Jeremiah Abiah didn’t set out to be a cover artist; he’s written songs since he was a child, but with an astonishingly supple 5 1/2-octave vocal range and a gift for inventive arrangement, he can take most any song and re-imagine it entirely. In his ethereal 2016 redux of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” he imbues Queen Bey’s frenetic “got me looking so crazy right now,” with new, yet no less passionate meaning — ardor as meditation from the first note through the incantatory coda. This spring he released ABIAH sings NINA, an entire album devoted to the works of Nina Simone, whose cover of “Strange Fruit” blew his mind and changed the course of his musical thought. On the song “Keeper of the Flame,” he proves himself that, holding high the torch of Ms. Simone. “I wanted to make a record that was close to her sonic legacy, her vocal legacy and even closer to her arrangement ideas,” he says, adding, “I think I did well by her.” The album art features the singer swathed regally in the kente cloth of his father’s royal Ghanaian lineage.
The record is the first in a trilogy of ABIAH sings… releases. Although he has covered Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” he has always been drawn to the female voice, and for each album in this series, he will reinterpret the songs of female singers. Heading into the studio with him will be pianist Raymond Angry, drummer Kendrick Scott, and bassist Ben Williams. He’s not yet divulging which singer is next in the series but says, “I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the choice.”
He enjoys “unveiling the music in a new way,” but to call him a cover artist would be reductive, he is so much more: an operatic tenor, a piano-playing songwriter, producer, composer, arranger, educator, vocal coach, and gourmand with a penchant for baking. We meet at his Harlem home where he shares the ingredients of this heady brew: his multi-cultural heritage, his rich musical background, his deep faith: knowing who he is and “whose” he is, finding a life partner who’s as much of a world citizen as is he, and the rigors of tri-city, bicoastal living.
Personable, with a radiant smile and genteel, yet unpretentious comportment, he speaks with candor about the struggles of the business from unfortunate contracts to the juggling artists do to keep the lights on to countering envy with gratitude. “I can get in my head and start comparing, and comparison is the thief of joy. Sometimes I have to say to myself, wait a minute, if I believe God the way that I say that I do, then I have to know that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I have big dreams, but they will come when their season is supposed to be here. I know a ton of people who wish they could be in my position.” He checks himself: “Brother, you are doing just fine. Get in place and let God unveil all the things.”
An eighties baby, he grew up with the nascent MTV. While fed a nourishing musical diet of Tramaine Hawkins, Daryl Coley and The Clark Sisters in a home that disallowed secular music, he bursts into song when asked about the listening pleasures of his childhood when his sanctified mother wasn’t around: “Oh we’re halfway there; oh, oh livin’ on a prayer. Radio was more diverse then. I listened to Bon Jovi alongside Anita Baker, next to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ ‘Just a Little Patience,’ I loved that song! The Bangles, Phil Collins, Al B. Sure, En Vogue, Shirley Murdock, and Lionel Richie, of course. All that stuff had such great melody. DeBarge, Ready for the World, New Edition.” He exclaims, “Gummi Bears had one of the greatest theme songs ever,” before belting out the first few lines. “I loooooved cartoons as a kid: He-Man, GI Joe. I loved Thundercats, Transformers, Dark Wing Duck, Duck Tales, Tranzor Z, that was one of my favorite shows, Voltron. I collected all the toys. I remember that stuff very fondly. I still have it all, packed in boxes at my mother’s house. They must be collector items.”
