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On window seats, sparkly shoes, and composing music that celebrates Black women

We caught up with Nkeiru Okoye, world-renowned composer and musician, to talk about all things travel.

 

World-renowned composer and musician Nkeiru Okoye loves everything about Paris — especially the shopping and how, she said, Black women are, “revered as beautiful” there. The New York City native, who was raised in Massapequa, on Long Island, and now lives in New Paltz, N.Y., is looking forward to spending some time in Massachusetts this month as the first composer-in-residence at the South Shore Conservatory. Her residency is part of the conservatory’s “Transform” initiative, which uses music education as a vehicle to promote social awareness and social justice. “Many of my pieces touch on social themes like African-American history — and especially African-American women,” Okoye said. “My work aims to change the narrative about Black women, because there are so many inaccurate stereotypes. I like to highlight the fact that Black women are professional and that we accomplish amazing, amazing things.” The piece Okoye has written for SSC Transform is called “Grayce and Sickle,” a tribute to Dr. Paula Johnson, a cardiologist and president of Wellesley College who conducts research on the correlation between genetics and medicine, with a focus on sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder that impacts many people of African descent. “Grayce and Sickle” will premiere on July 23 at the conservatory’s final Summer Musical Festival concert at the Jane Carr Amphitheater in Hingham. We caught up with Okoye, a Guggenheim Fellow, to talk about all things travel.

 

Favorite vacation destination? 
For shopping, Paris. You can’t beat it. I first went at 18, during fall break of my sophomore year in college. I did a semester abroad in London, studying contemporary art and electroacoustic music. This was my first time being abroad by myself. In Paris, Black women are revered as beautiful. OK, it got a little overwhelming, and [was] definitely based on stereotypes, but I’d rather be stereotyped in a way that gets me treated like a superstar. 

Favorite food or drink while vacationing? 
When traveling in the States, having Southern cuisine is comfort food. For me, it represents Southern hospitality and the richness of African-American culture.

 

Where would you like to travel to but haven’t? 
A friend showed me pictures of a small island town off of the coast of somewhere in the Caribbean — but I am not at liberty to say where. He’s taking his family there for a month. Most restaurants are beachside, the seas are sparkling blue, and you can feel years of e-mails, Zoom meetings, and the global pandemic melting away. I thought I hadn’t made time to visit the islands because I’m usually working on deadlines or traveling for business, but seeing the photos convinced me I had found the right place to tempt me. 

One item you can’t leave home without when traveling? 
A pair of comfortable metallic leather shoes. Since I’m traveling for music-making purposes, having my laptop, music scores, great headphones, and a mini keyboard — in case inspiration strikes, or an emergency rewrite comes up — are all required. The sparkly shoes are just for me. Even though I am just about 6 feet tall, I am usually in 2- to 3-inch heels. And make sure to find pairs that are really comfortable. 

Aisle or window? 
Window. You get the most amazing view. I love the takeoff [and] watching towns get smaller until they disappear. Last time I was on a flight, the sky was filled with a double rainbow, and we got to see it up close while nearing the clouds. I love the eagle- eye view of a city at dusk or night, all lit up with bright lights. 

Favorite childhood travel memory? 
This one time, when I was about 9, we went camping at Disney World. It was during a particularly wet, rainy season, though. One night, the family-size tent nearly collapsed. 
So, we spent our last night in one of the hotels. Years later, our “soaked” visit to the Magic Kingdom still gets the giggles. 

 

Guilty pleasure when traveling? 
Reading fiction books that have nothing to do with work. I am a sucker for romance novels. If I’m not reading a new Debbie Macomber book for my Kindle app when away, it’s John Grisham. 

 

Best travel tip? 
I’ve learned to pack clothing that can be mixed and matched. My tip is to have one fewer outfit than you think you’ll need, but always bring one sparkly outfit.