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University of Missouri

Standing Ovation

School of Music grad performs on national stage.

It was a cold winter day when Alicia Miles-Olatuja took the stage, but the adrenaline pumping through her veins provided a buzz that kept her warm. More than 1 billion people were about to tune in to watch the Grammy Award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir perform the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the 2013 presidential inauguration. Miles-Olatuja, BA ’05, was the soloist.

Alicia Miles-Olatuja

Alicia Miles-Olatuja, who has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, will perform Aug. 11 at the Missouri Black Expo in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Miles-Olatuja.

To avoid making a monumental lyric flub during such a historical moment, Miles-Olatuja employed a trick she learned at Mizzou.

As a junior, Miles-Olatuja was cast as Sacagawea in the premiere of Corps of Discovery, an operetta based on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. She felt overwhelmed by the number of songs she had to memorize.

I developed hand signals to go with the words I was singing,” Miles-Olatuja says. “While I was practicing, if I was singing about the sun, I’d point to the sun. My body remembered the gestures better than the words.”

Standing on the U.S. Capitol’s western front, Miles-Olatuja used that same technique. As she sang, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,” she made a hand signal that reminded her of flowers and another reminiscent of the sea.

Brooklyn gave birth to a new musical star at Monday’s inauguration,” wrote Jim Farber of the New York Daily News following her performance.

Miles-Olatuja has been performing professionally since she moved to New York in 2005 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Along with her British-Nigerian, bass-playing husband, Michael, she performs in the African jazz band The Olatuja Project. The couple released their first album, The Promise, in spring 2011. In March 2013, she released a single, “In the Dark,” off her upcoming solo album, Timeless, which will be available in early 2014.

Since coming to New York, Miles-Olatuja has collaborated with musicians such as Christian McBride and Chaka Khan. But she says her musical career didn’t begin when she moved to the Big Apple. It started at Mizzou.

People wouldn’t expect that — because [Mizzou’s] not a conservatory — but sometimes it’s better because you have more opportunities to perform,” she says. “At a conservatory where most of the leads go to master’s students, you’ll spend your time performing as Flower Girl No. 14. I did more performing at Mizzou than I did at the Manhattan School of Music.”

Miles-Olatuja is coming home to St. Louis Aug. 11 where she’ll be a guest soloist at the Missouri Black Expo. She plans on stopping in CoMo for a slice of Shakespeare’s pizza and to visit the School of Music to say, “Thanks.”