He speaks proudly of his “Sweets,” his wife of seven years, actor MaameYaa Boafo, whose lush-lipped, almond-eyed beauty calls to mind Lauryn Hill. She’s the star of the hit web series, An African City, and a 2018 Drama Desk Award winner for the play, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, which at the time of our interview had her in Los Angeles for the West Coast production, though the encore Off-Broadway run has brought her back to New York. The daughter of a Ghanaian ambassador, she was born in Pakistan, lived in Sudan, Ethiopia, Switzerland, and Kenya before coming to the U.S. for college. The two met on June 19, 2010, in New York at a World Cup viewing, each cheering on their "home" team in an ultimate draw between Ghana and Australia. Jeremiah, however, made match point on their first date by taking the MFA in acting to see the gorgeous film, Io Sono L'amore, or I am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, as a Russian émigré married to a wealthy Italian man. “It's a really special film,” he says. “Tilda is a beast of an actress — my wife dug that she spoke Italian with a Russian accent. She loved the movie.” After hanging with MaameYaa late into the night, he phoned his brother and said, “I met my wife tonight.” They married a year later. When their work doesn’t have them away from each other, they can be found enjoying their global wanderlust together. Stateside, it’s making a home of their place in Los Angeles, hitting the hotspots of their Harlem community hand-in-hand, or whipping up Ghanaian cuisine in their own kitchen. “I make Red Red, a black-eyed pea dish that you eat with sweet plantain. Have you heard of Groundnut soup before? Well, we call that nkatenkwan, peanut butter stew. I can cook all the staples,” he says.
Born in Rochester, New York, Jeremiah was reared primarily by his mother Phyllis, though he gratefully acknowledges the proverbial village of extensive family and framily that raised him — African American, Afro-Cuban and Ghanaian.
As a young African American girl of Cuban descent, Phyllis Griffin showed great musical promise, garnering attention from Cannonball Adderley, but with her steadfast devotion to the church, she didn’t stray far from singing/playing hymns, excepting classical music. She became the pianist for operatic bass-baritone William Warfield (of Porgy and Bess fame with then-wife Leontyne Price). She would eventually share musical talent with her children. Her youngest, Jeremiah remembers a home filled with song: “My mother played all the time; my sisters sang, my brother played percussion. I still have fond memories of Sundays after church while my mother was cooking, in between preparing food, she and my sisters would get around the piano and play and harmonize.” Phyllis’ baby boy took in all this music, but it was Anita Baker’s breakthrough album that spoke profoundly to him. “My older brother was in college when I was around eight years old, and I always wanted to be around him. He had his own car, and he had the Rapture album — that was his jam. Her voice spoke to me in a very deep way; I cannot explain how it moved me. I begged for a [Sony] Walkman and a Rapture cassette.” He “wore it out,” playing it again and again with the headphones on, studying every nuance and mimicking Anita Baker’s warm timbre. He began writing songs: “I remember my first song, it was called ‘Divine Love.’ I was writing, writing, writing — so much so that I didn't want to go outside to play.” He’d get flak from the neighborhood kids. “I didn’t want to play basketball; run track; I didn’t want to do any of those things, and you’re totally ostracized for that,” he recalls. Auguring his career, he would record himself singing on cassette tape.
His mother, recognizing her son’s passion and prodigious vocal gift, enrolled him in piano classes and the Rochester Association of Performing Arts (RAPA) — his foray into musicals and the all-county choir. “It was all-consuming for me. I became the teacher’s pet in the music classes. I was the lead if there was a musical; in the choir, in the ensemble when it required someone do a solo, most of the time it was me.” By seventh grade, he’d attend the city’s School of the Arts. “And that just changed my whole world — it was monumental and pivotal for me because it was the first time that I felt I belonged, in an environment where I belonged. Everything that was happening around me was sparking something inside of me.” He loved his teacher, Patricia Alexander, “a white woman with this soulful voice; we called her Aretha,” he says. “She loved on us. And I appreciated that.” Ms. Alexander, as it turns out, is the mother of acclaimed lyric soprano Renee Fleming, who visited and sang for the students.
Although only upperclassmen were allowed to audition for the principal roles in the school’s musical theater productions, middle schooler Jeremiah was considered an advanced singer as a seventh grader and flouted the rules to audition for a part in West Side Story. Upperclassmen Scott “Taye” Diggs and his best friend Shane Evans offered to help ready him for his turn — and he got the part of one of the “Sharks.” He laughs and sings “‘I’ll bring a TV to San Juan,’ that was my line in the song ‘America.’ Those were fun times.” But his siblings had gone to private school, and his mother thought he needed a more rigorous academic environment than was offered at his inner-city public school. “She sent me to Harley, one of the top private schools in the city. While I did get stronger academically, I suffered because the music wasn’t there. They had a choir program, and I was a soloist, but it wasn’t what I loved.” He pleaded with his mother to allow him to return to the School of the Arts, and after one year, she did. So by his high school freshman year, he’d returned to the school he loved to study classical voice with Ms. Alexander, gotten a manager, and the opportunity to sing background for George Michael and Rochester resident and trumpet/flugelhorn player, Chuck Mangione.
