NKEIRU OKOYE is an American-born composer of African American and Nigerian ancestry. She was born in New York, NY and raised on Long Island. After studying composition, music theory, piano, conducting, and Africana Studies at Oberlin Conservatory, she pursued graduate studies at Rutgers University and became one of the leading African American women composers. An activist through the arts, Okoye creates a body of work that welcomes and affirms both traditional and new audiences. Hailed as “gripping” and “evocative” by the New York Times, her works have been commissioned, performed and presented by Detroit Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, Opera North UK, Mt. Holyoke College, Juilliard School, Houston Grand Opera, the American Opera Project, Boston Landmarks Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the University of Michigan Orchestras, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Sinfonietta, Cleveland Opera Theater, Moscow Symphony, Tanglewood Music Festival, Virginia Symphony, Tulsa Opera, Royal Opera House, Da Capo Chamber Players, Cellist Matt Haimovitz, Pianist Lara Downes, and many others.
Her works include:
BRIAR PATCH from “Tales from the Briar Patch” (2019, 2022). Commissioned by American Opera Projects and premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival
“[A] raucous success … Given the painful history of the Uncle Remus stories, it is a blessing to encounter such material in the hands of Black artists such as Okoye, Moore and Stockard.” The Virginian Pilot
“Briar Patch came like a shooting star in this production. Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby is one of three Tales From the Briar Patch that Ms. Okoye and Mr. Moore have created… Each is filled with mirth, home-spun wisdom and a life lesson. The creators look forward to the day when all three operas are performed together on one bill. We do too!” Art Song Update.
Inside is What Remains (2021) A song commissioned by Tulsa Opera as part of “Greenwood Overcomes”
“While [Greenwood Overcomes] concluded with all the performers joining in for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” for us the real crux of the evening was contained in one of the pieces Tulsa Opera commissioned, “Inside is What Remains,” composed by Nkeiru Okoye.” Tulsa World
Black Bottom (2020) – Commissioned by the Detroit Symphony in celebration of the Symphony Hall Centennial.
Okoye’s evocative “Black Bottom,” premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at its annual Classical Roots celebration last March, is one of the most engrossing musical portraits of Black history in the available repertoire. The New York Times
We’ve Got Our Eye on You (2016) – Comic Opera with libretto by David Cote.
"Okoye’s music is original, lively and perfectly tuned to the characters and story." Times Herald-Record
Voices Shouting Out (2002) – An orchestral work commissioned by Virginia Symphony Orchestra
The best bit of magic, however, may have come at the start of our evening in a brief work entitled “Voices Shouting Out,” which is a wistful, percussive wonder composed by Nkeiru Okoye in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.The voices in this case are orchestral instruments whose “shouting out” creates a bold imagery reminiscent of Aaron Copeland, with similar themes of nationalistic pride, honor, and grandeur. Charleston Today.
“Nkeiru Okoye's "Voices Shouting Out," … whose forceful beginning and end, and lyrical middle section, leaves the impression not of a mournful community but a determined one celebrating life.” The Post and Courier
“…In vigorous march time, with the chatter of muted trumpets giving way to jazzy riffs and then an elegiac melody, “Voices Shouting Out” affirmed a faith in the ability of America to put tragedy behind it and move forward.” The Grand Rapids Press
The program opened with "Voices Shouting Out" by Nkeiru Okoye… with the composer conducting. …" The orchestra responded to the composer's direction with great enthusiasm and vigor, and the audience response to the work was overwhelming.” Classical Voice of North Carolina
Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom (2014). Commissioned by American Opera Projects with support from The National Endowment of the Arts.
"[Okoye] spins simple Americana into the gold of art music of lasting quality… The music is irresistible, invigorating, and vivid, building to an unforgettable and thrilling conclusion. It is a great American opera.” Hyde Park Herald
“Composer-librettist Nkeiru Okoye deftly pieces together a kaleidoscopic musical fabric of disconcerting beauty…” I care if you Listen
“achingly beautiful,” Baltimore Sun
The score of her opera is written fluently and is easily accessible. The musical style is versatile and multi-layered, a mix of styles of blues, gospel, jazz, ragtime, negro-spirituals and subtle, but unmistakable borrowings from Benjamin Britten and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But a minuet that could do honor to Mozart also crept into the score. (Translated from) Der Opern Freund.
“A deeply moving opera grounded in 19th century abolitionism..” Oberlin Conservatory Magazine
“an emotionally charged and musically sublime experience…”. The Plain Dealer
“Okoye [is] a composer of considerable range and a particular sensitivity to the rhythms of text setting. Okoye also shows a special affinity for gospel music, with its free and soaring melismas and its connotations of a robust and undaunted faith.” Cleveland Classical
“I personally believe that this piece will enter the repertoire and be discussed with similar praise as George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - this is a major composition, very worthy, and was greeted with well-deserved standing ovations! Sound Word Site
Charlotte Mecklenburg (2018). Commissioned by the Charlotte Symphony in celebration of Charlotte’s Sequicentennial
From Copland-esque wind themes to a drum set-backed bluesy section, "Charlotte Mecklenburg" explores some of the diverse ethnic and racial heritage of Charlotte and glimpses into its history from its founding to the present day. The orchestra executed this piece well, capturing each varying theme while maintaining an overall unity, representing some of the many parts that make up the whole of Charlotte. Classical Voice of North Carolina
Songs of Harriet Tubman (2011):
[Songs of Harriet Tubman] was the centerpiece of the evening… Each of the arias creates its own musical language, dynamic and narrative with each aria building one upon the other, ascending both musically and emotionally.” Lightwood Press
“Both sung and spoken, “I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” is dramatic, telling of an escape from Maryland to Philadelphia, and the decision of the newly free woman to go back for her family… That is the kind of ideal knowledge that art can bring” The Compulsive Reader
“Perhaps the most successful work [on HEART ON THE WALL] is the last, the Songs of Harriet Tubman by Nkeiru Okoye, drawn from a larger operatic work. Okoye forges a convincing idiom that reflects the rhythms of Tubman's speech in a natural way...” AllMusic.
