Composer, music consultant, public speaker. Dr. Okoye writes contemporary concert music and helps organizations create artistic events that reach and attract diverse audiences.
While best known for writing accessible “classical” music with pop and African American/West African flavor, Dr. Okoye actually composes all styles of music.
Born in New York, NY to African American mother and Nigerian father. Spent early childhood traveling between Nigeria and the US. Raised primarily on Long Island.Began writing music at age 13.
Studied piano at Manhattan School of Music, Preparatory Division.Majored in composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Completed additional coursework in Africana Studies. Master’s and Ph.D. from Rutgers University, studying with composer Noel DaCosta.
I am American. I identify primarily as African American, and am half African American and half Nigerian.
What made you start writing music?
What influences your music?
What is your new piece about
Is there anything people should know about this piece?
What are some of the responses people have had to your music?
About HARRIET TUBMAN
What made you pick Harriet Tubman?
How did you get information about her?
Why is it called a folk opera?
I’ve heard this piece has an educational focus. How true is the story line?
What makes this different from other works on Tubman?
Who is the audience for this piece? Is it for kids only?
About Black Bottom
What is this piece about?
How did you capture the stories into the music?
What made you use voices as part of the orchestra?
Is this piece an opera?
Where can I find more information about the piece?
About WE'VE GOT OUR EYE ON YOU
How did you get the title?
Who are the Graeae and where do they fit into the Perseus myth?
Is an anti "hooking-up" stance, by definition, anti feminist?
How do you write about 'anti hooking-up' without being explicit?
Is this a message piece only, or does it stand alone as a comedy?
How did you get your name, how is it pronounced and what does it mean?
My name is pronounced [in KEAR roo oh KOY yeh].It comes from the Nigerian language Igbo [EE bo], which is my father’s native language.“Nkeiru” means “The future is great,”or “the future is greater than the past.”“Okoye,” my surname, is a popular Nigerian name that could be claimed traditionally to a man born on “Oye” market day - one of four days in an Igbo native week.
What is it like to be an African American composer?
Composing is an expression of what's inside me. I do not set out to make my works ‘sound’ like “Black composer music,” if such a thing can be defined, but rather to create a work that satisfies my ears and will hopefully touch an audience. At the same time, if by my doing so, people are educated about African American culture, and people who usually do not come to the concert hall will give “classical music” a chance, then a good thing has been accomplished.
What type of music do you write? Is it classical only?
My music doesn’t easily fit into a single category, though I incorporate many musical influences in a way that creates a sound that is uniquely mine. I think a lot of people are surprised to hear connections between the gospel aria and the jazz aria in HARRIET TUBMAN. Similarly there’s a pop song in the middle of VOICES SHOUTING OUT, along with some funk and a tone row - and it’s my most performed orchestral piece. Over the years, I've found myself using techniques that seemed ‘avant garde’ to me when first receiving training in composition. At the time, I could not imagine putting those elements into practice. Now, I use them in ways that work for me. It’s surprising to see how well Schoenberg and funk can sit side by side at the symphony.
Do you only compose music about Black people?
Not the way it might seem. Because much of my work is commissioned, the general subject area is often predetermined by those commissioning it. Besides African American history and culture, I also enjoy writing works inspired by classic literature, romance and much more. One of my more recent theatrical works, a comedy called WE'VE GOT OUR EYE ON YOU, is about the Ancient Greeks, and the myth of Perseus.
What is your music writing process?
This varies according to the composition. When a work is commissioned, I begin by researching my subject. For historical pieces, in order to captivate a musical time period, I saturate myself with writings written about and during an era before writing a note. The actual composition process begins as musical ideas form in my mind. When writing them down, I use pencil and paper, as well as my computer.
Can I send you a libretto?
For copyright purposes, I cannot receive any unsolicited materials. You are welcome to contact my representative to pitch ideas
Thoughts on race, ethnicity, and why I shy away from the term BIPOC
In formal settings, I use the term "African American." It is specific to a race and culture. In less formal settings, I often use the term “Black." “Black," can refer to any number of ethnicities under the umbrella of people of African decent. Haitians, Jamaicans, some Dominicans, West Indians, some Cubans, and Africans from the Continent are all “Black,.” All have have unique languages and cultures, and not all are familiar with African American traditions.
The nation is making amends to African American citizens. It is a specific situation that warrants specificity. The resurgence of Black Lives Matters, along with the pandemic brought international focus to prejudice against African Americans, Internationally, we are in a time when the world is paying attention
While it’s popular, I find the term BIPOC to be unfortunate. "People of Color" is a term from colonialism, to distinguish Whites as humans and all other as subhuman, thereby eligible to be enslaved. The newer form BIPOC is a catch all phrase for diversity. It means non-White. The last “N” word used to differentiate people who had skin color like mine is now seen as offensive.
Musically, the term "BIPOC composer" means that White people are composers and everybody else is “other.” It means that my music is not considered as art, but the product of something outside the cannon.
Wouldn’t it be great if the next generation saw composers as composers, without distinction about race or ethnicity, gender?
I am a composer. Period.
Race is tricky.
Let’s make music!
©Nkeiru Okoye. All rights reserved.