Idara Akpakpa: On A High Note

“Ladies and gentleman, would you please rise and remove your caps as we honor America in the singing of our national anthem…”

As the warm-up music cuts, fans shuffle to their feet. There is a bit of commotion in doing so, but soon, virtually everyone faces the large flag draped against the south end of the Bren Events Center, which is suddenly noiseless despite the fact that a women’s volleyball match is set to take place in a matter of minutes. The silence lingers for a brief moment before a subtle voice chimes into the PR system, steadily picking up…

“…oooOOOO say can you SEEEE, byyYYYY the DA-wn’s ear-LY LIIIGHHT…What’s so PROU-dlyyyy we hail-ed…”

The UC Irvine women’s volleyball players can barely contain their giddiness. Despite hearing this in all of their home games of the year now, they still get excited and fired up, chiming in with their own cheers and adding to the chorus of the enchanting tune.
“…And the roc-ket’s red GL-AAAAREeeee…the bombs bursting in AA-IRRRrrrr…”

As the singer belts out and twangs the last words of these two lines, a few stray eyes from the audience begin to turn away from the flag in search of the source of the magnificent melody. Even some members of the opposition sway to their sides, in awe of the angelic voice that has permeated the air of the arena.

At the microphone is a 6’0’’ middle blocker rocking white knee pads matching her white Adidas socks and shoes. The number 13 is stitched brightly on the front and back of her long-sleeved mesh navy and yellow uniform. Her hair is tied back and a thin headband holds it all in place, ready for action.

It’s a familiar warm-up for junior Idara Akpakpa, a routine that comes as naturally as timing a block or rising high for a kill.

However, singing the national anthem has become an integral part of Akpakpa, providing a peek into her little-known talent while blending two of her sincere passions together.

Long before Idara Akpakpa emerged as the starting middle blocker for the UC Irvine women’s volleyball team, currently averaging 2.40 kills per set on .391 hitting — third in Big West conference play — while garnering 43 total blocks, the Antioch-Brentwood, Calif. native once had dreams of becoming a big-time singer.

As a teen, she idolized Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and other talented artists with a full vocal range, hoping to one day be able to belt at the top of her lungs in the same way that her favorite artists could. She was simply awaiting her shot on “American Idol”, “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent.”

Growing up in Antioch, a modest town in Northern California, Akpakpa’s family was always musically oriented. Akpakpa began singing at the age of six or seven, and her two younger siblings, Meyene and Otu, also developed some natural musical knacks. Meyene, now 14, taught herself how to play the piano while Otu, currently a sophomore at Sacramento State, took on the drums. The trio passed much of their youth engaging in their own little jam sessions, and Akpakpa began thinking seriously of devoting herself to music.

Of course, Akpakpa did not just spend her time idly dreaming. With her ambition and natural talent, she spent almost eight years carefully working and developing her voice with private instructor Nuhad Levasseur, a renowned vocal coach whom Akpakpa had met while singing for Golden Hills Church in Antioch. Levasseur, who would later oversee the rise of 2015 “The Voice” contestant and fellow Antioch native Ashley Morgan, recognized talent in a young nine-year-old Akpakpa and went on to mentor her up until her sophomore year of high school. With Levasseur’s help, Akpakpa went on to thrive in a few notable middle and high school productions. She even tried out for “American Idol” and the “X Factor” — a longtime goal that she always had in the back of her mind.

In the eighth grade, Akpakpa landed a lead role in “All Shook Up,” a musical written by Joe DiPietro that is inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and features songs from Elvis Presley. On a set that featured her first duet and on-stage kiss coupled with tons of choreography, Akpakpa still considers this her first big show. Although a bit flustered in preparation, she relished the moment and embraced all that was yet to come.
Once Akpakpa got into Liberty High in Brentwood, a neighboring city she had moved to, she competed in the school’s ninth annual “Liberty Idol” singing competition. Performing “Listen” by her longtime idol Beyoncé, Akpakpa became the first-ever freshman to snag first place as well as the $200 and flowers that went along with the honor. Feeling elated and blessed, she celebrated that night with the other contestants, who could not stop showering her with high praise.

When interviewed by The Lion’s Roar, Liberty High’s student paper, one contestant saw the potential for Akpakpa’s potential singing career: “Idara is extremely talented and she is the first freshman to ever win Liberty Idol, which is pretty amazing. She has a huge amount of talent and will definitely go far with her music.”

By this time, however, Akpakpa was juggling schoolwork, singing, theatre, and volleyball — a passion that she had picked up after her friends had gotten heavily invested in playing during the seventh grade. Despite her late start — most volleyball players learn the fundamentals of the sport at a much younger age — Akpakpa had a raw aptitude for picking up elements of the game rather quickly and soon emerged as one of the best middle blockers in the area.

