When Sharon Udoh, who records and performs as Counterfeit Madison, decided to put together a Nina Simone tribute concert earlier this year, she wasn't thinking about the socially charged nature of the jazz singer's catalogue. Rather, fueled by a distaste for “Nina,” a dramatized 2016 account of the musician's life and career starring Zoe Saldana, Udoh set out to prove that a so-called “nobody in Columbus, Ohio” could do better justice to the source material than the “Avatar” actress.

Months of political discord and racial tension further heightened by the July police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, however, caused Udoh to reflect more deeply on the words in songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Strange Fruit,” with its allusions to “black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze.”

“I’ve always revered Nina as this piano player. She’s a black female piano player; I’m a black female piano player. She has a classical background. She has my range. But she was also this person. She was around when she could look out the window and see people getting hosed in the streets. She was like, 'There are people out there telling me I don’t deserve to live, so I’m going to come to your space and you’re going to applaud me because I’m a fucking queen,'” said Udoh, who performs her Simone show at the Brewery District space Notes on Saturday, Aug. 13. “Throughout this process, Jesus, Allah, Buddha — whoever it was — decided I would need these songs to counteract what’s happening around me. These songs ... have been therapy for these fucking crazy times. When I see what people are telling me about me, I’m defiant. And I am turning to this defiant music.”

A similar spirit is fueling the inaugural Soul Dope Music Festival, which takes place Saturday, Aug.13 at Lincoln Cafe. The event, organized by soul/R&B singer Qamil Wright and emceed by rapper Jai Carey, features a mix of live music and spoken-word performers and is designed to raise awareness of gun violence. (Wright and Carey recently teamed for a tune, “March On,” a mournful-yet-optimistic freedom song that comes on like a holdover from the Staples Singers’ mid-'60s set lists.)

“This summer has been particularly hard — losing somebody, and then the police shootings,” said Wright, who became further motivated to engage in activist causes after friend Jamaal L. Taylor was found shot dead behind the wheel of his car in early June. “I’m like, 'OK, what can I do to use this platform I spent five years creating [as a musician]?' I feel so much responsibility to use it for something good, the same way I feel responsible for being a good parent, and I feel responsible for the city and the place where I lay my head and raise my kid and make my money. I have to live here, so I feel I should be giving back.”

Increasingly, black musicians have been embracing this public platform to bring further media attention to cases of black men and women killed by police. Recently, Beyonce, Rihanna and Alicia Keys turned up in a video supporting the We Are Here Movement and titled “23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America,” and on new song “spiritual,” the normally unflappable rapper Jay-Z flashes a more emotional side. “I am not poison / Just a boy from the hood that got my hands in the air / In despair don't shoot / I just wanna do good,” he rhymes.

“I think all art is political,” said Nashville singer, songwriter and guitarist Adia Victoria, who performs at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, Aug. 13. (The musician has been an outspoken proponent of the Black Lives Matter movement on social media and her songs wrestle with the South's conflicted racial history.) “You do have a platform. You do have a lot of ears and eyes on you. What you decide to do with that says a lot about your character and your intention and your integrity as an artist.”

For Udoh, the Simone show is a natural culmination of a racial journey that started six years ago, wherein she learned to embrace her blackness as a source of beauty and strength.

“I have to tell myself that I am beautiful and I am deserving of living, and I don’t have to listen to what people — to what the world — tells me about myself. There are messages everywhere about darker being uglier and darker being less than and darker not mattering. I have to learn to rise above that messaging,” said Udoh, who initially shied from her cultural roots following an early grade school incident where the musician, who was born to Nigerian parents, was mocked by classmates after referring to her armpit as an “ahm-pit,” adopting the more heavily accented pronunciation used in the family home. “That’s when I understood, not only am I black, but I’m also foreign. I was in a white school, and from that moment I really rejected my blackness up until six years ago when my dad was arrested. I was like, 'Wait, I give up. I’m dark.' That’s when I stopped relaxing my hair and being like, 'OK, what do I actually look like?' Not what do I think I look like or what did I want to look like.”

The journey hasn't been without its pitfalls — Udoh has been handcuffed by police on multiple occasions and was even accused by authorities of stealing her own car — but these run-ins have only steeled the musician's reserve, emboldening her to make the most of her time on Earth by empowering others via music.

For Udoh, Wright and Carey, the decision to engage the community and bring attention to issues of social justice was deeply inspired by a desire to improve conditions for future generations — Wright is the mother of a young daughter, and Udoh and Carey work with children — rather than giving in to hopelessness.

“After I wrote ['March On' in mid-July], I went to work and I sat in the parking lot and I had to explain to 45 black kids all under the age of 13 like, 'Yo, you have police officers who you’ve been taught are there to protect you, and they’re killing people for the simple fact they look like you and they’re scared,'” said Carey, who works with a youth organization. “How do you have that conversation? There has to be something that’s going to counter that emotion, otherwise it’s only despair.”

“For those of us that have children, you have to have some hope you’re going to leave them something that’s OK,” Wright said. “When I look at my daughter, that gives me hope.”

Udoh explores this enduring optimism in “Brown Baby,” the lone song from the Simone set she's yet to complete in rehearsal without breaking into tears.

“It's a song [Simone] wrote to a future brown person, and the last verse is, 'It makes me glad you gonna have things that I never had / When out of men's hearts all hate is hurled / Sweetie, you gonna live in a better world,'” Udoh said.

But it's actually a line earlier in the song that rings truest hearing Udoh, Wright, Carey and others speak on these issues: “I want you to stand up tall and proud / And I want you to speak up clear and loud.”

“I remember a light turning on where it was like, 'I need to speak on these issues through my art,'” said Udoh. “Being black is a journey for everyone, and I think a lot of us got to that place this summer where it was, 'OK, we have to do something with our art or things will never change.' This is something I need to do.”


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