Jacqueline DeWalt, a beloved long-time community and education advocate and former director of the UW-Madison Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) who passed away in November of 2017, was a huge inspiration, mentor and friend to world-renowned opera singer Prenicia Clifton.
Every year since 2012, Clifton raises money for a different worthy cause at her Songs of Hope concert which she hosts in December in Madison to honor her father, Prentess Clifton, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. At this year’s Holiday Music Spectacular – which will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, 7 p.m. at Collins Recital Hall in the new Hamel Music Center on the UW–Madison campus – she will raise money for the Jacqueline DeWalt Scholarship Fund.
“Jackie and my dad are two people who have made huge differences in my life. They are two people who made their life’s mission to serve youth – my dad was a teacher, as well,” Clifton says. Prentess Clifton was a long-time teacher in Kansas City high schools. “For my dad and Jackie, there wasn’t anything that they wouldn’t do to help a youth. Any youth.”
This is the 8th year that she will be hosting the Songs for Hope concert and the first year she will hosting it at the Collins Recital Hall inside the brand-new Hamel Music Center.
“Songs for Hope came out of the loss of my father who passed away from cancer in 2011. He said, ‘Don’t come to my gravesite; celebrate me with song.’ His birthday was the day after Christmas, so I decided to put a Christmas Concert Series together in his honor,” Clifton tells Madison365. “Every year, we pick a different charity for the proceeds of the event to go to. This year we decided to do the Jacqueline DeWalt Scholarships Fund to help kick it off and really get it out there in the community.”
DeWalt, who mentored Clifton throughout her undergraduate career at UW-Madison and beyond, was not only a mentor to Clifton, but also an inspiration and a true friend.
“When I first came into the PEOPLE program, I just wanted to do tutoring. But Jackie told me that I had so much more to offer as far as being one of the only black women in my degree, in my department and doing opera. I would go to Jackie all the time about feeling isolated and alone. She was like, “I’m always here for you. I can be your home away from home.’ She would take me out for lunches,” Clifton remembers. “Even after I graduated, she would always keep in contact and talk to me about how my career was going and tell me how proud she was of me.”
During their last conversation in September 2017, DeWalt encouraged Clifton to apply and interview for the position she now holds at UW–Madison, the director of pre-college and youth program compliance in the Division of Continuing Studies.
Prior to that, Clifton was working overseas and performing with the Black Opera Voices Tour in Italy, France and China. Clifton has performed in major opera houses around the world including opening opera houses with Placido Domingo and sharing the stage with Grammy Award-winning artist Denyce Graves. She was also the first African American to sing in a Chinese opera house solely in Mandarin.
“I was a little tired of traveling and I was talking to Jackie one day and she told me about this position that was opening up at UW-Madison and she was like, ‘you know, you should apply. It’s right in your wheelhouse,'” Clifton remembers. “One of the last conversations I had with Jackie was in regards to her being my reference and wanting me to carry out her legacy at UW-Madison.”
Clifton would start her new job a little after DeWalt passed away.
“It broke my heart,” Clifton says. “But every day on campus I think of her and I see stuff that reminds me of her and I couldn’t think of a better person to honor because she’s the reason I got here to UW and she’s the reason I stayed at UW as an undergrad.”
The Songs of Hope concert’s theme is “Rising Up to Reach Back” in honor of DeWalt.
“It’s something that Jackie used to always say to me and a couple of my other friends. She said, ‘You’re going to go really far in life; just remember to rise up to reach back,’” Clifton says. “So as part of the concert series, we always bring younger performers in to show their talent as they are progressing through the phases of becoming a professional artist.”
The concert will, of course, feature holiday favorites performed by Clifton, who started singing opera at age eight and has nearly three decades of performance experience. It will also feature performances by 17-year-old Airin Beals, a singer-songwriter, and Lexus Annette, a 22-year-old hip-hop violinist.
“This is going to be a fun event. Lots of holiday music and pretty decorations. It’s really just a great way to kick off your holiday season,” Clifton says. “It’s a great event for kids because we will have younger students performing. I have a young student that is seven years old that is a little bit nervous but I think I have him and his family convinced to perform at my concert. I really want to show that music speaks when words are not enough and that talent comes in different forms and fashions. This will be an amazing event for all ages.”
Songs for Hope Concert will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, 7 p.m. at Collins Recital Hall in the new Hamel Music Center at UW-Madison. The suggested donation is $20 for adults and $10 for children. Proceeds go towards the cost of programming and the Jacqueline DeWalt Scholarship Fund.
Please do not let money be a barrier as it is more important to Prenicia that this opportunity is accessible to all communities.