Sankofa, a word meaning “reach back and get it”, also translated as “return and fetch it” in Ghana’s Akan language, is a perfect word to summarize this woman’s professional life choices. Using her God-given talent and understanding that music is her ministry, today’s Woman to Watch is defining history through the arts!
Please introduce yourself…
Hello my name is Asha Lindsey. I’m a professional opera singer and founder of Sankofa Opera, a youth opera company based in Harlem, N.Y. My career as an Opera singer has taken some very interesting and exciting turns. The journey has made some of my “little girl” dreams come true and far surpassed them. I have performed in major opera houses and theaters in America, Europe, and The Caribbean, made a few recordings, and performed roles with great critical acclaim. I am currently living in Vienna, Austria working as a freelance artist and managing The Sankofa Kids music program (a subsidiary of Sankofa Opera) at Vienna Elementary School.
Tell us about your work…
Asha: Sankofa Opera is -“Opera relevant to urban youth”. The program is designed to empower students who don’t have access to this Art form to think bigger and use creative power to change their realities. We take the mystery away from the multimedia Art form of Opera by giving the participants access to musical scores and voice coaching to perform the roles effectively. The fun part is creating an Opera that reflects the community, culture, and language that you find young urban culture. We leave this creative process up to the participants (age 10- 21) and guide them to choices that will convey their realities on stage. The participants then share their production with their peers and communities so that Opera, empowerment, and a positive showcase of talent is accessible to all.
The Sankofa Kids General music curriculum produces “thinking musicians” who are socially aware and politically empowered. Our curriculum spans grades K-12. It is through our program of challenging music theory, instrumental and vocal training, music history and performance that students understand the Art of Music and their responsibility to this Art. Sankofa Kids Curriculum takes a step further and helps young musicians realize the potential of their talents in the music industry and their creative power to reform the industry through musical entrepreneurship.
Why did you decide to start Sankofa and why do you think it is important?
Asha: I decided to start Sankofa Opera in 2007 because I noticed my community of Harlem, N.Y. was almost completely void of all the State and Federally funded Art programs that made New York a creative hotbed in the 1980’s and 90’s. Through political scandal or just redistribution of funding, groups like The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem fell silent, my alma mater The Harlem School of the Arts was in danger of closing its doors, The Dance Theater of Harlem and many other great Harlem institutions were in serious financial trouble. As a result, a generation of talented young people who through these now extinct programs would have realized the power of their talent, the importance of developing a skill, and the heritage they were responsible to carry stopped using creative energy and looked for other ways to escape low economic realities. Some were successful but many were not. I wanted to revive the environment that lovingly pushed me to follow my dreams to college and then to the world.
What impact, if any, does your work have on women?
Asha: Both the Sankofa Opera and Sankofa Kids programs empower girls and young women to dream big and not subscribe to what a current circumstance or surrounding dictate. Training of any kind athletic, artistic, vocational brings us to a better and honest understanding of ourselves.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work and what are you most proud of?
Asha: I am most proud of my students! These wonderful young minds and talents come and share their lives with me. We share our lives with each other. We build trust and bonds, both that of student/ teacher but also as colleagues and friends. The most rewarding part(s) of the Sankofa programs are watching the transformation of young lives. ‘Sankofa’ has an annual Karaoke Holiday Party with my students in NYC. Most of my students from N.Y. are in their last year of college with full or partial scholarships in music, opera, or musical theatre. We keep in touch through social media. I think it would be rather arrogant to take credit for their journey but I am honored to be a part.
What has been most challenging about your work?
Asha: The most challenging aspect of my work as a freelance opera singer has been growing into the artist I want to be without being afraid of outside opinions. Integrity. For YEARS I have been “too hip hop” for opera and “too opera” for hip hop. Finally I have defined the artist I want to be. I celebrate instead of hide that I am a black woman that grew up in Washington Heights N.Y., love everything about Black culture (even the ratchet stuff) and sing Opera with musical integrity, precision and Sooooul!
The most challenging aspect of my work as the founder of the Sankofa programs is ‘writing the vision and making it plain.’ The Sankofa Programs partner with existing organizations. Our programs can be tailored to meet the needs of each client. In the collaboration it is important for each of us to find a point where our missions connect to bring the best program to that community. The process can be trying but the outcome is always overwhelmIngly positive.
What is your favorite quote and why?
“What’s the solution?” -Larry D. Lindsey
Asha: (pretty sure he wasn’t the only one to use it). This quote from my late father reminds me that I shouldn’t be an on looking, head wagging complainer to the problems or challenges of life but rather search for a solution.
Who are your greatest influences?
Asha: Dora Lee Kuykendoll (paternal grandmother) for examples of unapologetic Black womanhood, selfless love, and GREAT sacrifice for the betterment of family. Larry D Lindsey (father) for examples of Black manhood, humanity, the power of education, daring to dream. Joan Faye Donovan (African-American Opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera house in the 80’s and soloist at my church) for examples of dying with the dignity, using the gift God gives to minister to yourself and others, to be a humble and GREAT artist at the same time, to be a successful woman in show business.
What would you like for your legacy to be?
Asha: I am an advocate for all the things I am Black, woman, musician, entrepreneurs, child of God, lover, friend, sister, daughter… and hope by advocating for these titles to gain their rightful place in our society that I leave the world better than I found it. In a word LOVE.
What’s next for you?
Asha: Expanding the Sankofa programs to new communities around the world, becoming a children’s book author, and releasing a solo album of Art Songs.
Is there someplace online where readers can connect with you and follow your work?
Asha: Folks are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter/IG @ashakiwi as well as Facebook Asha Lindsey or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for any inquiries about the Sankofa programs.