Kwesi Abakah was on a German sidewalk singing Italian opera when he experienced the transformative and unifying impact of song.
“It’s my superpower,” says Abakah, who earned his electrical-engineering degree at Northeastern in 2016.
As Abakah’s impromptu performance of “O Mio Babbino Caro” (performed on a dare) echoed through the streets of Cologne, a crowd gathered—some singing along, some simply watching, clearly moved by the American tenor’s heartfelt rendition of the lovelorn aria.
“Singing is so important. It’s one of the best forms of expression,” says Abakah. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t sing, and it’s brought a lot of joy into my life and a lot of joy into other people’s lives as I share that gift.”
He’ll tap into that superpower Monday at Northeastern’s ceremony honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., performing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke. The event will be streamed Jan. 17 at 3 p.m. on Northeastern’s Facebook page and on www.northeastern.edu.
This isn’t Abakah’s first performance at a Northeastern commemoration of King. The former Husky basketball forward performed at the university’s MLK event in 2014, and it’s difficult to overstate the amount of change in American race relations that has transpired between those performances. In 2014, he sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” an optimistic tune about freedom and new beginnings.
This year, says Abakah, was about a commitment to the work of making change.
“We’ve seen a very crucial movement take place in the ideology of Americans as it pertains to race relations,” says Abakah, who has worked at Raytheon Technologies Corp. since 2018 and also campaigned for change within the engineering industry.
He joined the Raytheon Black employee network shortly after he was hired and rose to become the group’s vice president. He also was asked by company leaders to head up a team devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion within engineering.
“All the things that we’ve gone through, even just the most recent years, whether it be the Black Lives Matter movement or just the attention brought on by civil-rights activists of our time like the Colin Kaepernicks of the world—it’s just a more complete look at what the dream was about,” says Abakah, referring to King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Those familiar with the history behind Cooke’s 1964 song, which later became an anthem for the civil-rights movement, might understand that it is a fitting message for 2022. The soul singer wrote it after a Louisiana hotel refused to rent rooms to him and his bandmates. Inspired by King, Cooke acted almost scared of the mournful song, which pushed toward hope while mired in ongoing oppression and sorrow.
It’s as good a place as any to acknowledge the years of injustice that lead to the widespread civil rights protests in 2020, and to honor the work that must continue.
“I think back to 2020 because there were a lot of things to lose hope over, but I also think back to it because there were things to be hopeful about. Many young people were banding together, going to protests, having conversations with their parents and just overall gaining an understanding that there may be something wrong here,” says Abakah.
“We have to continue to have a conversation for there to be change—and not just talk about it, but act on it,” he says. “It takes a concerted effort from everyone. Not ignoring the problem, but acknowledging it and being active and trying to make change.”
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