“My mom always said, ‘Your gift will make room for you,’ and that was what was happening. I was becoming a name in the city.” He won the city’s equivalent of the “GRAMMYS” as best male vocalist and other competitions including the NAACP’s ACT-SO program (Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics) winning twice at the national level.
So his mother took him to the Eastman School of Music to audition for their preparatory school. After all the accolades they thought he’d be a shoo-in, but he was rejected. “Thank God, because it prepared me for what was coming,” he says. Seth McCoy, a voice teacher at Eastman, was the second African American ever to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He and his wife Jane recognized Jeremiah’s potential as a classical singer, rallied for his admission and two weeks later called to offer him a scholarship to the school.
Jeremiah’s days were long — high school in the morning, then study until evening at Eastman. “But what growth and knowledge I gained,” he remembers. “I sang background vocals for Yolanda Adams toward the end of high school.” On full scholarship at Syracuse University, he studied with a “wonderful” teacher, Patti Thompson, “who helped me grow in a way that was necessary to have a life as an artist in this business and encouraged me to listen in ways I had not listened before.”
Despite being in the classical voice department, he sang with the jazz ensemble to remain active. One of his college buddies was a jazz buff who introduced him to the music of Nina Simone. He was underwhelmed, to put it mildly. “I couldn’t stand her voice. At that point, I’m studying classical music, and I’m a vocal snob; I know what good singing is, and that’s not it,” he says recalling his youthful haughtiness.
His perspective changed much later when upon hearing Ms. Simone's rendition of “Strange Fruit” he recognized that she was text painting, a compositional technique he was studying in repertoire. “Many of the classical composers like Schumann and Schubert wrote music in this way. The intellectual side of me was awakened, and in the midst of that, I randomly heard her sing that song. I thought my God, she’s doing exactly what these composers were doing. I fell in love with her at that point. I started going back to listen to her and thought wow, she’s been doing it this whole time.”
During high school Ms. Alexander took him and a couple of other dedicated classical students under her wing, often inviting them to her home. Jeremiah also learned under the tutelage of local singer, Julius Dix (“a magnificent piano player, who had a very special voice and took a liking to mine”) who gave him additional vocal lessons. William Warfield encouraged him in his classical music pursuits: “He did a couple of recitals and had me open for him.“
His first-ever song to be released was featured on Mosaic, the inaugural album of Syracuse University Recordings. “I did that with a friend, Jay Fenix, who has gone on to become a Grammy-nominated producer.” Another of his classmates, Cem Kurosman, now Senior Director of Publicity, Blue Note Records, initially secured an internship at the label using that CD as part of his pitch. “He came back and said to me, ‘Blue Note is interested in you,’ but I said, ‘Oh I’m going to be an opera singer.’ I didn’t know what I was turning down.”
Committed to pursuing an opera career, he went on to graduate school at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He began studying with 86-year-old Helen Hodam, who taught among others, opera singer Denyce Graves. “All her singers were incredible,” he says. “So I went to have a lesson with her.” Stooped from bones softened by time, but with a rapier-sharp brain, and the chops to sing and play in any key, she said, “Honey, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Despite his vast experience including “big fish” status at Syracuse, a Leontyne Price opera competition win, classical concerts and recitals around the country and a Carnegie Hall debut when he was twenty-one, still Miss Hodam said he didn't know what he was doing. “And she was completely right,” he says in retrospect. “I knew in my heart of hearts. I wasn’t consistent in a way that was going to serve me well if I was going to have a classical career. I was going to have to align my voice in a way I hadn’t known it needed.” Miss Hodam started him on vocal scales. “I never sang a song for a whole year; she wouldn't allow it. It frustrated me tremendously because my voice started to change and not in ways I was sure I would like. My voice used to be big, and it started getting thin, I didn’t recognize it. I would call my old voice teachers, I would call my mother, I would cry all the time. That first year was traumatic for me. Any singing opportunities that came up I turned down.” Yet he knew he was “destined for something, though. It wasn’t a matter of giving up as much as going through the process.”