“Tubman’s life story, Okoye’s words and music, and Pullum’s sublime musical and dramatic acuity united in a powerful reminder of history and affirmation of resilience. Boston Globe.
"The show-stopper of the afternoon was the final selection, 'I Am Moses, The Liberator.' [is it] an emotional moment that truly encapsulated the strength and passion of one of history’s most heroic characters.” Music City review
Phillis Wheatley (2005) – A narrated orchestral showcase in the style of Peter & The Wolf commissioned by Boston Landmarks Orchestra. The original was recorded by Moscow Symphony. A new narration was penned and will be an upcoming children’s book.
“Okoye weaves an eclectic musical tapestry all her own, derived from genres [Phillis] Wheately would have been familiar with. The Boston Herald
“The musical themes are truly charming and combined very engaging way. It’s a lovely way for children to learn about the orchestra as well as about the poet Phillis Wheatley, her life and achievements. Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy Blog
African Sketches (2003-04, 2015)
“The pianist Blair McMillen opened with “African Sketches,” a trio of blithe, expressive and tuneful miniatures by Nkeiru Okoye...” The New York Times
“Okoye’s reflective piece creates a wonderfully impressionistic sheen using many Debussy-esque parallel fourths and fifths.” The Score – Louisiana Music Teacher’s Association Journal
“Nkeiru Okoye’s Dusk and Dancing Barefoot in the Rain are impressionistic pictures of great beauty from her collection entitled ‘African Sketches’. – Music Web International
The Creation (2001)
“[Okoye’s The Creation] was derived from motives pulled from lesser-known spirituals... Her infectiously syncopated clarinet lick at the creation of Man was perfect, bringing chuckles bubbling to the surface all around me.” Classical New Jersey
Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship, Writing for Your Classical Music, Minnesota Public Radio, wrote, “Composer Nkeiru Okoye doesn’t fit neatly into any kind of classical category. Her compositions showcase her genius by incorporating different types of musical styles that help create a sound that’s uniquely hers.”
Other works include “We Met at the Symphony,” and operatic song cycle for soprano and string quartet commissioned by the Harlem Chamber Players; “600 Square Feet,” A Micro-opera commissioned by Baldwin Wallace Conservatory, “We’ve Got Our Eye on You,” An operetta written for the music studio at SUNY New Paltz, BROOKLYN CINDERELLA, A song cycle for soprano and piano commissioned by American Opera Projects, and Invitation to a Die-In,” a monodrama for voice and orchestra commissioned by Mt. Holyke College Orchestra in commemoration of Trayvonn Martin, “Grayce & Sickle,” For wind ensemble, commissioned by South Shore Conservatory, and Movements for String Quartet, which contains “Dancing Barefoot in the Rain, which was immortalized by Carnegie Hall, in their CH monogram campaign.
Future works include “Dear Ollie” A children’s opera commissioned by Opera North, UK, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo; “When the Caged Bird Sings: A “Gathering” for orchestra, choir, and soloists commissioned by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance; and “Impassioned: Classic Literature Unhinged,” A song cycle commissioned by the Juilliard School; and “A Truth Before their Eyes,” sponsored by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.
Among her honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the inaugural International Florence Price Society award for composition, a Beneva Foundation award, composer grants from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, many awards from ASCAP, the Yvar Mishakoff Trust for New Music, and the National Endowment of the Arts.
An educator, Dr. Okoye has taught Master Classes and Composition Classes in colleges and Universities throughout the US including University of Michigan, Oberlin Conservatory, University of Denver, Old Dominion University, Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music, The New School, and Spelman College. She has been a featured composer at panels for Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Composers Now, Gateways Music Festival, The Conductor’s Guild, Opera America, Composers Now. She served on faculty at Norfolk State University, Morgan State University and SUNY New Paltz. In 2007, She gave the Keynote address at Coppin State University’s Inaugural Celebration of Student Excellence. In 2017, she was the keynote speaker at the Harriet Tubman Conference in Cambridge, Maryland.
She has been the featured composer at programs for University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance, Dance Theater of Harlem, University at Albany, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Black Women’s Leadership Caucus. In 2021, she was in the inaugural cohort of William Grant Still Fellows for Medomak Conductor’s Institute, the inaugural composer in residence for South Shore Conservatory SSC Transform initiative, and the inaugural composer-in-residence for the Florence Price Festival at the University of the Incarnate Word.
She is an Artistic Chair for American Opera Project’s prestigious Composers and the Voice program, a mentor for the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) mentoring program for Composers, and a Board member of Composers Now!.
Dr. Okoye’s music has been recorded on labels such as Albany Records, MSR Classics, and Rising Sun Music. Her works are published by Theodore Presser Music and Carl Fischer Music. They are available throughout the world.