Sharon Udoh: A Rare Bird

Jacqueleen Bordjadze, Ohio State fourth-year, Dance and English

Feb 05, 2020

Composer and performer Sharon Udoh, an African American woman with a short colored mohawk, stands in profile against a green background, wearing a green button-down shirt and pulling on a tie around her neck

On February 22, Sharon Udoh, in collaboration with DJ Moxy Martinez, will perform Say a Little Prayer: An Aretha Franklin Celebration, at the Lincoln Theatre. Udoh is the face of the iconic Columbus band Counterfeit Madison and recipient of a 2019–20 Wexner Center Artist Residency Award. I met up with her to discuss the residency and her future plans, which, in spite of a difficult 2019, may signal a better 2020.

Udoh faced profound challenges in 2019, including resistance from the indie rock world; publicists who failed to promote her singles; and industry folks who did not follow through after their initial and continual expressions of interest. "Industry people were not vibing with it, like at all. It's just like, genre-less and weird, it's fun…I thought people wanted innovative shit!" Despite her years of performing, touring, and writing, and the selling power of her earlier albums, her work still didn't resonate with the record labels she wanted to reach. This despite the "interest" they had in her work, and even her identity, as a "talented, creative, black gay woman with lots to say."

"It's hard to feel as if producers don't even try to understand my art," she said.

Composer and performer Sharon Udoh, an African American woman with a short colored mohawk wearing a green button-up shirt and a plaid tie, stands smiling in front of a tall bush with white flowers

Photos: Kate Sweeney

"The opportunities outside of indie rock—those people get me so much faster because they’re not tied to genre, they’re tied to human experience."

One of the crucial things Udoh grappled with was that "a lot of the success of Counterfeit Madison is my body in a room." Her strength as a performer means that her work needs to "live on stage first." A crucial element of her spirit is lost through digital recording or video. Neither medium could capture what it was that made Counterfeit Madison so alive. The future of Udoh's career, for now at least, lies in live performance and the performing arts.

"The opportunities outside of indie rock—those people get me so much faster because they're not tied to genre, they're tied to human experience," Udoh says.

Accordingly, she is beginning to make work that relies on her strength as a live performer. In the fall, she opened for nora chipaumire's #PUNK and 100%POP. This January, she performed in an onstage adaption of Joan Didion's "The White Album" with Lars Jan, at the Sydney Festival in Australia. She’s performing in a musical with Available Light Theatre. She's also producing her tribute performances: Nina Simone at Notes in Columbus, Sade at 100%POP, and Aretha Franklin at the Lincoln Theatre.

"I've learned so much this year, learning about myself for the first time as an artist. I'm learning that in order to be understood, I must live on the stage first, and I learned that I'm rarer than I thought I was. I'm understood very well through the eyes and the environment of someone that's already existed and that reference point is Nina Simone, which is humbling, because I wanna believe I can live in a world where I can stand alone. But not when I'm this rare."

Being a "rare bird" doesn't bother Udoh. Her style, personality, and capabilities are what allow her to occupy her own niche. The Aretha Franklin tribute, though – "it's a little more a contortionist act to play Aretha." Her association with the Wexner Center may help her establish her niche. In it, she has found that “the assumption here is that I am good and I am important." Udoh's shift to different paths holds both grief and exciting possibility. She believes that, on the stage, her work can grow even further.

This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led project supported by the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award. Students from departments across the university composed responses to the center’s 2019–20 Performing Arts season under the direction of award recipient and Department of Dance Professor Karen Eliot and Manager of Public University Programs Alana Ryder with support from Performing Arts Director Lane Czaplinski.