Composer Nkeiru Okoye Talks Her New ‘Black Bottom’ Arrangement

Nkeiru Okoye

Celebrated composer Nkeiru Okoye fell in love with Detroit in 1992 while she was still an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio. Given an opportunity to experience a program that celebrated the work of Black composers, sponsored by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Okoye spent time in the city that would make a lasting impression on her work and solidify her position as the DSO’s 2019 composer in residence.

Okoye made a name for herself with her composition Harriet Tubman which performed in five continents and several hundred orchestra halls around the world. Until age 8, her family “shuttled between the U.S. and Nigeria,” she says. When her parents separated, young Nkeiru (pronounced “in-KEAR-roo” and means “the future is great” in the Igbo language) and her older sister remained with their mother on Long Island.

Okoye started playing piano in grade school, and at 13, won first place in an NAACP student composer competition. It would be the first of a string of awards and commissions for Okoye. She debuted her latest composition, Black Bottom, during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 19th annual Classical Roots Celebration March 7 and 8.

BLAC: What was the inspiration behind Black Bottom?

Nkeiru: People never understand how much wealth there was within the Black community. It’s easier to talk about the poverty. The picture of black upward mobility, Black Bottom, was a destination for entrepreneurs, public figures and musicians. It was eerie going through this and seeing all these buildings that were once very beautiful and they had fallen into disrepair because this is the same story of urban renewal. What’s the cost of that? You see children smiling for these pictures, posing and it’s eerie because you know full well there was never any intention to make improvements. They’re looking for reasons to tear this place down.


The composition is meant to raise questions about the destruction of a vibrant neighborhood and the reasoning behind why Black Bottom was selected for demolition. I want to transport listeners to this storied place and time through nine movements, setting us right at its most popular vein – Hastings Street. The piece features a full orchestra and four versatile singers who deploy extended techniques exploring the African American voice as an instrument and the instrumentation as voices.

What are some challenges to being an African American female classical composer?

It’s important to show that there are African Americans who are writing classical music as well as those that are writing hip-hop or gospel music and all the other things that we do. My path has been longer and harder than it needed to be and there are bruises that don’t need to be there. I wanted to play the piano when I was little, but there was no money for lessons and I was later told that there was no future for me in music. Fortunately, there were people there to encourage and comfort me, and now I want to provide that same comfort to others.

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 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.

Why were you chosen to compose Black Bottom for the 19th annual Classical Roots celebration?

They chose me because I have a unique set of skills. I’m a scholar, a composer and I work with different cultures to tie them together. One of my strengths is a universal knowledge of music, (which gives me the) ability to be authentically inclusive and talk about history in a musical framework.

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. Approaching a newly commissioned piece, I start by listening. I want to know everything.

What’s the occasion, and what’s the purpose behind it? What are the goals for the piece? What I’m doing by asking these questions is defining basic parameters – length and instrumentations, the specific instruments you want to use. I compiled answers to my questionnaire and conversation notes and made a general plan of the composition based on the parameters. But I’m also gathering background information that helps me to create a piece that works for the community. The more descriptive, the better. It helps me understand what’s important which helps sets up my mindset as I’m conceptualizing the piece.

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 classical music. 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. 

What do you want people to come away with after hearing your work?

I think after any kind of program or musical concert you want people to come away with a satisfying concert experience. You want them to say ‘Wow! Musically, I feel good about what just heard.’ I want them to feel challenged as well because they’ll hear some music that’s a bit out there.  

What’s your advice to the next generation of composers?

The first thing that I’d advise young composers, or even my counterparts, is to sit down and write it. Go to school and make sure that you have the skills. Don’t assume that just because we’re in a digital society and we have tools that make it easier— but the writing and hard work required to write is still there. 

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