“I was with an old-school teacher, she did not play, and I was impressed with her. She could take a classical piece of anything, look at it for two seconds and say, ‘this is not the right key for you’ and then transpose it on the spot. She was incredible! It was the kind of schooling that you just don’t see anymore with teachers. She was a real gem.” Miss Hodam took on only a limited number of students. He is grateful to have been among them. “I had the honor and the privilege to study with her twice a week, which was unheard of.” He'd visit her on weekends, and they'd listen to recordings as she regaled him with stories about the composer and the music. “I became a vocal nerd; I wanted to know what she knew. So I asked if I could observe her with other students. Every week I’d be in the studio watching her teach other singers.” He witnessed her process of rehabbing a student with vocal nodes. “I loved it so much; it was like a science to me.” He worked with her through his two years of graduate study (summer included) while holding down two, three jobs like trolley tours and retail sales at French Connection. When the opportunity arose to become a paralegal, he jumped at the chance for better money and flexible hours. “I was in school Monday and Tuesday and worked Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the law firm. Then I would leave the firm and go to school and do my practice every day. And I was actually teaching a little bit on the side. I was hustling. The life of an artist.”
By the spring of his second year in the intense opera program, his vocal capability was greater than ever before. “And I knew HOW I was doing it!” he exclaims. His confidence boosted, he started doing competitions and recitals again. “I was invited to sing for the classical radio station there. I had one of the leads in a production at Symphony Hall — an oratorio about slavery.” For which he landed on the cover page of the Boston Globe. “It was a really validating moment for me. I knew I was back where I needed to be, embarking upon the classical route. I started slaying it. By the end of graduate school, I received my first contract with an opera house in Europe, and I moved to Italy,” he says, enunciating “IH-tah-lee.”
With his natural ear for language (he speaks five: English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Twi — the native tongue of his Ghanaian kin — he adapted well to life in Europe. “When you study classical music, you’re getting a bit of understanding of German, a bit of French, a little Russian, so I was already feeling like a world citizen,” he says. Having studied Italian as an undergraduate, he was conversational and able to think in the language. Navigating it was a breeze, but the demanding vocal parts he’d been cast for were a challenge. “So Miss Hodam comes to Italy and stays with me for a few weeks and guides me through this music to get me ready for the season. She's 88, I think, at this point. Incredible! And she would have done that for any of her students. That’s how much she loved on us."
He'd had a fulfilling year with the opera company, performing throughout Europe when at a dinner party with friends, he played and sang one of his original pieces. Another African American singer asked him: “If you can do that, why are you here?” The question gave him pause. Though he loved the operatic experience, having recorded for the Mosaic album had sparked a desire to become a recording artist. His best friend encouraged him to come to New York, with an offer of a place to stay until he got on his feet, so he resigned from the opera house.
He came to New York in 2002. “I crashed on my best friend's couch for a year— that was a real blessing, he believed in me tremendously.” Once again, he went the paralegal route while simultaneously accepting musical engagements. He began doing solo gigs, making his Blue Note performance debut in 2004.
Courted by major labels Verve and Sony, he signed with Universal Republic Records and put out his debut record, Chasing Forever in 2006. Videos for the singles, “Get Away” and “Love for a While,” a duet with Shanice Wilson were in heavy rotation on VH 1 Soul and BET-J. “They really supported me so much, I ended up doing a concert on BET-J, then MTV was playing my video, and I started getting traction. Things were starting to blow up. Lines down the street to get into my concerts but I realized about a year in, that I was in a bad contract. I was touring, and I was broke. More broke after the deal than before it.” Because he was now a “major label artist” he was advised to forego the side hustles that kept him financially afloat. He put his belongings in storage and couch-surfed for a while as he tried to get out of the troublesome record deal. He felt defeated but nonetheless persevered, working part-time at the law firm, recording with prolific R&B/Pop producer, Barry Eastmond, and teaching voice. Eventually, “the teaching picked up enough that I could support myself, and I had my gigs.” He was able to get his own Harlem apartment. “So I was in a blessed position. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was doing okay. I was a working artist. People think success is being famous, no, success is being able to live from your art.”
