Naima Adedapo '03

SJA alumna goes from national spotlight to discovering her true voice

Naima Adedapo

By: Lisa Kohlndorfer

Published February 2016

Voted by her SJA graduating class as “Most Likely to Win a Grammy,” Naima Adedapo, ’03, would indeed go on to wow audiences across the country, winning hearts as a finalist on Season 10 of American Idol. A singer/songwriter with a soul-pop sound, Adedapo recently relocated permanently to Nashville with her two daughters to pursue music full-time, signing a music publishing deal with Given Music Publishing.

Coming from a musical family, performing and singing has always been a calling in Adedapo’s life. Her mother Adekola Adedapo is a well-known jazz singer who performed locally in Milwaukee and was known as the “Jazz Act” at Summerfest each year. As a young child, Adedapo’s mom would often bring her daughter along to shows, exposing her to the local music scene.

“I spent a lot of time in and out of jazz clubs watching my mom perform,” said Adedapo. “One of my first memories is of my mom carrying me in an African wrap on her back and I could hear her voice vibrating through her back. For me, music is a universal language. It moves the spirit and the soul and it’s always been a part of me.”

Born in Chicago, Adedapo moved to Milwaukee at the age of 10. She attended Lincoln Middle School of the Arts, just across the street from SJA. When asked how she decided to attend SJA when it was time to select a high school, Adedapo laughed as she recalled her distinct lack of excitement.

“An all-girls high school was definitely not what I had planned out in my head,” said the singer who had her sights set on Riverside High School. “The summer before my freshman year I was fighting with my mother. It was all her decision.”

Adedapo would eventually come to fondly remember her time in high school – and realize that her mom’s decision to send her to SJA was a wise one.

“St. Joan Antida High School was a huge part of where I began to develop my sound and where I recognized that I really could sing,” she said.

On her journey for an artistic outlet, Adedapo excelled in everything “arts” in what she called a very diverse and nurturing environment as a student at SJA. From creative writing classes with Mrs. Sioux Henzig to singing in Gospelaires choir under the direction of Mrs. Deborah Haywood, even if SJA was not an “arts” school, Adedapo felt encouraged and inspired to explore this side of herself.

“What was special about SJA was that the Sisters and staff nurtured each one of us individually,” she said.

Nurturing especially her fondness and passion for dance, one of her best memories of SJA is Cultures Week.

“Cultures Week was my life,” said Adedapo. “I was obsessed with dance and immediately on the first day of school every year, I was already thinking about what I wanted to do for my Cultures performance.”

Beyond the doors of SJA, Adedapo joined two local African dance groups, including one through the Milwaukee Public Theater. She was very involved with numerous community outreach centers and would perform with the dance groups at events around the city.

“Give me the art, give me the art, that’s what I wanted,” she said, reflecting back on that time.

After graduating from SJA in 2003, she would go on to study and earn a BFA in Dance from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, where she performed with the well-known Ko-Thi Dance Company and played the lead role of Anita in “West Side Story.” While dance became her primary focus, Adedapo worked summers as a maintenance worker on the Summerfest grounds, where music was front and center. Surrounded by music all day, she quickly rose to a leadership position. It was then Adedapo admitted what she knew all along.

“It felt like I never had a choice about being in music,” said Adedapo. “But one night standing above the crowd, watching Bon Jovi live, I was amazed by the performance. I told myself that I wanted to be that person, on a stage, singing and connecting with an audience through music.” Then came American Idol.

Years before she achieved that goal of singing on a stage with millions watching at home on American Idol, Adedapo confessed she had hardly even watched the show. It was her Creative Writing teacher at SJA, then-Principal Mrs. Henzig, who first encouraged her to audition for the show – the first time.

“Mrs. Henzig called me into her office one day and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about auditioning?’ And at that point, it hadn’t even crossed my mind,” said Adedapo.

With her teacher’s enthusiasm behind her, Adedapo auditioned for the first time at Bayshore Mall. She wasn’t picked and what few don’t know is that she would go on to audition twice more, at the encouragement of her grandmother, before the lucky third time when she made it on to Season 10 of the show.

Propelled to national attention, Adedapo remembered her days on American Idol as mostly a blur of grueling practices and exhilarating performances. One of the lessons she learned from her time on the show was understanding the work ethic of the music business.

“I grew up in the business in a way watching my mom perform, but on Idol I experienced that pressure firsthand,” said Adedapo.

The biggest lesson learned always be prepared.

“There were so many pressurized situations where only being prepared would work,” said Adedapo. “What people don’t realize is the non-glamourous side of the show. For the two months I was on, I didn’t have a day off. The music business is not for the weak.”

After the Idol tour, Adedapo began the process of finding her true voice and calling as it relates to music and songwriting while building a team who encourages her.

“In many ways Idol prepared me for the music industry, but it is not the place for developing your artistry,” she said.

Since the show limited her musical persona for the cameras, afterwards Adedapo had to find a way to introduce herself not only to new audiences, but to herself as well.

“I had to discover who I was as a musician, songwriter and performer,” said Adedapo.

What Idol did do was launch her career in a way that only Idol can.

“You simply cannot buy that level of exposure,” said Adedapo. “I don’t think I knew how big Idol was until I experienced it firsthand. People now are somewhat familiar with me, which enables me to share my music with more people.”

In addition to performing, she began doing a lot of song writing and eventually went on to release “some of her babies” (as she referred to her songs). That project, an EP titled “Beautifully Made” released in 2015 and left no doubt about her goals and who she was as a musician.

“Now it’s about using music as a way to reach people with positive messages,” Adedapo said. “I’m an artist that has something to say and I am using my songs to do that. With ‘Beautifully Made,’ I wanted my music to remind everyone of the importance of looking in the mirror and loving yourself the way that God made you.”

Despite the great demands of her career, Adedapo does not shy away from challenges. The singer/songwriter proved her confidence when asked to define herself and her artistry now.

“I’m Naima!” she said proudly.

Most recently in her career, Adedapo has made a permanent move to Nashville – and she loves it.

“This city just breathes music – of all kinds,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like Nashville and I’ve never been exposed to a greater songwriting community.”

Currently she is writing songs for the country music format, in a town full of gifted songwriters – and learning to network and navigate the competitive music industry. Yet Adedapo does not stress (too much) about succeeding in the latest chapter of her career.

“For me, I define success as being able to make a living doing what I love to do,” said Adedapo. “I can say that I have reached that point.”

By far the biggest successes in Adedapo’s life are her two young daughters, Nalani and Abiola, ages six and eight. When asked what she is most proud of, she immediately responds with her role as a mother.

“I am constantly striving to be a better person because of them,” she said.

One of the most important lessons she remembers from SJA, and one she will pass along to her daughters, are the virtues of being a strong, intelligent woman.

“St. Joan Antida High School really taught me how to be a respectable woman, one who thinks outside the box,” said Adedapo. “It is important to me that my daughters can sing all of the lyrics of my songs.”

Making her way from the Summerfest grounds, to the American Idol stage, and now to Nashville, Adedapo has certainly come a long way from her days in Homeroom 102 at St. Joan Antida High School. Through it all she has remembered to live by the words of her mother, “Whatever you do, do your best at it.”

Adedapo and her team are busy confirming tour dates for 2016, with stops planned in Milwaukee, including two this March.

To follow Adedapo’s musical journey, including how to access her music, see where she is playing next and more visit