Humanitarian First, Singer Second: Nigerian-Born Soprano Abiodun Koya on Her Multi-Faceted Career

By Chris Ruel

Soprano Abiodun Koya is about as multifaceted as a person can get: opera singer, poet, fashion designer, model, activist, and humanitarian, to name a few. But the title she’s most proud of? Humanitarian.

The soprano is living out that purpose, singing in front of and meeting people who can effect positive change and help forward her foundation’s goals.

The Abiodun Koya Foundation’s mission, as related on their website, is to improve the lives of women and children in sub-Saharan Africa through equal access to education. In my conversation with Koya, she stated that, to date, the Foundation has helped nearly 5,000 women and children in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I sometimes like for people to refer me to as a humanitarian first and a singer second. The entire purpose of my existence is to serve others,” Koya said as we spoke over the phone. “I love to help people who don’t have a voice or any sort of platform. I use music to bring awareness of disadvantaged children, widows, women in prison, and many other issues.”

Walking Home

I wanted to know where Koya’s desire to be humanitarian came from. Raised in a well-to-do family in southwestern Nigeria, Koya’s father lived in the United States during the 70s while attending Howard University and then in the United Kingdom while at University of Cardiff.

Koya said, “When he came back to Nigeria, he had seen two different worlds—the western world and the African world. He made it a point of duty to be a humanitarian, a local humanitarian. He started out by helping the poor in the community, especially those in the church that I grew up in.

I remember we would go to church on Sundays, and my sister and I would go in my father’s car, but coming back, my dad would have us walk home because he needed to use the car to bring food to the church and feed the people who were poor, especially the widows and the orphans; he just really loved that.”

At the time, the walk home irritated Koya and her sister. They didn’t know why, as his children, they seemed to take second place.

“We never understood that he was a humanitarian, and he had a heart for people. Growing up, I started emulating that unconsciously. It wasn’t until later that I could connect the dots and saw that I was doing exactly what my dad used to do; it had come full circle.”

A Voice for the Voiceless

Koya’s Foundation primarily raises money through benefit concerts and dinners, whose guests hold the levers of power. She has sung in front of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Nigerian kings, and ambassadors from around the globe, and the way she connects with them is through her gifts.

“My primary tool is my singing; it’s the voice and the presentation. I put a lot of thought into everything I do; I make sure it’s professional, top to bottom and bottom to top. When I have such a presentation, it’s easy for me to talk to them or approach them because they’re delighted by the music.”

Of the many political, thought, and cultural leaders she has met, it was someone from her home country who left the biggest impression.

“The Ooni of Ife, His Imperial majesty, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi. He’s the king of my tribe, the Yoruba tribe. The throne he sits on is ancient and one of the highly most respected thrones from Africa. He and I have been able to bond because he’s proud of what I’m doing. That has enabled me to have his ear and have him attend some of my concerts. He also loves how most of the time I wear an African couture gown for my performances.”

Translator, Poet, and Sci-Fi

When speaking with me about the King, Koya told me Yoruba is both the name of her tribe and its language. She then told me of another project she has undertaken, that of translation.

African languages have zero representation in opera. Koya’s out to change that by translating arias and songs.

“Yoruba is also my language, and one of my missions as a singer is to bring the African languages into classical music. If you look at the classical world, they used German, French, Italian, etcetera, in most songs and arias. There is no African language representation in the classical world. Not even in Swahili, which is the most popular African language. So, I believe I was born to show the world that there are other beautiful languages that could also fit into this genre.”

A book of poetry by Koya, “The Moods of a Goddess,” published in December, contains 30 poems by the soprano. Interspersed are bits of wisdom and advice—”Quotesmiths”—and a section called “De-Light” that focuses on self-awareness and reflection.

“I’m really proud and excited,” said Koya about the book. “I feel like a Shakespeare descendant because my mom had a library in the house, and in my teenage years, I read a lot of Shakespeare.

I have a poem called “Dear LA,” because I moved from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles. It’s kind of an ode to LA, and my perspective about that and how I feel about the city. LA feels like a person to me, so I personified it. There are also a couple of satirical poems reflecting on society, religion, God, relationships, love, and heartbreak.”

There’s one more project worth mentioning, and that’s the creation of a sci-fi concert opera, “Future Symphony.”

“It’s a sci-fi musical concert; like seeing Star Wars on stage, but in a musical format. I developed the concept and tried it out, and it was a success in Nigeria. I’m hoping to do a residency of it in LA and have people come see the show twice a week for several months. I want to put the word out about that.”


Black History MonthInterviewsStage Spotlight