Meanwhile, another mononymic artist, spelled J-e-r-e-m-i-h, released a song called “Birthday Sex,” and chaos ensued. Folks were calling his devout mother, asking if the artist was her son. Bookers were calling Jeremiah for appearances when it was Jeremih they wanted. Ultimately Jeremiah decided to embrace his surname Abiah (AH-bee-ah) as his stage name, not only to distinguish himself from the Jeremih canon but as a touchstone for his Ghanaian heritage.
He survived the economic downturn of 2008 with a revenue stream his mom, who once owned a bakery, suggested years ago when she taught him to bake. “It could be another skill you have in your pocket to make some money,” she’d said. “I lost a lot of gigs during that time,” he says. “I started Cake U Very Much, and let me tell you, those baked goods were paying my rent.” As the economy rallied, so did tour opportunities (frequently in Russia). As a vocalist in Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, he was selected to perform the eponymous role of “Sweetback,” in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – A Hood Opera, Melvin Van Peebles’ live theater revival of his iconic 1971 film. Workshopped in New York, the production premiered at the 2010 Sons d’hiver Festival in Paris. Then, television beckoned with a spot as a vocal coach on MTV’s Made.
The singularity of his voice and a vocal prowess hewn by God and honed by extensive study is influenced profoundly by female singers, starting with his own piano-playing mother. “In high school, I really admired Oleta Adams and Rachelle Ferrell. I loved that they played and sang; loved their dexterity, the ability to throw their voices in ways that I, personally, could do but hadn’t heard in a male. I could always imitate the higher parts of the voice that many men could not. Through Rachelle, I learned how to do whistle tones. Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughn. They were the singers I loved as I grew as a musician. Anita Baker sang and played too. Anita is one of the most important parts of my journey as a singer. I remember 16 years ago when I first came to New York, she did a concert at Westbury Music Fair. The moment she came out, I wept, and I could not stop crying. It was just one of those things where you don’t realize how much someone means to you until you experience it live. Her voice just washed over me, and I looked at her and realized: this is the reason I’m doing what I do." He hopes to meet her and express his gratitude for the world she unwittingly opened to him.
He's actually written a song for her, a demo that genre-bending pianist, Robert Glasper requested when he was working on some music for the velvety contralto. He and Glasper eventually met after many in their music circles suggested they connect. “He heard me sing and he was like ‘you’re dope, and I was like YOU’RE dope,’ and we just became kindred. I think when musicians meet and have a mutual respect of the talent they have, they just cling to each other.” A few years later, after learning Jeremiah grew up in Rochester, Robert, who was planning to visit his grandmother there phoned him to ask if he was heading up for Thanksgiving. “So he calls me the next day,” Jeremiah recalls. “He's like ‘Bro, you’re never gonna believe this, your mother and sister are in my grandmother’s living room; bro, we’re cousins!’ We were already so connected at heart, so when that happened, it just made sense. It was really cool; nothing is a coincidence.”
Now known simply as “ABIAH” he in 2010 independently produced Life as a Ballad under the auspices of his Madoh Music Group (so named as a reversal of “Hodam,” honoring his late teacher) in an inspired, single live recording session with bassist and co-producer Keith Witty, drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., guitarists Marvin Sewell and David Rosenthal and his cousin Robert on keys. Released in 2012, it features the Prince remake, "Doves” and “Goodbye,” a plaintive farewell to love Jeremiah originally wrote for Dianne Reeves that she never recorded. The video’s lush black and white cinematography by Francis Augustine features MaameYaa wistfully lip-synching to her husband’s vocals.
