By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
Uwade Akhere, CC ‘21, launched her singing career at a ’70s themed fifth-grade talent show. She’d grown up in elementary school choirs, where teachers liked her because she “could hold a tune or something,” but she hadn’t taken music seriously until she convinced two friends to dance backup for a rendition of “Natural Woman.” If you scroll far enough down on her Instagram, @uwade.music, you’ll find a video of it. In the clip, Akhere is clearly the star. Wearing a bright red dress, she belts out the lyrics with charisma and control. It’s clear that even then, she could do more than hold a tune or something.
Since then, she’s developed a more mellow style in her music. Her voice is smooth, calming, almost ethereal. Drawing from classical chorale settings, Nigerian highlife tunes, and an eclectic list of contemporary artists, Akhere’s music is very much her own. The only single she’s released, “Nostalgia,” which has amassed over half a million listens on Spotify, epitomizes her songwriting philosophy, which she credits to The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas—“a stream of consciousness with a lot left out…showing instead of telling.”
If you’ve listened to “Nostalgia,” you might have a sense of what she means. If you haven’t, you should. The song, which she wrote after accepting an offer to study abroad for a year at Oxford, is all about trepidation. The chorus is poetic and philosophical, like you might expect of someone who has pored over Catullus (She’s in the middle of translating his writings when she joins our Zoom call.) “It’s time to say goodbye to who you thought you’d be,” she sings. “Maybe one day you’ll be free.” I can’t stop listening to “Nostalgia,” but Akhere tells me that she hasn’t played it for a while—“my entire personality feels different now.”
While it seems like songwriting is second nature for Akhere, she tells me that it took a long time for her to get there. It wasn’t until her sophomore year at Columbia, when a good friend who also wrote music convinced her to try it out, that she wrote her first song. At the beginning, she hated her lyrics. She would write about exactly what she was thinking and doing, leaving very little up for interpretation. But as she started to channel Casablancas, she found her groove and “learned from his style to leave things for the audience to interpret and resonate with, and find themselves in.” The cover art for “Nostalgia” is a photo of Akhere as an infant, smiling at the camera, and though she doesn’t explain it to me, I get the sense that she sees the song as her baby.
A decade after taking her elementary school stage, it feels like Akhere is at the precipice of making her big break. Her music, evidently not only on my playlist, attracted the attention of indie band Fleet Foxes after a friend sent them a clip of her covering their “Mykonos.” Fittingly, she had just finished a study-abroad summer in Greece and was beginning her year at Oxford when she got a call from Robin Pecknold, the band’s lead singer (and a Columbia alum), and soon found herself on a train to Paris to record. Shore, which was released in September, features her vocals on its hypnotic first track.
Like so many of us, Akhere entered the College as an Econ-Philosophy major but ended up studying Classics. She only began studying Latin seriously in high school, but it had always been around. Her dad, a hymnal aficionado and ex-choir boy, taught her Gregorian chants and choral harmonies in car rides—the “tricks of the trade,” as she calls them. She recommends that I check out Gregorio Allegri, who composed her favorite classical piece, Miserere mei, Deus. I joke that she must have aced Music Hum, but she hasn’t taken it yet.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
Three years later, Akhere has a lot to look forward to. She reassures me—and, I imagine, many of her Columbia fans—that she is recording a new album in Charlotte, her hometown, and is looking into graduate programs in Classics and Philosophy. But she’s already nostalgic for her time at Columbia. Her favorite memory? Retreats with Notes & Keys—she used to be the Music Director. I ask if she was drawn to classical poems that were presented in song. I go as far as asking if she ever sees herself as some neo-Classical poet—singer, songwriter, philosopher. She laughs. She’s far too humble to think this, let alone admit it.