Adrian Dunn, a critically acclaimed, multi-genre musical artist and social justice advocate from Chicago, will be bringing the Adrian Dunn Singers, an all-Black professional vocal ensemble established in 2018, to perform “The Black Messiah” at Madison’s Overture Center on Friday, Dec. 16, as part of the annual Songs for Hope Holiday Music Spectacular.
This year marks the 10th year of the Songs for Hope Annual Holiday Spectacular, an event that opera singer Prenicia Clifton started in honor of her late father.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Clifton started singing opera at the age of eight and is now an accomplished opera singer with credits in major opera houses around the world including opening opera houses with Placido Domingo and sharing the stage with opera greats like Renee Fleming, Denyce Graves, Eric Owens and Grammy award winners Thomas Glenn and Adrienne Dandrich.
Clifton started the Songs for Hope Annual Holiday Spectacular in 2012 to honor her father, Prentess Clifton, a dedicated teacher and fierce advocate for youth, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011.
“My dad started off teaching in a regular K-12 school. On his first day of school, the kids were kind of troubled and there were huge fights and we asked him why he stayed and he said, ‘I’m staying so they don’t have to stay,'” Clifton remembers. “And when he passed away 20 years later, several of those students came to his funeral and said that if it wasn’t for him, they would be dead or incarcerated. And so I was like, how can I carry on my dad’s legacy with the talents that I have?”
Clifton started the Songs for Hope concert. Each year the event is dedicated to supporting youth enrichment initiatives from providing backpacks and coats for low-income children to holiday gifts and after-school programs. Clifton will dedicate this year’s performance to supporting life readiness programming for young adults in Dane County.
“Every year we pick a different educational or youth supporting program to support,” Clifton says. “We’ve done [the late UW PEOPLE Program Director] Jacqueline DeWalt Scholarship. We’ve raised money for coats and we’ve done an event for the American Cancer Society. We’ve done benefits for various youth programs to support them during this time of year. But this year, we’ll focus on youth mental health.”
Clifton says that she is very excited to have the Adrian Dunn Singers coming to Madison to perform at this year’s event. A fusion of Gospel, hip hop, jazz and classical genres, the Adrian Dunn Singers will perform a collection of eight songs, all written by Dunn, that are meant to challenge, reshape and give the world a new perspective on George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
Dunn is an acclaimed singer, songwriter and producer with a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in voice from The Music Conservatory at Roosevelt University, along with additional musical studies in opera at The Sibelius Academy of Music in Finland.
“One of the things that I like about this event is that we get to introduce all types of music to the communities and increase representation in the arts,” Clifton says. “You don’t see a lot of Black opera singers or classically trained opera singers and Adrian Dunn has mastered the art of art fusion – it’s a combination of hip hopera inside of this production. So it’s just really about increasing representation in the arts.”
Songs of Hope will feature young artists at the beginning of the concert including a junior artist spotlight on Christopher Jones, a 4th-grader at Stephens Elementary School whose favorite instruments are the piano and drums.
“We will also continue the ‘rise up to reach back’ theme. So we will also feature young artists at the beginning of the concert, and so they’ll get a chance to share the stage with professional artists to see themselves as future performers and artists,” Clifton says. “This year is still in dedication to youth programming and we will actually have a weekend program – a Weekend of Hope.”
“On Friday, it will be the Songs for Hope and then Saturday will be a Day of Hope, which is a youth mental health retreat for youths in 6-12th grade,” Clifton adds.
Day of Hope will take place at MyArts, 1055 W. Mifflin St., and will be focused on providing youth with coping, stress management, and communication skills to manage mental health trials.
“One of the youths that was in my program this summer passed away due to suicide this past week, and so we’re going to do it in his honor because he was working on a community impact project before he passed,” Clifton says.
In honor of its 10th year, the Songs for Hope Holiday Music Spectacular will also feature a Black Holiday Market featuring Black vendors from around the state of Wisconsin, although it is open to all. “Our goal is to infuse money into the Black community by giving them such a large platform to vend on during the holiday season,” Clifton says.
Attendees can make purchases at the Black Holiday Market during the intermission and before and after the show. “The Black Holiday Market is a direct investment into our community by investing in these businesses,” she says.
Clifton says that one of the things that she loves about the Songs for Hope Holiday Music Spectacular is the inspiration it can give to the younger generations.
“One of my favorite parts of this event is the look in the young children’s eyes when they meet the professional artists or the first time they step onto a professional stage. They actually see themselves as being able to be artists,” she says. “I also pay the young children so it’s their first time often getting paid for a professional gig and those are the things that you remember as you’re making a decision on becoming an artist.”
Clifton, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has nearly three decades of performance experience under her belt, remembers how she was once inspired when she was young.
“I remember when I first saw [American opera singer] Jessye Norman in concert, and I was nine years old and it was right around the time where I was like, ‘Oh, my people don’t sing opera.’ And my voice teacher, who was white, said, ‘Well, just let me get you tickets to see Jessye Norman.’ My brother and I went and sat second-row center. And the minute she opened her mouth, she took the breath away of everybody in the audience. And I just knew at that point that that’s what I wanted to do.”
The Songs for Hope Annual Holiday Spectacular returns to the Overture Center on Friday, Dec. 16, 7 p.m. Tickets can be found on the Overture website.