Equipped with these gifts on the court and behind the mic, Akpakpa adopted an unrelenting love for both. But with the high demands and long practice hours with her volleyball team, Akpakpa began to turn much of her attention to the sport. Still, singing remained, and still remains, an important hobby that allowed Akpakpa to share her spirit and high energy with others.

Ever the challenge seeker, she constantly sought out new opportunities to perform and add to her range whenever she was not practicing.
She likens this natural drive for singing to the same one that keeps her motivated and refining her abilities on the court. In a way, she often approaches singing much in the same way that she approaches volleyball.

“I just always like to challenge myself and try different things,” Akpakpa said. “I guess that also plays into volleyball…I like to challenge myself with my abilities and my skills…and in singing I like to challenge myself with my range and trying different runs and trying different genres of music.”
One such genre of music that initially served as a daunting task for Akpakpa came at Liberty High when she was required to perform an Opera Aria piece as a chamber singer in the school’s choir. Since Akpakpa identifies much more as an R&B singer with a belting style, she considered Opera a bit “out of her zone” as it would force her to change up her voice and adjust. Nevertheless, she prevailed, checking off another noteworthy milestone and garnering even more praise.

While many more performances would soon follow, including a few engagements in musical theatre, a number of performances with her choir, and a couple of outings at weddings, Apakpa’s defining song, one that came to blend her worlds of singing and sports together, is simply contained within eight lines of a single verse.

It began on senior night. Some of Akpakpa’s close teammates at Liberty High who were aware of her vocal talent informed head coach Linda Ghilarducci about it. Ghilarducci, perhaps from a mixture of genuine curiosity and trues in her team, invited Akpakpa to sing.

“It was really cool,” Akpakpa recalls. “I had sung in front of bigger crowds before then, but just being able to sing in front of all my friends and people who didn’t know I could sing…it was nerve-wracking…but it was really cool.”

All of the sudden, Akpakpa was a hot ticket. People began to request her to sing the anthem at large-scale events on and off campus, varying from football, basketball, and track games to Nigerian Association meetings and San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Conventions, where she also sang the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song that was originally performed as a poem by James Weldon Johnson on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.

The first time she sang for her teammates at UCI, also on a senior night, Akpakpa drew a similar reaction, blowing away her teammates and garnering near-instant notoriety around the athletics community.

Fellow junior Haley DeSales, who transferred to UCI from Washington State in 2016, was late to the party. When she met her new teammates, everyone was raving about Akpakpa. Doing what most new teammates on the squad had done prior to joining the team, DeSales looked up Akpakpa on Instagram and watched some of her videos. Still, she was surprised when she heard Akpakpa sing in person for the first time.

“She is unbelievable,” DeSales said. “She’s such a phenomenal singer. Every time she sings the national anthem, I just get chills and we all cheer. It’s one of those things that you just don’t expect from an athlete.”

Having had the honor to sing the anthem for so many years and counting, the song has become an important part of Akpakpa.

“I know it like the back of my hand,” Akpakpa said. “I can sing it whenever [and] wherever. [The national anthem] is probably the most sung song of my whole life.”

In recent years, however, the anthem has found itself in the political spotlight, garnering new significance and controversy. The playing or singing of the national anthem during sports events has been a long pregame tradition that dates back to the early 1900s. But in the past year, the tradition, or rather what one chooses to do during the tradition, has become a platform for many to speak out against social injustices against minorities in country, namely in African American communities.

Pulling the worlds of politics and sports together, national anthem protests have now appeared prominently into some professional leagues across the nation. Colin Kaepernick, a former starting NFL quarterback for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, spearheaded what is arguably the most well-known anthem protest in recent memory when he began taking a knee prior to the start of his games.

As a Samoan-Nigerian athlete who has also found a special place for the national anthem in her heart, Akpakpa fully understands the impact of the protests.
“I absolutely see the NFL and the statement that [the players] are trying to make and I fully support it,” Akpakpa said. “I think that their protests do reach the people that they need to reach. [The national anthem] is a platform and everyone sees the national anthem as a part of everything so for them to peacefully protest and silent protest…it does get the message across.”

As the 2017 campaign goes on, Akpakpa will continue to sing the national anthem, providing an extra spark at the Bren Events Center.
Six years ago, in that same interview with The Lion’s Roar following her victorious “Liberty Idol” performance, Akpakpa was asked what she would like to continue to do at Liberty as well as her future pursuits:

“I really love volleyball, so I’m going to stick with that; I’m hoping to get some theater in there too.”

“If music can get me a career, I would love that. I would also really like to be a doctor.”

For the most part, it is safe to say that the third-year pharmaceutical sciences major, starting middle blocker, and national anthem singer has made good on her words.