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Composer Nkeiru Okoye puts heroism of Black women at center stage

Nkeiru Okoye (above) has written a piece for South Shore Conservatory that focuses on cardiologist and Wellesley College president Paula Johnson.
Nkeiru Okoye (above) has written a piece for South Shore Conservatory that focuses on cardiologist and Wellesley College president Paula Johnson.Matt Gray

Composer Nkeiru Okoye knows people see her as an activist, or a champion of social justice in the music world. On the cover of a recent coloring book of Black composers released by the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation, Dr. Okoye’s likeness is front and center, seated at a piano bench and brandishing a sheaf of sheet music with the top page reading “civil rights.”

That’s not the full picture, Okoye said. “I am privileged to be a composer who works mainly by commission … [and] if the commissioner says, ‘Write a piece about Martin Luther King Jr.,’ I’m writing a piece about Martin Luther King Jr.”

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So when South Shore Conservatory tapped her as the first composer-in-residence for its new “SSC Transform” initiative, and leadership commissioned what Okoye described as “a piece about social justice,” she decided to focus on cardiologist and Wellesley College president Paula Johnson, whom she saw as a potential role model for the conservatory’s teen students.

“It was right around the election,” Okoye explained. “I was thinking: What if we give them someone to root for? I think that can also be social justice.”

The result was “Grayce and Sickle,” a five-minute piece for wind ensemble that will receive its world premiere on July 23 at the conservatory’s outdoor Jane Carr Amphitheater. The Globe caught up with the 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship winner via phone to learn more about the storytelling philosophy that informs her works, from “Grayce and Sickle” to her widely acclaimed 2014 opera “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom.”

Q. When you were writing “Harriet Tubman,” how did you decide what her voice would sound like? She’s such a huge figure in the national myth of America, and I can imagine it’s quite different from giving voice to a fictional character.

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A. That was my first opera, and I was not a particular opera fan before that. I was teaching at a historically Black college with a very large chorus, and at the time I only wrote orchestral music. In the choirs at historically Black colleges and universities, singers have classical training, but the wide majority also came up through the Black church. A lot of the women have a lower extension on their voices, and that gives them an amazing reach.

As it got into production with an opera company, and they were doing auditions, they kept bringing in really good singers — but some did not have that lower extension. Then some came in and were very familiar with the [Black church] performance practice. They understood some of the traditions which aren’t written down. If you’ve ever heard a recording of Aretha Franklin doing “Amazing Grace…” So [it meant] bringing in these types of voices and saying: “This belongs here, this is worthy of the concert hall.”

Q. And because of pieces like that, you have a larger body of work that some people connect to activism?

A. Honestly, I write about what impacts my world. There are other composers who did the same thing — but they’re not considered to be activists because they’re white men. By celebrating historic African Americans and uplifting Black women, I am painting a more complete picture of the United States.

The Black Lives Matter movement resulted in many works focusing on Black trauma and confrontation with police. So, on the whole, it seemed the classical music world moved from Gershwin’s portrayal [in “Porgy and Bess”] to what [these] organizations presume about us. We are hungry to write and be heard, but what is that telling to the rest of the world if the only stories you hear about African Americans are angry, sad, about trauma?

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Q. What was on your mind when you were writing “Grayce and Sickle” and researching Dr. Johnson?

A. I was looking at her biography, and I was thinking: “She’s so accomplished, how do I transform this woman’s life into a five-minute piece?” I asked her about her high school years, because I’m working with high school students. These are not things you can read about in her biography. I wanted to find out what it was that had her go into medicine. One of them was her mother, Grayce, being encouraging. Then she had a relative who had sickle cell disease. Later in life, she realized — if there was more understanding of this disease and how to manage it, how much easier would it have been?

I have two friends who have sickle cell. I spoke with them recently about this piece, and they began crying — “Nobody understands, thank you for telling people about this.” A person with sickle cell has this pain crisis, and [doctors] don’t understand what the pain crisis is. They’re thinking, “This is a drug addict.” No, this person is in extreme pain, and this myth about African Americans being able to deal with more pain is endangering our lives. So the story has that in there, but the story is not about that. The story is simply the story, and this is the landscape where the story happens.

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GRAYCE AND SICKLE

7 p.m. Friday. At Jane Carr Amphitheater, One Conservatory Drive, Hingham. Limited tickets available via tickets@sscmusic.org

Interview was edited and condensed. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.