Ms. Magazine: Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project
A Conversation with Music Composer Nkeiru Okoye of “Harriet Tubman” Opera Fame
Dr. Nkeiru Okoye, whose first name means “the future is great,” has already dazzled the world as an internationally recognized music composer of opera, symphonic, choral, chamber, solo piano and vocal works. A 2021 Guggenheim fellow, Okoye is best known for her opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom, which premiered with The American Opera Project in 2014.
She pens her own librettos and lyrics, as well as other genres such as prose and poetry. Okoye is currently
composing a more contemporary opera, A Truth Before Their Eyes, about Black women and the challenges they face in today’s healthcare system, a semi-autobiographical work.
Ms.’s Janell Hobson interviewed Okoye about her inspiration for her opera on Tubman and the state of Black women in classical music and beyond.
Janell Hobson: There seems to be so few operatic themes or stories that center the lives of Black women, apart from Margaret Garner, based on Toni Morrison’s libretto adapted from her award-winning novel Beloved. Yet we know that Black women have been classically trained since Harriet Tubman’s own lifetime. Singers like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1819-1876), and later, Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933), and Tubman herself was considered a great singer.
Dr. Nkeiru Okoye: And Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King. She too was a trained opera singer.
Hobson: Yes! What needs to be done to include more Black women in opera?
Okoye: I am an arts activist. And by that, I mean, if I’m a feminist, it’s a feminist with a small “f.” People think of activism as going out with billboards and doing all of this other stuff. But what if you simply write narratives about Black women from an authentic place? We’re not in the concert halls, right? So just by existing, and saying, hey, let’s write a role that asks for a Black woman, and that means they have to hire a Black woman to do it.
“People think of activism as going out with billboards and doing all of this other stuff. But what if you simply write narratives about Black women from an authentic place?” said Nkeiru Okoye. (Courtesy)
Hobson: Is this how you see yourself bringing about change in the realm of classical music?
Okoye: Well, writing roles specifically for Black women guarantees that Black women will sing the roles. Because it took a while, we’ve moved from blackface, we’ve moved from minstrelsy.
People no longer think that’s acceptable so we’re now at the point where Black women can give voice to our own stories, and we’re going to tell our stories in a way that is free of the white gaze. Part of my activism–with my “small a” activism–is just creating roles that take into account our culture.
Hobson: How were you inspired to write about Harriet Tubman? How did you become a classical music composer?
Okoye: I was studying music at Oberlin College as an undergraduate, and I was really shy, very introverted, and kind of traumatized because of getting into this big music school and finding out how little I knew. But I saw this announcement for the Detroit Symphony doing a symposium on Black music composers. So I went to the event and heard for the first time Wendell Logan’s “Runagate, Runagate,” based on the poem by Robert Hayden. It puts you on the trail with Harriet Tubman.
When I was studying music, all the stuff I didn’t want to learn, I felt there was no place for me. But there was a place for me, and I found it through “Runagate, Runagate.” I also met my teacher around this time, the man who became my mentor when I was about to drop out. Or rather, I was considering different options. I later took a course on African American women in history, and that’s how I started studying Black female composers.
Hobson: Are you saying that “Runagate, Runagate” is what led to your opera on Harriet Tubman? Okoye: No, well, maybe indirectly. There’s a good 10 to 15 years between them.
When I was a faculty at an HBCU, I was expected to compose music for a large choir. So, I started to write a large-scale piece with some spirituals. I was writing this hypothetical piece, and I wanted it to be about a Black woman, someone heroic. This was before the era of Michelle Obama. It wasn’t pre-Oprah, but we didn’t really celebrate too many other Black women in the culture. I also lived in Maryland, and Tubman was from Maryland, so I thought: I’m going to do this piece on Harriet Tubman with some spirituals.
I wanted this opera about Harriet Tubman to be relatable to someone from her world—like the ladies in the Black church, I wanted to be relatable to them.
Hobson: That makes sense, of course, because we often associate Tubman with spirituals.
Okoye: Yes, so I did some research. I got into the Sarah Bradford book and highlighted all the Tubman quotes. Remember, this is before Kate Larson’s book Bound for the Promised Land, which came out in 2004. I met Kate through this opera, but it was a little later in the process. Tubman’s story captivated me, but there was no substantive biography at the time, so I just got invested in telling her story in a way that honored her, and part of this was, when you look at the Sarah Bradford book, this woman is trying to elevate Tubman, and yet, she calls her this poor stupid Negro girl! It’s a product of its time.
When another [white female] author did a more contemporary novel it was still through the white gaze. God forbid I do something the same way as a Black woman. So, I decided to find out more about her world, and that was the inspiration for the way that I told the story. I wanted this opera about Harriet Tubman to be relatable to someone from her world—like the ladies in the Black church, I wanted to be relatable to them.
“I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman.”
Hobson: So, what went into creating the world for this story?
Okoye: I read all these books like The Sounds of Slavery, what did it sound like, what was the food like, what was the day like? How did Harriet see in the dark? How did she learn forestry, right? So, piecing together that whole story and then also through all of this studying, I had met Kate, who sent me her book pre-publication.