“I made a record on my own terms. It was the first time I had done that. I signed a deal with Purpose Music Group (Eric Roberson and Bilal) And then eOne came on board — the big distribution company, they helped me put that record out again in 2013, and out of nowhere it became a splash in Japan!” Which was a shock as Japanese fans didn't typically gravitate toward ballads. “But there was something that was speaking to that audience which opened up this whole new market for me. The label BBQ in Japan was essential to my successes there. So much so that I ended up performing at Blue Note in Tokyo.” And through a deal with Jingo Records, Taiwan followed in 2014. “So that record had a lot of life. Then I started getting invited to these festivals where I was playing for 100,000 people! Signing thousands of CDs, this was the thing that you dream of—on that level. That got me started again. I can do this, I can make a record and build a life on my own terms — I don’t need the validation of a label to do that. And VH1 was really supportive of the videos.”
All the while, he'd been teaching private voice lessons. “I became the go-to guy.” Everyone came calling, the record labels, producers, managers, Broadway hopefuls as well as stars. “I didn’t go into this with the idea of teaching, I went into this with the idea of being an artist.” But it has been tremendously gratifying for him to do both. “A conversation I had with my dad always stuck with me. He said, ‘if you want to change the world, you educate people.’ He sat me down and said, ‘You have these degrees, you’ve done this…he was able to list the things that I’ve done and said now what do you do?’ I’ve always trusted who I am, but most importantly whose I am. I’ve always known that God’s hand is upon my life. I always feel it, and teaching has turned into this amazing calling card for me as an educator.” He did not shrink from the gift of having observed Miss Hodam's pedagogy, meeting his destiny as both teacher and artist. “You have to have your blueprint, but you also have to have an eraser right next to it, because the course changes a little bit and you have to be willing to go along with it.”
With the release of Bottles in 2016, ABIAH expanded into Europe and Hong Kong. Featuring the original song “Sorry,” the record charted on the Billboard Top 100 albums list. Complementing the spare voice and piano arrangement are the clean, pared-down images and minimal typography of the “Sorry” music video by Scott Gordon Bleicher.
Long before the recent resurgence of interest in Nina Simone, Jeremiah had been performing her work in “sold-out Nina concerts.” Given his affinity for her music, he was a natural choice for vocal producer on Robert Glasper's soundtrack for the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? “Taking control of my narrative,” is crucial, he says as an indie artist. “Being able to keep creating music and feeding audiences because people now want content so often — that’s really hard to do. I’ve committed myself to putting out material much faster than I’ve done in the past.” He consciously determined to celebrate the softer side of Ms. Simone through balladry — her love songs — with ABIAH sings NINA. “I think that people really feel Nina when they hear this record. I did the Apollo, and people were coming out in tears saying ‘when I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell if it was Nina or you.’ To me, that’s validating.”
As if his plate wasn’t full enough, sharing his vocal expertise via social media has expanded into The ABIAH Way, his coaching and artist development brand. His instructional video clips, and informative tweets hashtagged #theabiahway have expanded his reach globally for vocal coaching and voice lessons. “I’m a voice teacher who coaches. I think that’s what sets me apart, I know the voice intimately. Not only am I a singer, but I’ve also schooled my voice, I know exactly what’s going on, and I know how to share that with singers in a way that’s going to give them healthy results. I can save a throat!” His online presence paved the way for his professorship in voice and songwriting at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. Teaching has created a bicoastal, triangulated schedule: a week of vocal coaching in New York, a day of teaching at Berklee, hop a plane to Los Angeles for a week of West Coast coaching, fly back to Boston for a day, then back to New York where the cycle begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat. “I don’t sleep,” he says. “It’s kinda crazy right now.” But he is grateful for it all and says, “The ABIAH Way is my love letter to the art of singing.”
And perhaps no sleep ‘til Hollywood. He was delighted to write the theme for the Nickelodeon show, Little Ballers. Now, having put film scoring on his vision board, he is excited to score an upcoming, Sundance-backed film. A book is in the works, and dreams of a television show crystalizing in his mind.
