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Nkeiru Okoye: Now Is the Moment

August 31, 2020

Composer Nkeiru Okoye’s work, in both opera and symphonic works, has been performed all over the world. Okoye, who studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and has a doctorate in music theory and composition from Rutgers University, is known for Voices Shouting Out, which she wrote after 9/11, her 2014 opera, Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom, and her 2017 Invitation to a Die-In, commissioned in memory of Trayvon Martin and other young Black men who lost their lives to violence.

Recently Okoye participated in the San Francisco Opera’s online lecture series, Opera Aficionado, talking about Black voices in contemporary opera on August 23, and on a panel about women in opera on August 30.

You started composing very young. What was it that drew you to it?

I one of these kids who heard music in my head, and I didn’t realize that’s what composing was. My sister and I started reading early, and I think it was the Beatrix Potter series. The Peter Rabbit books have these wonderful poems and Peter Rabbit would sing his morning song and you’d have the lyrics and I would just hear the music, and it wasn’t until years later I realized other people don’t do that. [Laughs.] I never really thought anything else about it other than it’s just part of what I do. I was taking piano lessons when I was 8 or 9 or something, and I never thought to connect the two of them.

Then I outgrew my neighborhood teacher, and she sent me to one of her students, who sent me to someone else and she heard me and said I think we can get you into an important music school. I was not able to get into the studio of the teacher I wanted because her studio full, so she sent me to a younger student, an arrogant young white man. I was very, very shy and withdrawn, and we were not compatible. We were maybe four weeks into this thing, and he said, “You are never going to be a pianist. You can basically chop your fingers off, and it will not change your playing.” But I was hearing all this music inside my head, and it’s kind of exploding, so I wanted to learn how to write this music out if it’s the last thing I did

You’re 13, everything is dramatic, right? [Laughs] So I went to my school and our band director was African American and he’d been in several pop groups. He realized this girl is writing music, and he taught me how to write it down and once it was finished, he got me to enter it into a competition. At this point, I had switched out of studying with that man, but I was still very bruised, and I felt like, I am never going to win. These people are the experts, and they said I’m never going to be a musician. He said, “just trust me.” I won first place [Laughs]

How did your folks react to you doing this?

It was just my mother at that point. My father had gone back to Nigeria ­— he could not deal with racism here. At one point, my mother was a music major, and I think that’s where I get a lot of my creativity. She became an occupational therapist, and she had raised me that I could do anything. It’s not she would sit here and empower me, but one thing she did do was she referred to my sister and me as my father’s Nigerian children, and she did not allow us to watch a lot of exploitive shows that showed African Americans in a negative light. She was a medical missionary, and we didn’t listen to secular music, so all I listened to my first few years was classical music and my father’s Highlife records.

When did you think about composing an opera?

I had a piece called Voices Shouting Out, and I entered it for a reading with the Detroit Symphony. Because the conductor took it [and] went to various places with it, I felt like I’d made it. You get a reading at that age with a major symphony orchestra, it empowers you. I was at a school that had an enormous choir that did not have an orchestra, but they did have a marching band. They encouraged me to write music for the chorus, but I did not write choral music. It was a Black school and the chorus was classically trained. Students would do these harmonizations that were sort of a hybrid with a gospel choir. It’s a different sound, and I wanted to write for that particular sound.

Originally, I was going to write an oratorio about Harriet Tubman because I was drawn to the symphony. I figured I’d write this choral piece and arrange a bunch of spirituals and have some dramatic readings in between. I figured that would be my first oratorio and it’s going to be a hit [laughs]. Because it was such a great idea, I found out someone else had done it already [laughs].

By this time, I was already into Tubman’s story trying to find out who she was. I was attracted to the story because there was mystery behind it. Here’s this woman going up and down the northeast corridor, and you don’t know why she would risk freedom all these times. Here’s this person who did this amazing thing, but why? This is a woman who was so significant to us, so I did a lot of research and threw myself into it.

What are you most pleased about with the opera?

I think I’m most pleased not with what I did with it, but with people’s response to it. A lot of young Black women in music school were, like me, well, in my case, I was the only Black person and the only female in my course of study. A lot of the teachers did not understand their voices. A disproportionate number of singers get to conservatories because they sing in church, and this performance practice they have is very heavy vibrato that makes their voices pronounced, which in Marian Anderson’s day was considered to be ethereal.

