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Mills student hits the right note in music world

Courtesy of Samantha Weaver

If Akosua seems to be smiling a lot these days, it’s probably because she’s got a lot to smile about. The senior and music major, who goes only by her first name, is not only pursuing her second B.A.; she’s also following her bliss-and people are taking notice.

Akosua’s distinctive acoustic guitar and vocal compositions have recently gleaned positive ink from the Oakland Tribune, the East Bay Express and the Contra Costa Times. She’s landed performances at popular and sought-after local venues like the Elbo Room, Freight and Salvage, Epic Arts and La Pena Cultural Center.

With smooth skin, captivating brown eyes and a newly-shaved head, the 26-year-old radiates the confidence of someone realizing her dreams.

“I have to make music,” says Akosua, her eyes widening and her already expansive smile broadening. “There’s nothing else I could do.”

Akosua describes her sound as jazz-inspired folk fusion. Many of her songs are structured around traditional jazz chords, but with elements of American, African and Latin American folk and a dash of electronic experimentation.

The large folk influence has earned Akosua comparisons to heavyweights in the genre, from the acoustic-punk Ani Difranco to the acoustic-soul India.Airie, while her use of ambient sound draws references to Seal and Sade. In a recent East Bay Express review, writer Eric K. Arnold referred to her as “the black Joni Mitchell.”

Considering the parallel to Mitchell, Akosua laughs and says, “Our voices, when she goes into her higher register, are very similar. She’s a pretty amazing songwriter, but I don’t think that [Arnold’s description] fully defines me.”

Marty Windahl, a junior music major, has seen Akosua’s shows and says that Akosua’s diverse musical influences draw an equally diverse crowd.

“She lived in the Midwest and her parents are from Ghana. It’s a unique combination, and it definitely comes through in her music,” says Windahl. “It’s pretty accessible to a wide audience, and you see a lot of diversity of age, race, and ethnicity [at her shows].”

Born in Queens, N.Y. to Ghanaian immigrants, Akosua later moved to the Midwest with her family. She started singing in church choir while she was in elementary school. As she got older, she became enamored with folk musicians Ani Difranco and Tracy Chapman, so she begged her parents to buy her a guitar. They eventually caved in, giving her a large black acoustic for Christmas when she was 14.

“I had to learn to play it, so I looked on the Internet, bought books, sat down with friends, and basically taught myself,” said Akosua.

Then, when she was 17, Akosua says she had a life-changing experience: “I went to a Lauryn Hill concert.”

Akosua was so moved by the passion in Hill’s performance that she immediately went home, picked up her guitar and wrote her first complete song. Though she wouldn’t be able to play it all the way through now, she does remember the first line. “I was really into activism and solving the world’s problems. The first line was ‘Do you ever feel like your hands are tied and there’s nothing you can do, as you listen to the world’s cry for truth?'” said Akosua.

Even though she was passionate about music, Akosua’s parents were convinced that she needed to enter a stable professional path. She attended the University of Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but all the while she was itching to perform. Something in her heart told her to head west to California, and she followed that voice.

Akosua soon realized she would need to learn music theory and audio recording if she wanted to advance her career, so she decided to pursue her second B.A. at Mills.

“It’s important for musicians to know how to do this stuff, especially as a woman. It’s a very male-dominated industry, and when you go on stage a lot of them look at you like you won’t even know what an XLR cord is or how to plug your guitar into an amplifier,” said Akosua.

Mills’ music department is known for its innovations in experimental music. While Akosua describes her work as in more of the mainstream and popular vein than that of her peers, she says that traces of the avant-garde have crept into her work. “I’ve been going to Urban Ore [a creative reuse center] and finding objects to incorporate into my music, and working on creative soundscapes,” said Akosua.

Recently returned from Ghana, where she reconnected with her family, Akosua is slated to play the Freight and Salvage on Feb. 15. Talking about the upcoming show, long-time friend Lisa Bautista can’t seem to hold back her pride: “It’s great to catch an artist at the beginning of her career. She’s going to be big.”