MILWAUKEE — She wasn’t planning on watching the Milwaukee auditions during the 10th season of “American Idol,” just as she told her curious theology students earlier that day. It’s just not that interesting to her. She might watch when the final two or three contestants compete at the end of the season, but she’s not an “American Idol” fan much less a regular viewer.
As Judith Gillespie, theology department chair at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, drove home that night, she had a momentary thought – that Naima Adedapo, a former theology student of hers when Gillespie taught at St. Joan Antida High School, would be the perfect candidate, and for a moment, Gillespie wondered what ever happened to the girl who was always happy and smiling as a high school student. She had no idea how soon she’d find out.
“I turned the television on, I sat down and there she was, and, quite honestly, I burst into tears,” Gillespie said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, of the show that premiered in January on FOX. “I was just overwhelmed and that was just with her audition in Milwaukee. At that time, I had no idea that she was going to go on from there and go to Hollywood.”
In that moment of surprise, Gillespie said she still recognized the young lady and the same “wonderful spirit” Naima had as a student at St. Joan.
“Even in watching ‘Idol,’ the question that’s going through your mind is that kind of, ‘Is America ready for Naima Adedapo?’” Gillespie said of the “American Idol” finalist who incorporated into her performances the African dance and reggae familiar to Gillespie from Naima’s performances at St. Joan. “I’m glad she stayed true to herself.”
Naima was eliminated with Thia Megia March 31, but Gillespie’s sure the 26-year-old will have an amazing career.
“Her talent comes from a very deep place – it’s a lot of who she is,” said Gillespie, who, thanks to Naima, now texts, has a Facebook account and knows how to use the DVR.
And while Gillespie’s favorites of Naima’s performances were the Milwaukee audition where she kicked her leg up after singing Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know,” and her rendition of “Dancing in the Streets,” Gillespie’s favorite memories stem from Naima’s humble beginnings within the walls of St. Joan Antida where she performed on numerous occasions, and was an especially important part of the school’s annual “Cultures Week.”
“Naima was always a big part of that (Cultures Week),” Gillespie said of the student-created performances held each year to showcase and celebrate the school’s diverse student population. “She was part of the planning, she was part of the choreography and then she herself would always, for the most part, dance.”
The weeklong production could be intense, but Gillespie said the kind-souled and free-spirited Naima brought “a spirit of joy.”
“I mean they did performances every day,” Gillespie said. “There were performances at night for the public and they were elaborate, they were really, really well done and I think some of the girls could have almost cracked under the pressure, let’s say, but for Naima it was just great fun, beginning to end.”
While Naima excelled at St. Joan, she never wanted to attend the school in the first place, according to Sue Henzig, former principal of St. Joan Antida, and vice principal and English teacher before that.
“Naima in no way, shape or form wanted to go to any all-girls school….” Henzig laughed, recalling how Naima said she spent her entire eighth grade year upset over her mother’s decision to send her to the small school in downtown Milwaukee. “She said, she cried to her mother every single day and said, ‘Mama, I don’t want to go to that school!’ and her mother was equally adamant that that’s where she was going to go, and I think Naima would be the first to say that it turned out to be her mama knew best in this case.”
When Henzig saw Naima years later, after she married Jah Dwayne Tafari, also an entertainer, became stepmother to three girls, and had one of their two girls at the time, she asked Naima what she would do if her daughter wanted to choose her school. “She said, ‘Well, I’ll make sure to make the best decision for my daughter,’” laughed Henzig, who watched the show only for Naima.
Adekola Adedapo, Naima’s mother, an educational assistant at Lloyd Street Elementary School by day and a musician by night, remembers the struggle she had with Naima over her decision to send her to a school where boys wouldn’t be competing with her daughter’s education.
“She cried the whole first year,” Adekola said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, “and then Thanksgiving of her sophomore year, we were all saying our blessings, and each year we have to all say what we’re particularly thankful for … and she said, ‘I am thankful for my school,’ and me and my sister just took a big sigh of relief and said, ‘Thank you. We’re thankful that she’s thankful for her school.’”
Adekola said that eventually Naima ended up loving St. Joan and appreciating her experiences there.
“She grew up a lot at St. Joan,” Adekola said of her daughter who has been a dancer and teacher at the Milwaukee-based Ko-Thi Dance Company, dedicated to the preservation and performance of traditional African-American and Caribbean dance and drumming, as stated on the website. “It’s a good school – it’s a very good school for building confidence in women and it also teaches them that they need to do something for their community, and I think that’s part of her community-mindedness, too, because of her experience at St. Joan’s.”
Naima became famous to Henzig and others at St. Joan, not because of her “excellent” voice, but because of her dancing.
“The girl can do anything when it comes (to) dancing,” Henzig said, explaining that Naima could be among 40 people on a stage and her presence would still captivate Henzig. “…she drew attention to herself in the best possible ways and was always willing to share that incredible beauty that she had.”
Naima, who also wrote and performed poetry, was involved in forensics, student council, National Honor Society, and performed and helped organize Cultures Week, was one of a kind to Henzig.
“Her name is unusual and that sort of typifies Naima right down the line, but she was absolutely convinced that she needed to perform and that was her calling and I’m convinced of it,” she said of Naima, who majored in dance at UW-Milwaukee. “I mean, the exposure that she’s had for this is I’m sure going to open tons of doors for her.”
Naima comes from an artistic background as the daughter of Adekola Adedapo and Songodina Ifatunji, a professor and head of the theater department at Chicago State University.
Adekola said that her three children, including Naima’s brothers, Makinde, 29, and Asabi, 22, have talent in their genes because both families – that of Adekola’s and her ex-husband’s – are deeply involved in theater. While they all have professional theater resumes, Adekola said Naima has always wanted the life of an artist.
“She’s always had her eyes on a national, professional career – always….” said Adekola, who graduated from Alverno College last December with a bachelor’s degree in community leadership and development. “Naima is, I think, the best prepared and probably the most talented of all of us.”
Though Naima’s not this year’s American Idol, Adekola said she’d rate this season as one of the best.
“I think she raised the bar for performance because she has so many different talents,” Adekola said. “I hope she learned a little bit more about the grueling reality of being in this business, and I know that as an artist she’s grown a great deal because of vocal coaching and the instruction and the people that they brought in to work with this group … what I really would like to see her in is musical theater and movies, because then she can use all of her talents.”
“It’s been such fun to watch her,” Henzig said, “because years ago when she graduated, I said, ‘Naima, someday, I’m going to be in a wheelchair someplace and I know somebody’s going to be interviewing me about you,’ and she would laugh, ‘Oh, Mrs. Henzig.’”
Now that Henzig won’t be watching Naima perform and getting heart palpitations as she waits to hear the results, she said she’s confident doors will open for the girl she watched grow “from the more tentative ninth grader who wanted to strangle her mother for sending her to an all-girls school,” to the young woman whose name means “exotic flower,” that she watched “explode on the stage.”