In the devotional book The Purpose Driven Life, author Rick Warren takes readers on a six week long journey of self-discovery. With the goal of reading one chapter each day for 40 consecutive days, the idea is that one will be lead to their ultimate God-given purpose. Devotees can read alone or they can read with someone they love. While the book is written for followers of the Christian faith, its overall principal is applicable to anyone: to be of service in the world, it’s best you do the thing that brings you the most joy. This concept seems simple enough. But it’s funny how many of us move through life doing the complete opposite. We’ll spend years pursuing the path our family wants us to pursue, or we’ll go for the job we think might bring in the biggest paycheck. As easy as it may seem, choosing happiness can be one of the hardest decisions we make. It turns out that going after what you really want takes a pretty big leap of faith. And sometimes, that requires the biggest leap of faith in yourself.
Aqila Kiki is a singer, owner of a booming karaoke business, and former molecular biologist. Born and raised in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania by a single mother, Aqila grew up in a household that placed heavy value on academics. After spending 12th grade in boarding school she was accepted to the prestigious Oberlin College where she would study biology. The plan was to become a doctor. But throughout her tenure at Oberlin, in between all the atoms and the elements, Aqila was drawn to the performing arts – singing in campus concerts and even directing plays by her senior year. “I sat down at lunch the day after I graduated college with my mom. We were sitting there at the Oberlin Inn, and she was like, ‘So what do you want to do’ and I said, ‘I want to sing’. [She] didn’t say no, and she didn’t say yes, but she did say, she was like, ‘That’s going to be hard’. She didn’t say it in a negative way but then I took that as the most negative thing on earth…It just took that little dream away for a little bit.”
After getting a job in biology right out of school, Aqila would moonlight in some of the local clubs, bartending and scoping out the scene. “I went to this bar called Dowe’s on 9th. [There was] a Jazz singer named Etta Cox…and she was incredible. But I never really gave myself permission that that would be my job.” And despite her growing success in the science field, with some of her research already published, she couldn’t help but feel that she wasn’t heeding her true calling. “I knew by the time I graduated I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I could handle all of the blood, guts, details all that stuff, but what I couldn’t handle was the emotion of talking to people about when they’re going to pass…it was just something I really didn’t want to handle in life. It wasn’t a part of the job in life that made me happy, or what I wanted to do.” So in 2004, after making the decision to move with her best friend, Aqila packed up her whole life, her television, and made her way to Los Angeles.
As we sit down in one of LA’s countless delicatessens on the west side, I realize what’s unique about Aqila’s story. While so many young women were held back in the music industry due to their size, Aqila was held back because of her smarts. “I was scared as a kid not to be loved for my brain” she tells me over a steaming bowl of matzah ball. Having come of age in a community that valued what she knew, instead of how she looked, she didn’t get the negative programming that so many other women do regarding their bodies. “Weight was my protection…my weight and my color weeded out a lot of assholes in my life.” As a stunning, curvaceous, and talented woman sitting before me, it’s not a wonder she’s confidant. But it is enlightening to hear just how little body image affected her. “[It] was always something that I used as a defense, almost to my advantage. Like anything that I am, if I’m black it’s my advantage. If I’m big it’s my advantage. And I look at my family members and I’m like, ‘How could I not be big?’ Every single woman in our family is big so, when I start comparing myself to someone else I just get really sad.” And so she doesn’t. “I started to do this thing where I started to flow like a river. If something happened here, I would just flow. I kind of wouldn’t fight it, and I would just go this way and that way.”
The big rush forward came in 2012. After several years in L.A., and after straddling the line between performing part time and still working medical research, Aqila took her biggest leap of faith. She left molecular biology for good and began pursuing music full time. “It made me just sit back and go, ‘What do I want to do?’ And I was like ‘What are the two things that I love?’ Sushi and karaoke. So I went to Japan.” And before she knew it, she was the proprietor of her own karaoke business not long after her return to the states. “The guy who was doing the karaoke in my town, he was leaving the city… I got the equipment. It was the best investment I ever made, and I started doing karaoke. I got to sing everything. I owned all of the music and I got to sing everything I wanted on a stage and it just built my muscle.” Last year, she became the front woman of local legends The Biscuits, now aptly named Kiki and The Biscuits after three decades as the former. In between background gigs and guest spots during the week, Aqila sings with the band just about every weekend – insisting that it’s her first true love. When I ask if she’s considered recording an album, she assures me it’s in there, but she just hasn’t met the right collaborators yet. “I’m not a big songwriter, what I love is interpreting songs… I was in love with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston—both of them interpreted songs in a way that just gets you in the heart.”
Just around the time she began singing with The Biscuits, Aqila discovered The Purpose Driven Life. As she read each chapter, day after day, her decision to flow in a different direction was reaffirmed. And for the first time in her life she no longer had that sneaking suspicion that there was something bigger out there. “I don’t like to be full, and I don’t like to be hungry. I like to be somewhere in between… Things are way easier. They’re not as challenging as it was when not doing my own purpose. And I wake up every day wanting to do that more and more and more… I have everything that I need… the performing, the little kids who dance… especially the party people who dance… they like to feel good. That’s how I serve. I’m going the right way. And I always questioned that before whenever I was in science. I think size can be a portion of [what’s] holding you back, but really it was finding my own love and giving myself permission to do it. And if my size does inspire someone of top of that, that’s the icing on the cake. But, I know I have this voice. I don’t think this body will hold back this voice.”
Visit Aqila’s official site: http://www.aqilakiki.com/
Follow Aqila on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aqilasunrise
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