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No one really knew she could sing until this City Heights student entered competitions

Kefa Ubwenge, 18, standing in front of a tree, her hand holding her face
Kefa Ubwenge, 18, at Balboa Park on Dec. 15. She received a 2023 YoungArts award in voice/popular (pop). She is one of just over 700 other students between 15 and 18 years old who competed nationally in the areas of visual, literary, and performing arts.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kefa Ubwenge is a graduate of City Heights Preparatory Charter School and the recipient of a 2023 YoungArts award in voice/popular (pop), recognized with an honorable mention for her artistic achievement.

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It was the first gentle step outside of Kefa Ubwenge’s comfort zone last year, that led to the next one. The first step was competing in a regional arts competition, which was also her first time singing for anyone but herself. She continued looking for more competitions to enter that also offered mentorship and industry guidance, which she found in YoungArts.

A program of The National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists, YoungArts is a national competition for youth 15 to 18 in various disciplines, including performing, visual, and literary arts. Award winners receive financial awards, mentoring, access to professional and creative development and funding, and other resources and programming. Past YoungArts winners include Viola Davis, Amanda Gorman, and Terence Blanchard. Ubwenge is one of just over 700 other students who competed, and she received an honorable mention in voice/popular (pop), the competition’s second-highest honor after finalist.

“I was completely shocked. Floored. I really didn’t think I would win because it was a national competition. I know there is so much skill and talent throughout the country, and I didn’t know how I fit in,” she says. “It’s a great honor! It gives me resources that I didn’t have before, like coaching, mentorship, and master classes. It’s really what I’ve been looking for all this time; it’s my primary reason for entering into these contests.”

Ubwenge, 18, recently graduated from City Heights Preparatory Charter School and lives in City Heights with her mother and a younger brother. Her plan is to eventually attend medical school and continue her creative expression and exploration through song. She took some time to talk about her YoungArts experience, how living in Belize influenced her creatively, and honing her voice.

Q: Congratulations on your 2023 YoungArts award. What did you sing for the competition?

A: I only learned about the program one week before the application deadline. I had to record myself singing four songs, that all had to be different from each other. I had to sing a ballad, a song made between 1950 and 1979, an upbeat song, and a song made after 1980. I sang Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” Adele’s “To Be Loved,” Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” and Alexandra Burke’s version of “Hallelujah.” I really love Adele, like a lot, lol. The auditions were online, so it took me the whole week to sing all of the songs kind of decent. I think I could have done better during my auditions, but I only had a week to do my best. The day I discovered the program is when I started preparing with vocal warm ups I found online. Since I’ve never had formal training, I was going off of listening by ear and the feeling it gave me.

Q: How did you get started singing?

A: Singing was natural for me, as a child. It was just a natural gravitation. My mother constantly had music playing throughout the house; artists like Erykah Badu, India.Arie, Anthony Hamilton, and D’Angelo. I think hearing music non-stop was enough to entice me, and I always knew, no matter what else might be going on, I could always go home to music. It was a comfort space, for sure.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you’ve dabbled in other art forms, but that you found a home in your voice? Can you talk a bit more about finding a home in your voice? What does this mean, for you?

A: With singing, I feel like I experience my whole self. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve been keeping it to myself for so long, but also the main reason that I sing. I haven’t been able to experience myself that thoroughly through any other art form, so far. Singing is so special to me because of how vulnerable it is. Even though most of my singing isn’t performative, I do love watching performances. When I sing, there are no eyes, thoughts, or voices, aside from my own. Nothing else gets my attention at that moment. I think that’s part of the reason why I hid it from people; I didn’t want to lose that, but I am learning to reapproach that idea and invite more balance into my expression.

What I love about City Heights...

I love how diverse City Heights is.

Q: What is it about singing that you prefer, versus dance or visual art?

A: When I sing “right,” I feel an activation, of sorts, in different regions of my body. It’s therapeutic in a confrontational way. Kind of like when someone plays singing bowls. For me, nothing matches actually being the music and it coming through my body.

Q: Who are the artists who’ve influenced you, and what it was about them that encouraged you in pursuing singing?

A: I love Fantasia [Barrino]. Her voice is so soulful and unique. You know that when you listen to Fantasia, she’s singing her heart out, and that’s so beautiful because that’s such a vulnerable space to be in. I think that’s what I look for the most in artists — sincerity. I also love Anita Baker, she brings something so untouchable and unique to her music. I’ve never heard anything like it. And, of course, Beyonce. She’s one of the most thorough creatives I’ve ever seen. I learn so much from her work ethic, confidence, and commitment to putting the art at the forefront of everything she does.

Q: There was a point where you felt like you didn’t have as much training or experience in the arts as some of your peers, and that led you to feel shy about expressing yourself as a singer? How did you overcome that shyness and feeling like you didn’t have enough experience?

A: I’m still working through this one. I’m blessed that my God-given talent has brought me this far, but I’ve reached a point where I can appreciate formal training as an enhancement to my gift. Though, I also feel my lack of formal training allowed me to explore my voice uninhibitedly, allowing me to step into an awareness of a vocal personality that is true to me. I feel like I own my voice because I found it on my own.

Q: How did your time in Belize shape the way you approach your art?

A: Punta Gorda, Belize helped me grow up a lot. I left Atlanta in 2019, as I was turning 15. Punta Gorda is on the coast and is surrounded by the sea. Being in an environment like that, in almost everything you do, there’s an interaction with nature, whether you go to the market in town, or to a local restaurant. On the way to the beach, you’ll come across coconut and mango trees. Even if you aren’t directly focused on it, nature is still affecting you. That did a lot for me. It allowed me to explore certain aspects of myself that, maybe, I wouldn’t have been able to do in Atlanta. My art is a direct reflection of where I’m at in life, so the life PG gave me allowed me to delve into some of my depths.

Q: What has your participation in the YoungArts program taught you about yourself?

A: I’ve learned that I’m my biggest critic and to not downplay myself; and being comfortable just showing up as you are, with what you have.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: The best piece of advice I could have received is understanding that life isn’t magic, but it is magical. It reminds me that the journey is the magical part and to not shy away from the path.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: That I sing, lol. I’ve received a lot of “Kefa, we gon’ fight” messages from my family and friends because I’ve never shared my voice with them. I only began to do so since the competition, so it’s very surprising for them to learn I can sing and what I sound like singing.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend would be going to the Copley-Price Family YMCA to work out, then grabbing a poke bowl at Poki One n Half, and going to any of our beautiful San Diego beaches with my family, to end the day.


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