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which was written and produced by Jacksonville natives, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. It was my way of paying homage to those who laid the road before me. I'm particularly proud of this song and hope the arrangement rendered will bring about a newness of hope and unity in the state of the world today.
Marketing in various spaces is my focus with "Lift". Of course, music festivals and concert performances are at the top of my list to promote the cd, but I also want to license my music to TV shows, movies, and other media channels.
If listening to "Lift" for the first time, how would you recommend someone experience the album?
I want listeners to have an intimate, private listening party while laying down with a pair of headphones. It also can be played on blast while driving in the car.
For adults 21 or older, the album pairs very well with a good glass of wine and some great company.
I've received great feedback about the album being embraced by the youth community, 15 years of age and younger.
What do you feel are the rewards and challenges of being a multi-disciplinary artist?
The reward is the disciplines all work together for the greater cause of my brand, allowing me to be versatile, competitive, and more marketable. The challenge is that some people think you need to focus on just one thing, but I disagree. Many successful entertainers will tell you that when your money runs out in one area you will need to be ready to make it in another. Being multi-talented helps me balance my life and gives me the experience I need to effectively work with others.
As an independent recording artist, how do you engage with your audience apart from live performances?
My website is a great resource for information and updates. Other efforts include: