Shawn E. Okpebholo

Shawn E. Okpebholo is a Grammy-nominated composer and professor of music composition and theory at Wheaton College.

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    Shawn Okpebholo, born in Lexington, KY, credits his formative childhood music lessons with the Salvation Army Church for his love of composition. Today, his works have reached some of the world’s most prestigious venues including Wigmore Hall, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. His Nigerian American identity has also inspired him to incorporate West and East African musical idioms into his compositions, as well as explore other musical genres outside of his Western classical-based training.

    His vocal music strives to bridge temporal gaps between landmark events in American civil rights history, shedding light how these events relate to each other and to the current climate surrounding race relations in the United States. His song cycle Two Black Churches provides powerful musical commentary on American race relations by juxtaposing a poem about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham (1963) with a poem about the Emanuel African Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston (2015).

    In 2021, NPR listed his art song “The Rain” (from Two Black Churches) in its 100 Best Songs of 2021, one of few classical works included in their ranking. His first album, Steal Away, features a collection of re-imagined Negro spirituals. His second album, titled Lord How Come Me Here?, earned a Grammy nomination in 2022.

    Dr. Okpebholo is a recipient of several awards and honors for his contributions to the repertoire, including the Academy of Arts and Letters Walter Henrichsen Award (2022), The American Prize in Composition (2020), and the inaugural recipient of the Leslie Adams-Robert Owens Composition Award. Currently, he serves as Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music. He is also in residence with the Chicago Opera Theater for its 2021-2023 seasons. The Theater premiered his first opera, The Cook-Off, a comic one-act production, in May of 2023.

    Helen Bryant

    This profile was created in 2023 as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.

    Further Reading:

    -Wheaton College. “Shawn Okpebholo.” Wheaton College.


    Related Information





    (Jasmine Barnes, Margaret Bonds, Jeremiah Evans, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Robert Owens, Brandon J Spencer and Damien Sneed)


    Fires of Justice

    (David N. Baker, B. E. Boykin, Adolphus C. Hailstork, Andre Myers, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Robert Owens and Dave Ragland)


    View recording

    Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers

    (H. Leslie Adams, Margaret Bonds, Henry T. Burleigh, Thomas H. Kerr, Shawn E. Okpebholo, Robert Owens and Damien Sneed)


    Sheet Music

    Okpebholo: "Two Black Churches"

    Composer(s): Shawn Okpebholo

    Buy via Edition Peters

    Shawn E. Okpebholo Collection of Spirituals- Volume 1

    Composer(s): Shawn E. Okpebholo

    Song(s): 11

    Voice Type: Baritone and Mezzo-soprano

    Buy via (

    Shawn E. Okpebholo Collection of Reimagined Negro Spirituals and Folk Hymns (Volume 2)

    Composer(s): Shawn E. Okpebholo

    Song(s): 8

    Voice Type: Baritone and Mezzo-soprano

    Buy via (

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