The week after Nina Simone, our fierce activist artist born as Eunice Wyman, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I arrived at the charming residence of renowned vocalist Jeremiah Abiah.
It was a dismally rainy Sunday afternoon in the cold of April. Located on a Central Harlem brownstone block, in the same neighborhood as the World Famous Apollo Theater, where he recently performed a sold-out show, the scent of just-prepared jollof rice, and a simmering pot of cinnamon sticks greeted me at the door.
As I removed my shoes to enter, the classically-trained crooner informed me that he’d prepared the Ghanaian staple dish in my honor, and later we would break bread while listening to his forthcoming tribute album, ABIAH Sings Nina. We chuckled about the never-ending debate: Ghanaian jollof versus Nigerian jollof, on which he is Team Ghanaian given his own heritage.
And while putting the finishing touches on his family recipe, reflecting on how much of the consummate chef he truly is, we jumped into our conversation about the new album and what led him to record this tribute to the High Priestess of Soul.
To give a bit of background, ABIAH is a bi-coastal independent singer-songwriter who, like so many talented performers, has devoted his life to the mastery of music and vocal performance. He matured as a vocalist singing opera in Northern Italy after seriously studying classical music, and making his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 21.
In his early days as a performer ABIAH sang background for legends like George Michael and Yolanda Adams, and even signed a major recording deal that turned out to be the worst mistake of his career, artistically and business wise. But, you live and you learn. And you count your blessings when a kismet phone call from a family member tips the dominoes over in a masterful plan transforming your identity as a performer.
In ABIAH’s case, that phone call came from multi-Grammy Award winning Blue Note artist Robert Glasper who collaborated with him in recording his internationally chart-topping debut album, Life As A Ballad. In the process of working with Glasper, ABIAH also found the confidence to form his own record label and gain distribution for the project, which is no small feat for any indie content creator.
Over the last decade, he’s gone on to release two more albums, Chasing Forever and Bottles, creating his first trilogy. Of the three part series, ABIAH has always stood on his ability to re-imagine songs, or rather re-image a composition that has already been owned by an artist. More than just covering the tune, he relishes in his ability to conceptually flip a previously recorded song on its ear, and approach it from a new perspective.
That’s exactly what we can expect of his latest studio project, ABIAH Sings Nina, which will be released worldwide on May 6th. Wanting to cover Nina Simone for quite some time, he began his journey with her music while studying voice in grad school.
A discussion at the conservatory introduced Jeremiah to Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” In the recording he was able to hear and feel all of the things that he’d been studying in his classes. “I could see visually from the way she sang it. I was very intrigued by her, infatuated with how she was even re-imaging the music from a vocal and harmonic perspective, piano wise.
In graduate school at that point, 21 years old, I really became enraptured by her.” Nina Simone would become one of the biggest influences on his life as a vocalist, in addition to the highly revered alto of Anita Baker. Starting with her first record, he began to listen and study everything Nina. When he performed, he made sure to play in ways that evoked the lyrics of a particular song that exuded something unique while creating a world within the music.
When asked if any of the project encompasses Nina’s fire and passion for political and social justice, ABIAH gives a poignant and thoughtful response:
“I try to think of Nina’s wholeness. I’m focusing on the early part of her career, all of her love songs. I wanted to focus on the ‘love’ part of Nina. People have exhausted her political life. I wanted a more pure look in focusing on the beauty of her love songs.” Pausing to really emphasize his next point, he continued, “We are in a very dark time, period. My job as an artist is to bring some light and love into the world. Where are the love songs?”
The muse did endow him with the album’s sole political ballad. In the vein of Nina Simone, ABIAH penned the lyrics to “I’m Just Like You” in homage to the legacy of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and the countless other young Black men who have been shot down in racially motivated violence. “Nina touched and healed a lot of people with her music,” he’s mindful to point out.
On the album, ABIAH says his best intentions were to stay close to her arrangements so that the songs were identifiable. But, as a visionary artist himself, he took liberties to create the music in ways that are distinct to who he is as an arranger and vocalist. Not to mention that another phone call from Robert Glasper resulted in ABIAH working as one of the vocal producers on the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?
And how does his Ghanaian/Cuban heritage intersect with this latest creative venture? While ABIAH didn’t grow up with his Cuban connection, his Ghanaian blood, from his father, is very much a part of his identity as a man moving through the world.
He celebrates Ghanaian style by wearing swagalicious Kente on the album’s cover, and chose to add West African rhythmic time signatures to his rendition of Nina’s “See-Line Woman.”
He had a memorable time in Accra two years ago while shooting a video for his last album, Bottles, and later this year is planning to release an AfroSoul House remix of ABIAH Sings Nina.
Click here to Pre-order ‘ABIAH sings NINA’.
– Contributed by Mai Perkins
Mai Perkins, aka FlyMai, is Cali girl in a Bed Stuy world with global bon vivant flair and the passport stamps to prove it. She currently works in Edtech, and is the author of several blogs including Uberlicious.nyc and MaiOnTheMove.com and is a columnist for the music publication Pop-Mag.com.
With an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in International Affairs from The New School Milano, she reps her beloved alma mater Howard University every chance she gets. As a poet and a creative non-fiction writer, she looks forward to soon publishing her first manuscript, The Walking Nerve-Ending.
Twitter: @flymai on Twitter