How Songwriting is Like Engineering

Akeda Hosten, a senior in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, is the reluctant star of this year’s Black Anthology.

​Akeda Hosten

“The first time I auditioned my sophomore year, I wanted to sing, not act,” said Hosten, an electrical engineering major. “When I got the callback, I was super excited — ‘Oh yeah, they liked my song.’ They didn’t tell me they wanted me to act. I had to learn to project, get into character, all of that theater stuff. I’ve learned a lot, but still don’t feel totally comfortable on stage.”

In this year’s performance “woke,” Hosten plays a popular student who wants to speak out against racism, but is exhausted by the unceasing stream of injustices he observes in the news and in his life. Producers call the play the “spiritual sequel” to “The Six,” which explored the aftermath of the August 2014 shooting of Ferguson, Mo., teenager Michael Brown.

Here, Hosten discusses “woke,” the staying power of Black Anthology and how songwriting is a little bit like engineering:

Who is your character in “woke”?

I’m Leon. He’s a senior planning to go to law school. He is a hard worker and always on the dean’s list. He’s dating a white girl who doesn’t quite understand what he’s going through as a black man in America at this moment.

You’re in St. Louis and at Washington University at a pivotal time in our respective histories. How is Black Anthology part of that conversation?

We want Black Anthology to be funny and entertaining, but also to have an important message everyone can understand. A lot of people tend to be closed minded to thoughts and ideas when you’re just telling them, “This is wrong for reasons X, Y and Z.” But when you see it acted out and get attached to a character, you can apply it to the real world. That can be more powerful than just reading a bunch of think pieces.

You’ve written acoustic guitar rock. And now you have just released a hip hop album called “The Prodigy.” Explain your approach to songwriting.

I write one line, two lines, three lines, and then just tuck them away for later. When I have a spare moment, I’ll say, “What did I write yesterday in class?” It comes together one verse at a time. Once I have those first two lines, everything tumbles into place. In some ways, writing a song is like engineering. You’re building something from scratch. You’re thinking about how do these words flow and fit — how many syllables can I fit in this cadence?