A lot of teachers do not know how to work with that, so these young women are taught they’re singing wrong and they need to suppress this thing that makes them unique and gives them extended ranges. That’s an awful, awful thing to go through. What I’m finding is these young women found so much freedom in singing those arias because they’re written specifically for that voice, and that’s what I love most about it.

What kind of research do you do for your work? What do you like about doing research?

When I was studying at Oberlin, I got a grant to research Black women composers, and just two nights ago I was awarded the Florence Price Foundation Award for Composition, and the reason this ties in, is all these times I kept being told, “We don’t see this in you.” The day I met my teacher he asked me, “Have you ever met any other Black composers?” And I thought about it, and I was like, “No.” He pulled up all these scores, and there were all these composers I didn’t know about, and I had ancestors.

This was a watershed moment, so I went back to conservatory, and I was so empowered knowing about Florence Price and William Grant Still and Wendell Logan and George Walker that I thought, “OK, I’m going to research these people.” So I did a research paper on Black women composers, and then I got a research grant, and then I got another research grant. So I was finding out all these people and learning about their lives and it was very thrilling for me. So I would say research is gratifying for me. You learn about history and you learn you have a place in that history and when you find you are included in history it makes you feel better — at least it certainly did for me.

With these talks you’re doing at the San Francisco Opera what do you want people to come away with?

The first one is centered on my music and my work and what I’m doing now. And that’s as an experienced composer, people commission me to write works and they’re seeing that one thing is I go into the community and I give members ownership of the music, and I invite them into the concert hall. I want to show them they have a place here. That’s what I’ve been doing for most of my life. So it was natural that when I went to Oberlin, I had this watershed moment that it’s not just that I belong here — all of you belong here. I was staying at this dorm called the African Heritage House, and we’d have guest artists, and I would invite the people at the African Heritage House to come to the conservatory.

A lot of times they had negative experiences as is the case with a lot of African Americans. They go into this place and a lot of people are looking at them basically asking them, “What are you doing here?” or sometimes it’s just a look like you don’t belong here. And my thing is, “Of course you belong here!” So this is the work I’ve been doing. It’s so important people know they can belong in a place. What I’m seeing is more and more we’re getting people to come into this place and feel at home there. And part of what makes them feel at home there is they’re not alone. It’s terrifying to go into a hall, to go into a classroom, and to be the only Black person. I know that because I lived that. I am working so that other people will feel at home there, and I encourage people to define themselves.

Recently The New York Times had a story about opera singer J’Nai Bridges being invited to do a virtual recital at the Los Angeles Opera right after George Floyd’s killing, and she asked to instead do a panel on race and inequality and opera. Do you feel that things are changing?

I think that at this juncture we have a perfect storm. COVID-19 is here whether we like it or not, and it’s kept everyone inside. The killing of George Floyd brought back to life Black Lives Matter, and as all this is going on the concert world is silenced and suddenly singers who were all over the place and instrumentalists who were all over the place — nobody has any jobs, so people are asking our opinions with the Black Lives Matter movement. And some people were putting up their signs and saying we stand in solidarity, and a number of people were calling them out and saying, “Wait a minute — that’s not true. Why don’t you have more black Black singers? Or why do you only hire Black singers to do Porgy and Bess and you don’t ask us back? Why don’t you have black composers?” So this confluence of all of this activity is a perfect opportunity. A lot of people will do a token effort and have a panel and then go back.

Even now you can feel all this activity, it’s waning, but there will be some places that understand it’s not about the quick Band-Aid effect — it’s about the long haul and making a sustained effort, not just for tokenism, but for diversity, equity, and inclusion. A lot of people are not ready for that, but that’s OK because some organizations are beginning to hear us, and some people’s consciences are being pricked. And as that’s happening, there’s an opening for change — we just need to be bold enough as a community. This is our moment.

Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for radio, print, and the web, including Smithsonian.com, Daily Beast, 48 Hills, HyperallergicLatino USA, Women’s Media Center, California Magazine, and SF Weekly. She also teaches adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco.