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Singer Kimberly Hawkins on Starting Out, Inspirations, and her Debut Album 'In The Valley'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/10/2015 Andrew Benkovic

Like many singers, Kimberly Hawkins started singing at a young age. "I started singing in school choirs in junior high, around age 12." the Chicago-born, Aurora Illinois-raised singer states. "I did musicals in junior high, high school and beyond."
Her interest in opera goes back to Sesame Street, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and Chicago's Grant Park Symphony. "Sesame Street had a stop-action photography video of an orange with rubber band lips singing the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen. I fell in love with that video. Mr. Rogers invited opera singers to the neighborhood and the Grant Park Symphony was her first orchestra concert." She explains.
It wasn't until her senior year at MacMurry College that she started her formal training. Already a psychology/biology double major, Hawkins was also active in her campus choir. "The choir was about to go on tour around Illinois." She states. "My friend Brenda had the big solo for the song "Ain't Got Time to Die" but she couldn't go on tour. She convinced me to audition and taught me the part." Later that afternoon Hawkins sang for the director and choir. "The director asked, 'Who's next?' Nobody moved. He made other people try it anyway, but gave me the solo. By the end of the tour, I knew I had to change my plans."
Instead of taking the MCAT the following month, she auditioned for the music department and added a third major. Hawkins later earned her Master's Degree from the Cleveland Institute and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of California Santa Barbra.
Her debut album In the Valley will be released this month. A CD of Spirituals, Hawkins wrote all the arrangements, something she credits her sister for helping her unleash. After asking her to write scary music for a horror movie she was making, she agreed and wrote and orchestrated it from her computer. Her sister loved it. "Despite years of music theory classes, it had never occurred to me that I could write my own accompaniments and arrangements until Stacie's film. Now, as long as I know the melody of a song. I can write my own accompaniment."

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With In The Valley, Hawkins drew inspiration from her Baptist church upbringing and ongoing study of West African musical traditions that came across the Atlantic with her ancestors. "Some of these traditions are alive and well in African American churches." She explains. "I started reading music when I was eight years old and noticed we weren't singing the music as it was printed in the hymnals." she says. "I didn't know it then, but I was inheriting an oral (and aural) tradition. When I began this project I wrote out the parts meticulously. But as I stood in front of the microphone I wanted to improvise harmony the way I had in church. So I stopped writing and just sang."
Her first experiment with African percussion instruments (Djembe, Dunun, Calabash, etc.) was Kumbaya. "I wanted to push back against the song's fluffy, derogatory image in popular culture. The percussion adds some of the gravitas the prayer deserves."
One of Hawkin's biggest inspirations is Maya Angelou. "Her words, 'Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave,' got me through my doctoral program and have become my mantra. Her words remind me I am supported by those who came before me and that makes me want to inspire others."
Her music inspirations range and include Aretha, Mary J. Blige, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman and more. "I sing along with Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Sir Elton and Sir Paul. I'm inspired by great performances. I was blown away by Kendrick Lamar's performance on Late Night a couple of weeks ago. That kind of commitment to excellence makes me want to be better."
Prior to meeting Hawkins I was unaware of what Spirituals were. However, after doing a little research, I found it interesting and intriguing. As she noted in our conversations, many of her peers starting taking vocal lessons in their teens. While always interested in music, this is something she started later and with a little initial push from a friend. I can somewhat relate as I did not explore my passion for writing until far into my college experience. She is another great example that it is never too late to follow your dreams and pursue one's passion.
Hawkins has performed recitals, operas, concerts, lecture recitals and oratorios, and operas all over the United States and abroad. She will soon present "The Spiritual Experience" in Oceanside CA. This is a lecture-recital and slide presentation. Between songs she will teach the history and development of Spirituals. On December 11 2015, she'll give a presentation at the British Library as part of their "West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song" Exhibit. For more information on Kimberly Hawkins, visit her site here.
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Photographer: Yasmina Amimi

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