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MPS student, a singer at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, wins a national award

Akira Harris - YoungArts awards winnerWhen Akira Harris heard three Milwaukee High School of the Arts classmates talking about the national YoungArts awards competition, the vocal student knew she had to give it a try, too, even though the deadline to enter was near. 

“I think I can whip something up real fast,” Akira said to herself.  

She did. And she won.  

Akira was among the winners from the U.S. and several other countries recognized recently by YoungArts, a Miami foundation that has been encouraging talented high school students since 1981. A number of their award winners have gone on to find fame, including singer Grace Weber, musician Jon Batiste, screenwriter John Ridley, and actors Viola Davis and Timothée Chalamet.  

YoungArts says the popular-voice award that Akira won “recognizes work that demonstrates exceptional technique; a strong sense of artistry; and a depth of thinking/performance that exceeds the level of peers at this career stage.” 

Akira’s award was one of 123 given to voice students. Others were recognized in the disciplines of classical music, dance, design, film, jazz, photography, theater, visual arts, and writing.  

As part of the award, Akira receives $250, a medallion, and ongoing mentorship, something vital to developing artists. YoungArts offers micro grants to young artists — to make a music video, for example — and connects them with other artists. The artists might be peers just starting out or those established in their fields.  

“Being an artist is very stressful,” Akira noted. “It’s hit or miss.” The support of YoungArts, though, “makes me think that there’s always someone to turn to,” she added. 

For the competition’s four required performance videos, Akira sang: 

  • “Get Here,” a hit for vocalist Oleta Adams; 

  • “Put Your Records On,” by English singer Corinne Bailey Rae and covered more recently by Ritt Momney; 

  • “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Bill Withers song from 1971;  

  • “All I Ask,” by English singer Adele.  

Akira was quite familiar with “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “All I Ask” — “I sang those songs for years,” she said — but “Put Your Records On” and especially “Get Here” were new to her repertoire. “Get Here” was suggested to her by MHSA alum Damien Blair, himself an award-winning jazz musician. 

“I was particularly taken with her rendition of ‘Ain't No Sunshine,’“ said MHSA Choral Director Raymond Roberts. “I am truly amazed when students reach back and study songs that were composed many decades before they were born and bring authenticity and individuality to these iconic American treasures.” 

“Her set of four tunes also conveyed a depth and breadth of musical understanding crossing styles and genres, including both American and British pop traditions,” Roberts observed.  

Akira started at Milwaukee High School of the Arts last year as a junior, after moving here with her family from Massachusetts. Since she was always in choir in school there, her mother told her about MHSA.  

After growing up singing along to Disney princess movies, Akira’s favorite genre to sing is musical theater. “I like the acting aspect of musical theater,” she said.  

But she has spread her musical wings at MHSA, even singing opera. “I think it’s a really good learning experience,” she said. “Opera is not something a typical high school student sings,” Akira said, so she was nervous at first, but not for long.  

“It was a lot of fun,” Akira recalled, “just throwing yourself in this new area.” 

In December, she sang the key role of the mother in the one-act opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” It was performed with the rest of the MHSA choir in a Concord Chamber Orchestra concert at the Basilica of St. Josaphat. 

Akira, who describes herself as an alto at heart who loves singing low, auditioned for the soprano part in “Amahl” and surprised herself. “I didn’t think I could sing something so high,” she said. 

“My range has expanded so much more, and I’m able to do so many more things” than when she first arrived at MHSA, Akira said. “When I moved here, my voice was not even close to where it is now, in any aspect.” 

The school choir she sang with in Massachusetts was very small, she said, and not all the students took it seriously. At MHSA, “I was excited to sing with people who cared about music as much as I did. I heard people my age sing like I’d never heard any person my age sing before,” she said.  

“I had to push myself harder” to be as good as those classmates, said Akira, a senior. “This last year, I just want to take every opportunity that there is and immerse myself in everything,” she said.  

Akira wants to become a music educator and hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “My first-ever music teacher and all my teachers have been so inspiring to me,” she said. The reason she thinks they’re amazing teachers is that they were inspired by someone, too.  

And she wants to be that person for young singers someday. “If I had had a music teacher who looked like me, that would have been so impactful,” she said. 


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