As the South Shore Conservatory’s Transform Initiative’s first composer-in-residence, Dr Nkeiru Okoye said she wanted to be a role model for young African American girls and black women around the world because it is important, she said, to see them “in roles other than stereotypical roles”.
“One thing I’m very aware of as an African American woman is the need for live role models,” Okoye said.
Renowned composer and 2021 Guggenheim Fellow Okoye will teach students of the South Shore Conservatory’s Summer Music Festival a five-minute piece called “Grayce and Sickle.” Okoye composed this piece as part of a commission from the conservatory as part of the SSC Transform initiative, a project that aims to use music education to promote social awareness.
The Summer Music Festival is an annual program that allows students from elementary school to middle school to come together to practice and perform in a final concert.
The piece composed by Okoye was inspired by Dr Paula Johnson, cardiologist and president of Wellesley College, and the mother of Johnson, the partial namesake of the piece. The composition also explores sickle cell anemia, which is commonly found in places where malaria is or was common according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In his work, Okoye said part of his role is to involve communities and that when it comes to working with students, they can be information “sponges”. Learning the music of a living African-American composer is a different experience than that of “dead white men,” Okoye said.
“Although it is not my race, or someone else’s race or gender, it becomes a learning experience and students will see that we are all human beings and that we can all come together, ”Okoye said. “And if nothing else, this piece draws attention to sickle cell disease.”
Students will perform the piece during the final concert of the July 23 Summer Music Festival at the Jane Carr Amphitheater, 1 Conservatory Drive in Hingham.
What does music mean
Over the past decade, Conservatoire de la Rive-Sud music director Eric Laprade said the conservatory has given more thought to what it means to study music and what studying repertoire means for students.
This questioning led to “transformative experiences” at music school in 2017 and 2018, which Laprade says started a conversation, helped students think, grow and better understand the topics surrounding social change.
“What we found, and it’s not unique to the conservatory per se, but music can open the conversation on really difficult topics among our students,” Laprade said. “And ultimately, doing so can improve the intensity of our performance or the quality of our performance.”
Laprade said one of the first transformative pieces that helped launch the initiative was the conservatory commissioned by New York-based composer Steve Danyew of Rochester. The play was written in response to the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Laprade said the article provided students at the conservatory with a “cathartic” outlet, as well as a curriculum created by the conservatory that helped students navigate the “difficult” subject.
“It was a turning point for the festival and we realized that through music, through teaching music, through musical performance, we can help students understand the world around them but also develop those… traits of empathy, critical thinking, communication, ”says Laprade.
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From this new understanding was born the SSC Transform initiative, which will be an annual commission for a musical composition by a composer-in-residence that explores a topic surrounding social justice.
The SSC Transform initiative will be funded by the Kathy O. Czerny Innovation Fund, which was established in honor of the former president of SSC.
Laprade said the SSC Transform initiative was a “natural progression or outgrowth” of their previous work at the music school’s Summer Music Festival.
Laprade said he hopes funding will continue to be available in the years to come to continue making this an annual initiative.