We talked about why Harriet kept going back, and we realized she wanted to get her sister Rachel out. That’s not necessarily obvious in Sarah Bradford’s books, but that gave me a very different narrative. I realized this is a love story between two sisters. The two sisters vow that nothing but the grave will separate them. And we know this to be the case because, after Harriet finds out that Rachel has died, she doesn’t go back. She just rescues that one family [the Ennals], and then she’s done.
We talked about why Harriet kept going back, and we realized she wanted to get her sister Rachel out. I realized this is a love story between two sisters. The two sisters vow that nothing but the grave will separate them.
Hobson: I would love for you to describe the soundscape and the music world for this story.
Okoye: You hear ragtime, you hear what sounds like spirituals, you hear gospel music, and most of this is beyond Tubman’s time. But again, it’s music that would have related to her. And to people who represent her. And if I cannot get people who look like us into the concert halls, then what am I doing?
Opera is usually done with bel canto, which means “beautiful singing.” It’s a certain technique. Well, in Black churches, in jazz, you don’t use bel canto singing, you use a different type, what’s called performance practice. The four arias that “Harriet” sings, I call them the “Songs of Harriet Tubman.” And young Black singers take those arias, they have them on their audition sheets. In the years since I wrote those songs, suddenly they’ve become well-known for Black sopranos. And they’ll sing “I am Moses the Liberator.” I’ve heard people—there was one woman who sang this a cappella at a conference. And I was like woah!
Hobson: So, you’ve been able to intertwine opera with Black women’s vocal style of singing.
Okoye: Yes, and this just blows my mind because it’s become a rallying cry. Some of the women who have been raised in the church, they have this very low, pronounced chest voice, and teachers will say, oh you’re a mezzo, meaning it’s a lower voice. And it’s actually a vocal extension, so a lot of them are told, well, you have to get that sound out of your voice. That thing that makes it so unique and so beautiful.
But my music is something that is written for them. And it almost becomes defiant, it’s like, who do you think you are? “I am Moses the Liberator!” It’s been very interesting to see how that has evolved.
A couple of years ago, Oberlin College had a production, so you can imagine this type of turnaround, to go from “we don’t think you belong in this program,” to “you have something exciting, come back!
Hobson: That is quite the turnaround!
Could you say more about your new opera A Truth Before Their Eyes, about a professional Black woman’s misdiagnosis? How much of this is autobiographical? I was wondering about the similarity between the heroine’s migraines and Harriet Tubman’s seizures.
Okoye: One of my singers also made that connection during an introduction in a performance space. When Tubman had her injury, she was laid out for dead, and she was carted home. There’s no mention of medical care.
No one threw a lead weight at my head, but the racism that the doctors used in not giving me medical treatment for my migraines (that turned out to be a brain bleed) had a similar impact because three weeks later, I had a stroke. Like Tubman, I survived it. And like her, I’m telling the story, making it into something that will change people if they will listen. And like her, it changed my life forever.
Hobson: Why do you think opera is appropriate to explore this story?
Okoye: Harriet Tubman premiered after I had the stroke. I tried to write my experience as an opera immediately after it happened, and I tried a couple of different takes on it, and they were all very personal as I made my transformation from having the stroke to going to rehab to finally getting better.
I believe in the power of the arts to affect social change. In its basic sense, operas are sung stories, and the best-known ones, when you look at them, they actually address social issues of the time. We’ve gotten away from social relevance of the operatic art form because classical music has become stigmatized as elitist.
I had a stroke. Like Tubman, I survived it. And like her, I’m telling the story, making it into something that will change people if they will listen. And like her, it changed my life forever.
Hobson: I appreciate you bringing the genre up to speed with the contemporary experience, especially for Black women dealing with the racism and misogynoir embedded in healthcare.
Okoye: In my opera, I don’t provide a specific name for the small town or even the hospital. Doing so might provide a place to avoid, even boycott, in solidarity. It is the appearance of solidarity, presuming empathy while not accepting equality that gives rise to what happens. After all, the same doctors who assaulted me were so busy trying to help the Black woman that they neglected the human being who was their patient.
And when they finally released me from that place, they pronounced that I was better. Was I? Though some of my speaking ability had been restored, they had held me against my will, drugged me, violated my person, violated my privacy, made belittling comments to my face, and claimed my profession was a delusion. That my speech was unnaturally sluggish, as if talking in slow motion, that I had acquired a slight limp not previously mentioned in any of my medical records, escaped their attention.
When I left the facility, my eyes were opened to harsh realities that I had been fighting, or perhaps been sheltered from. To the world, no matter my education, my accomplishments, the music I have written and have yet to write, I am first seen as Black. Most doctors even now still believe this whole thing about strong Black women basically being “beasts of burden.” We can tolerate more pain, supposedly.
In the end, as a composer, a professional Black woman, I have access to medical care, which is the only reason why I’ve recovered. But too many of us, especially those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, don’t have access to good medical care. And it’s inexcusable in this country, let’s be clear.
(Editor’s note: In Okoye’s answer above, she was reading from a press statement.)
Hobson: I’m glad you have a public platform to address these issues. These harsh realities need to be told; whatever genre is chosen to tell this story.
Okoye: Traditionally opera has been written by European men. It involved the subjects and stories that are important to them. Well, it’s a new day. So, of course this story is social commentary. Of course, it should be an opera. Black women now have a voice and a space in the room.