Special Reports

MA Top 30 Professional: Shawn Okpebholo

December 5, 2023 | By Hannah Edgar

Jonathan Blanchard Chair of Music
(Composition & Music Theory)

Wheaton College

In May, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will premiere a newly commissioned work by composer Shawn Okpebholo, inspired by his experience working with students in Chicago Public Schools.

When it comes to cost-free music education, Okpebholo is simply paying it forward. Raised by his mother in government housing in Lexington, KY, Okpebholo started taking free music lessons at a Salvation Army church, joining its English-style brass band and youth choir. He also took intermittent composition lessons from composer James Curnow, a fellow congregant.

“With my narrative, it’s so easy to say, ‘Well, you’ve worked hard.’ Yes, but there’s still systems in place where, no matter how hard you work, it’s still hard to get to the next level. I care more about changing how those systems work,” he says.

After entering graduate school, Okpebholo explored the music of his heritage: African American spirituals on his mother’s side, West African music on his father’s side. That interest in spirituals has evolved: He is now among the foremost art song composers working today. His music is featured on two Grammy-nominated albums, with vocal eminences Will Liverman and J’nai Bridges. Songs in Flight, his recent song cycle setting fugitive slave ads, premiered earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now, he’s broken into the opera world, collaborating with librettist Mark Campbell on The Cook-Off, slated for productions in Nashville and Portland, OR, in future seasons. Okpebholo is also a member of the Blacknificent Seven, a composer collective whose ranks include Jessie Montgomery and Joel Thompson.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s some advice you would give younger composers? It’s an easy question for me: develop meaningful friendships,” Okpebholo says. “I attribute my career taking off the way it has in large part because I just like people: I’ve developed these friendships, and it makes art more fun.”




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