It was a chance encounter. Young pianist Kofi Boakye made the rounds playing at the Downtown Akron Partnership’s #playmeakron outdoor pianos. And, while playing at the piano outside of the Akron Symphony Orchestra offices, he caught the attention of Brenda Justice, a Symphony employee and chair of the annual Gospel Meets Symphony concert.
After she captured some cell phone video of his skillful piano playing, Boakye, 16, told her that it was a longtime dream of his to play on the EJ Thomas stage.
“I shared the video with Music Director Christopher Wilkins and he thought it was a wonderful idea and he invited (Boakye) to join us,” says Justice, who also asked 20-year-old saxophonist Ashton Blake to take the stage for this year’s 23rd annual Gospel Meets Symphony performance Feb. 20 at EJ Thomas Hall.
“I was blown away when I watched the video,” recalls Wilkins. “Kofi is an incredible young talent and I’m thrilled that Akron Symphony can be a part of realizing his dream.”
Indeed, when speaking with Boakye, he projects the maturity and talent level of someone well beyond his 16 years.
“Gospel Meets Symphony has done an amazing job over the past 20 plus years integrating two different intricate genres of music,” says Boakye, who is a sophomore at Akron Early College at the University of Akron. “To know there’s still a love of that music and we can synthesize two different genres to make a melting pot of this amazing music is pretty cool.”
“I really hope to learn something from it and grow as a musician and as a person, hopefully,” says Blake, Boakye’s bandmate in the group One Sound, who adds he has always gravitated toward gospel music. ”Gospel music is probably my first love. It’s a big, big influence in my music.”
He says taking the EJ Thomas stage with the choir and symphony “will be a really cool experience. I think our arts scene has been transformed over the past couple of years.”
This year’s theme is “Building Blocks of Excellence,” and is heavily centered around Akron’s young people, says Justice. “We have to realize that we need to have an open door to give them opportunity to express their talents.”
A tribute to a longtime MC
In addition to Boakye and Blake, this year’s Gospel Meets Symphony performance features young people from Emmanuel Christian Academy, along with artist Alan Berry, who will paint a piece on stage called “The Center of My Joy.” The painting will be dedicated to Chuck Collins, who passed away last year from cancer and was a past MC who loved Gospel Meets Symphony, says Justice.
“We have one piece called ‘I Smile,’ but we’re doing the jazz version of that. It will start off with Ashton coming in on the sax solo and highlight each instrument. And then we’ll have the Emmanuel Christian singers do the bridge. At the end, after highlighting the youth, we’ll have the chorus come in.”
Boakye says he’s honored to serve as a role model for other young people in Akron.
“From a youth perspective, I hope that when they see young people such as myself and Ashton, seeing African American males doing positive things in our community, I hope that above all that is inspiration enough,” says Boakye, who also started the “Humble & Have No Fear” wristband campaign, “to give awareness to my peers and to youth my age that there is hope and there is a future.” The wristbands will be on sale at the event, along with his album “Favor.”
“Gospel Meets Symphony has always been a platform for drawing community into the Symphony experience and for the Symphony to step into other cultural experiences throughout the city,” says Wilkins. “This year we have a particular emphasis on youth, both young gospel musicians and also young jazz musicians. That’s part of the tradition, too: to showcase the incredible talent that comes from every corner of Akron.”
Gospel Meets Symphony takes place at EJ Thomas Hall on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Single tickets for the concert range from $25 to $55, with senior and child/student pricing available. To reserve tickets, visit www.akronsymphony.org or call (330) 535-8131.
There’s also a patron reception (for an additional $35 per person), which will feature a performance from Boakye and Blake’s band One Sound.
To learn more about Boakye, search “Kofi B Music” on various social media channels or visit www.kofibmusic.wordpress.com.