Throughout the month of February, youth from NationHouse, one of D.C.’s perennial African-centered schools, displayed their paintings at the Congress Heights Arts and Culture Center (CHACC) as part of the Akwaaba February Art Extravaganza and annual fundraiser.
On Sunday, those young artists, along with their parents and teachers, gathered at their exhibit for the Akwaaba Brunch and Children’s Concert, the last of three major Akwaaba events and an opportunity for student vocalists and instrumentalists to show what they learned this academic year.
“It was nerve-racking and fun being up there. I felt supported,” said Selah Garner, trombone player and soon-to-be NationHouse graduate.
During a group performance on Sunday, Selah confidently maneuvered his instrument during a short solo as his mother and other family members watched in awe.
Selah said he learned how to play the trombone by practicing and watching YouTube tutorials. In years past, his talents have placed him in various circles.
“I was in the D.C. Youth Orchestra for two years before I started rites [of passage] in September,” Selah said. “I’m going to go back. I’ve always loved the trombone. No other instrument has a slide like that.”
Earlier in the program, a chorus of young people, whose ages ranged from four to seventeen, sang “Smooth Sailing” by Ella Fitzgerald and Miriam Makeba’s “Pole Mzee,” a tribute to Jomo Kenyatta, onetime prime minister of Kenya. Spoken-word artist Ifedayo later engaged guests in call-and-response with a poem that encouraged resonance with the African continent.
The program followed an opening reception for the Akwaaba exhibit and a founders’ tribute where NationHouse music instructor and alumna Akua Allrich, along with The Tribe, regaled the audience with jazz tunes. Each event allowed students and teachers to sell their art and related items donated by students and professional artists, proceeds of which go to NationHouse, CHACC, and Nich Arts, a nonprofit that facilitates artistic expression for people of African descent.
Less than a month into its existence, the Akwaaba exhibit, named after the Twi word for “welcome,” has shown promise of longevity. Shortly before youth sang their first number, Yaa Asantewa Akoto, one of the directors of NationHouse and an alumna, announced that student artwork will soon have a home at the new Busboys & Poets opening in Anacostia.
“This is a celebration of the children’s art, and art in general. Art has been important in terms of expression,” Akoto told an audience of more than 50 people, many of whom dressed in colorful west African dashikis, headwraps, jewelry and lappa suits.
“We’ve identified NationHouse as a space to be free, as we support parents in the education of their children,” she added. “The children have an art program at the end of the school year, and they have other programs [where] singing and instruments are a couple [of the art forms].”
Preparation for the children’s concert kicked off at the beginning of the academic year, as youth recited songs with Allrich as part of their daily group huddle to start the school day. In what Allrich described as an organic process, the young people eventually chose those they wanted to publicly perform.
She said Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” might be on the lineup in the future.
“Music has been a huge part of our curriculum,” Allrich said. “It’s a full education and music can’t be separated from the African and anyone who’s indigenous. It’s beneficial for all of their subjects. Any expression and idiom helps them with their math and we talk about lyrics when they learn literature and communications. There has to be a rhythm that helps them think critically and outside the box.”
NationHouse, located on Dix Street in Northeast, opened in 1974 through the efforts of Agyei Akoto, Akua N. Akoto, Akili Ron Anderson and Kehembe Eichelberger, members of the Afrikan Liberation Art Ensemble. Before moving to the Deanwood community, NationHouse maintained a presence on Park Road in Northwest, first near Fourth Street and later Sherman Avenue. Alumni have matriculated to Howard University, Spelman College, Morgan State University and other schools.
NationHouse currently maintains three programs, including the Watoto School for elementary students, and the Sankofa Institute for fifth- and sixth-graders. Dozens of students, organized in grade levels named after traditional African nations, receive arts-integrated education with a focus on Pan-African self-determination.
On Sunday, Eichelberger, chair of Howard University’s music department, thanked parents and community members for helping NationHouse endure for decades.
“As an institution, we have to maintain ourselves and you make it possible,” Eichelberger said. “Every dollar buys nail and duct tape. There’s a constant assault on our children and institutions. We have to teach them so they know how to work out here. It’s critical that we support all the institutions, Black colleges, and schools trying to do the same thing.”