Sister act

Oladunni Oladipo, a veteran performer at 12, lifts her voice with her singing siblings

Oladunni Oladipo (right), 12, and her sister Olayeni, 10, at 12th Note Productions in Roxbury this month. Oladunni Oladipo (right), 12, and her sister Olayeni, 10, at 12th Note Productions in Roxbury this month. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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Last month at a Celtics game, fans at TD Garden were revving up like they usually do before the action starts. Video cameras captured mugging faces in the crowd and projected them onto the Jumbotron. Beers and hot dogs were shuttled up and down the aisles. Cheerleading squads vamped and strutted through pulsing medleys of pop hits.

And then, like an apparition, 12-year-old Oladunni Oladipo materialized in a dress and a string of pearls. Her eyes fixed straight ahead, she was a beacon of poise amid the commotion, singing the national anthem to a crowd that stood stock-still as her voice soared on the high notes.

Oladunni has done this sort of thing often over the past few years — singing at sporting and charity events, and even at the State House — and each time, she leaves the audience wondering whom they just saw. Next month she hopes to shed some light on that question with the release of her debut album recorded with her sisters.

Credited to the Oladipo Sisters, “The Mighty One’’ is a contemporary gospel record of original songs set to R&B beats. The album, which they have been recording at 12th Note Productions in Roxbury, has been long in the making since Oladunni first started wowing audiences around town after her big break singing at the Boston Pops’ gospel night in 2007.

She was 8 back then and says she didn’t feel nervous at all as she took the stage for a stirring rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,’’ audio of which is posted on Oladunni’s website ( It was a stunning feat for someone who had scarcely performed outside the family home.

Keith Lockhart didn’t conduct that particular gospel concert, but word of Oladunni’s performance got back to him.

“My staff came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to find some opportunity to use this young lady again because it’s really a special talent,’ ’’ Lockhart says. “I hear that a lot.’’

He shed his skepticism once he finally worked with her.

“She was so at ease on the stage — not in an annoying child-prodigy way, but just as somebody who enjoys performing and making music for people,’’ Lockhart says. “She’s so modest and so unassuming that you’re immediately on her side. But when she opens her mouth, she knows exactly what she’s doing. I wonder whether this is going to translate into her being a great adult talent. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to her.’’

Even though Oladunni has been in the spotlight, music is very much a family affair for the Oladipos. Oladunni is the middle of five sisters, ranging in ages from 5 to 20, and they all contributed to the new album. Oladunni and Olayeni, 10, are the lead singers, but their older sisters, Olamide and Olaitan, wrote nine of the songs and sang some backup.

This particular album is gospel, but that doesn’t mean future ones will be. The Oladipo sisters grew up in a home full of music, from classical and jazz to pop and R&B. Lare and Yemi Oladipo, their parents, are of Nigerian descent and moved the family to England and eventually Massachusetts for Lare’s job as an orthopedic surgeon. Their Canton home is full of vibrant Nigerian art, and an entire shelf in the dining room features photos of Oladunni grinning alongside Lockhart, Governor Deval Patrick, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Given her confidence on stage, it’s surprising to learn Oladunni is exceedingly bashful in person. The first thing you notice is that she’s not a groomed child star in the waiting. She speaks quietly, with just enough words to make her point and a sweet little smile to punctuate them. “I like singing because it shows words in a melodic way,’’ she says.

Early on, the family consensus was that Oladunni had a natural talent and should pursue it. Olamide, the eldest sister and a junior at Harvard, has been in awe of her sister’s rise.

“I think all of us were singing at that age, but not so confidently as Oladunni does,’’ she says. “It didn’t really hit me until I saw her perform with the Pops. I watched her and thought, that’s my sister!’’

At the heart of the Oladipo Sisters is their mother, Yemi, who runs a professional ironing business from the family’s garage. She’s a businesswoman through and through. When she greets a reporter, she hands over an envelope containing a three-page list of biographies for each of her daughters.

Even the youngest, Olajuwon (nicknamed Jubi), 5, warranted her own paragraph: “While not writing her own songs just yet, she recorded an intro for the Oladipo Sisters album on the song titled ‘Obey Your God.’ ’’

Yemi’s devotion is sincere, but don’t get the wrong idea; she swears she’s not one of those notorious stage mothers. “We learned very early that whatever your child shows interest in, you support them. You can’t force them to do something,’’ she says.

Yemi is also quick to point out that her daughters have all enjoyed a childhood full of extracurricular activities they’ve chosen themselves. “We want them to be children first and foremost because that’s what they are.’’

As the lone man in the house, Lare says he’s used to hearing sisterly voices at all hours. Like his wife, he’s completely behind Oladunni’s budding career. “It’s great that you can find something you love at such an early age,’’ he says.

As the family prepares to self-release the sisters’ album next month — both on CD and online — no one seems sure what they hope it will accomplish.

“The main reason we’re doing this is because the message is powerful — a message of peace, of hope, of love,’’ Yemi says. “You just hope somebody will listen to it, and it will bless them one way or another.’’

She maintains that even nonbelievers can get into the album. Even with explicitly devotional lyrics (“There’s a kingdom for us / For the souls like us / For the ones who have given their lives to God’’), Yemi thinks the music has broad appeal. “It’s light and airy enough that you don’t even have to be a Christian to like it.’’

When asked about her commercial aspirations, Oladunni demurs. She admits she avidly watches “American Idol’’ — as does the rest of the family — but isn’t interested in auditioning when she’s old enough. “I think I could do that, but I just don’t want to,’’ she says.

And when Oladunni is reminded that she’s made her name by singing to large crowds, she seems puzzled by the prospect of doing it any other way. Would she care to sing a song for an inquiring reporter?

“No,’’ she says without a missing a beat, “because I don’t like to sing to just one person.’’

James Reed can be reached at