He remains open to possibilities; to saying yes, believing that yes will be a path to unexpected treasures. At a recent party in LA celebrating the Broadway-bound show, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, Jeremiah was asked by the host, musical director Jason Michael Webb to sing before the guests who included the show’s cast, MaameYaa and her cast mates from the play School Girls, and actors Cynthia Erivo and Gabourey Sidibe. “At first, I wasn’t going to sing because I’d just gotten off a plane, I’m in bad voice, all these excuses. My wife jabs me in the ribs and says ‘you’re gonna sing!’ So I get up and sing,” (long pause) “and shut. it. down. The beauty of it was the cast members from Ain’t Too Proud all came to me and said, ‘Will you be my vocal coach?’ What if I had not sung? There has to be a season of yes. Your gift will make room for you. I truly see that. I’ve seen it happen too many times in my life and that is what I hold so dear. That scripture says your gift will make room for you and present you before kings. (Proverbs 18:16) The more I yield to this process and not try to control everything, more and more continues to come my way. I’m amazed by the journey, I’m amazed by what it has turned into, and it has just started.”
1. Nina Simone. After some initial vocal snobbery, Nina Simone’s oeuvre wowed ABIAH. Her 1958 debut recording holds a special place in his music collection.
2. Thread Art. “This used to be one picture and I had my guy in Ghana make it into four pieces. It’s actually a face and he’s playing the Kora. I just love this piece.” As the mood strikes, he may display the deconstructed piece two over two, with the original image in full focus, or as here, non- sequentially, a randomized abstraction.
3. Kente cloth. “I have several, no two pieces are made alike. This is my most regal piece. I love when I get the opportunity to wear it because it makes me feel like this is where I belong, this is who I am. I decided to wear the kente on the cover of ABIAH sings Nina because Nina was drawn to Africa, she moved to Liberia at one point. I thought it would be a great way to merge our worlds.”
4. Two Cherished Books. Great Souls: Six Who Changed the Century. “So this was given to me by Ms. Thompson when I was graduating from undergrad. And one of the things she said captivated her about me was that she said I was a great soul. She felt that I had the ability to change the world with the soul that I am. She wrote this really beautiful note to me inside. It’s something I truly cherish. The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer by Renee Fleming. Obviously she’s the most famous opera singer in the world today and her mother having been my voice teacher; it kind of just reminded me of the beginning of my journey. But reading this book also reminds me of trusting my little voice inside of me. So every once in a while I just kind of glimpse at it. It gives me that “remember what you’re doing; trust what you’re doing; it’s all going to work out.”
5. Fashion. “I love a men’s suit; a good shoe.” He’s unafraid of color and pattern and commissioned his friend, Hass, fellow Ghanaian and designer of Danyaki by Hass to splatter-embellish a vintage kimono he bought in Japan. He looks forward to eventually rocking some pieces from Ghanaian British designer, Ozwald Boateng. He’s enamored with the synthesis of African-inspiration and Savile Row tailoring. “I went to his shop in London and was like Oh my God, I need that in my life!”
6. Boots. Among his favorites are variations on the Chelsea boot.
7. Collection of scarves. “I’m sort of known for my scarves, I have a lot, but the one I wear often — my childhood companion — is this one. It’s the lightest of them and I can wear it on flights. It really is very dear to me. I once lost it, and my wife was able to help me track it down.”
8. Travel to Ghana and Italy. “My Dad is a wonderful man. He has been pretty influential in my young adult life. He is from Ghana. I have a lot of family there. As I have gotten older, I try to draw closer to the Ghanaian side of my life, through the way I dress, through my presentation. I love to go to Kumasi.” Jeremiah and MaameYaa try to go every year, if possible. In Italy, he loves to travel in the south, especially Positano: “it’s very dear to me.” The country speaks to him so deeply, he’s learned to pray in Italian. Honoring this, his mother presented him with an Italian bible.
9. Food, particularly Ghanaian and Jamaican. “I chef it up.” But he won’t eat fufu - doesn’t like the texture. “And anybody who knows me, knows I love dessert. I’m a beast.”