Prenicia Clifton vividly recalls the time she was urged to camouflage her beautiful almond skin with white paint just so she could blend with the rest of the cast in a China opera company. She declined.
“They wanted me to lighten my hue just to make the crowd more comfortable,” Clifton recalled. “I told them that if they don’t like the hue that I’m already in, then they will not like my voice anyway.”
Clifton, who lives in Madison, is a rarity in her profession. She is the first African American to sing in a Chinese opera house entirely in Mandarin. Today, she uses her classically-trained talent to guide and uplift inspiring singers.
“You get joy when you give to the youth,” Clifton said. “The return is tenfold. When you’re telling them that their dreams and their voices matter, and they actually believe you, and it comes to fruition, the joy on the other side is far greater than what you can get from anyone.”
She has a voice known all over the world. That journey was not easy. It was filled with discrimination and loneliness. But she persevered.
As early as she can remember, Clifton loved singing around her home in Independence, Missouri. It would drive her two brothers crazy, she joked. God given, her beautiful voice came naturally.
It was her mother who encouraged her to take singing lessons, which they would find was costly. Her mother could only afford to pay one class a month, but the requirements were once a week. Proof that it would be worth the instructor’s time, the German teacher asked Clifton to sing something for her.
Right on the spot, Clifton belted out Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. Recognizing her the strength of her voice, the strict German teacher offered to pay the cost of her lessons, adding “You may not sound like Whitney, but with some work you will dine amongst kings and queens.”
For nine years she worked diligently alongside her instructor, learning everything from Italian ballads to dining etiquette.
A voice of an angel, Clifton studied music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where under the tutelage of James Doing, she learned how to utilize her voice without being whitewashed, in a society that wants to dilute a person of color as much as humanly possible. Doing this taught her to not only keep her soulful style of singing, but incorporate her own personal style. She was empowered by his words.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music, she became a professional opera singer. Although she performed with a company of singers, she often felt alone because there was no one else that looked like her. Within her loneliness she found her strength, helping her survive performances in Italy, France and China, far away from home.
Throughout her career, she became an advocate for Black and Brown children. The countries in which she performs, she has written programs for diplomats in regard to the children who reside within that country. Programs that have been mandated and turned into policy. And in the states, she not only provides voice lessons, but academic tutoring. Clifton sings at schools and other events, as well as having a Q&A session for the children, where she shares her story.
Clifton, who was a tutor in the PEOPLE – Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence at UW-Madison, currently serves on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. She is also director of UW Madison’s Office of Precollege/Youth Protection and Compliance.
Every year, in honor of her father, who succumbed to cancer in 2011, Clifton holds a benefit concert or community outreach entitled, “Songs for Hope.” Staying true to assisting children, all proceeds would go to a youth serving organization. Last year, it was held at the Overture. Clifton recalls how when she first started at UW-Madison, she set a personal goal to impact 10,000 children. She’s not only reached that endeavor; she now has her sights set on impacting 100,000.