Tricia Thomson met Kofi Boakye when he was 8 years old. Kofi arrived in an introductory piano class, a group of 4- and 5-year-olds. More or less immediately, Tricia says she recognized talent — and, more importantly, compassion.
“He’s desperate for music. He just has to have it. That was clear,” Tricia recalls. “But something else struck me more… for instance, there was a kid [in class.] I asked a question. The kid got the question wrong and a couple other kids tittered. [Kofi] knew immediately that that had bothered the first kid. Leaning toward him, touching him, giving him a wink… He just pays attention to the people that are around him in a way that’s really special.”
Kofi was the youngest of three children growing up in north Akron. He started playing piano in the third grade. His other choice, he says, was joining a gang.
“Music was not a popular activity when I was in the third grade, but it’s a popular choice now, I tell you that,” Kofi laughs. “I took a lot of blows and a lot of hits for it, a lot of scrutiny, a lot of being bullied, a lot of being ostracized. But from that came my greatest feelings of success and happiness.”
Kofi began weekly piano lessons with Tricia. He studied at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, then Akron Early College High School, through which he became the youngest African American pianist ever to study jazz at the University of Akron. He was 15.
“It was a slow, steady slog, and he would not stop,” Tricia says.
The last year has looked like a whirlwind, Kofi says. A documentary about his life was nominated for an Emmy. He placed second in the semifinals of Amateur Night at the storied Apollo Theatre in Harlem and will compete in the finals in November.
Kofi has grown into his style as a performer, Tricia recalls. At his Apollo show, he swayed and smiled, standing up and sitting back down as the energy of the music changed. Even Kofi says that surprised him.
“I have no idea where it comes from. I have to watch the videos like everybody else, and I’m like, did I just kick my leg up like that? Even when I go up there I flap the jacket. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t prepare, I don’t practice that stuff. I just go on stage. And it’s like I’m always challenging myself, even when I’m playing, I’m like, ‘OK, we did that, let’s try something now, let’s go to a new level now, go crazy.’ I’ll tell myself in my mind, ‘Go crazy.’ Or I’ll voice it, ‘Go crazy, KB. do you thing… I can’t voice it, but I can definitely feel it.”
Kofi will leave Akron with his associates degree from UA and begin studying music business at Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall.
“I can see how it’s grown to the level that it’s at right now. You’re constantly working. When I leave here, I’m probably gonna be working. When everyone’s asleep, I’m literally working hours, watching films or studying things, studying my competitors that are in the Apollo, Kofi says. “It’s always a gradual process, because you’re always learning and continuing to climb that mountain to reach the top.”
ONE LAST SHOW: Friday, Aug. 9, 7 pm The Trailhead feat. special guest Val B. King $35 or $45 at the door
// Vanessa Michelle is a host, YouTuber, marketer and entrepreneur. Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.