Okorie Johnson: Imagining MLK through Music

Cellist, performer, and storyteller Okorie “OKCello” Johnson addressed and performed for the Lawrenceville community this past Thursday at school meeting.

Cellist, performer, and storyteller Okorie “OKCello” Johnson addressed and performed for the Lawrenceville community this past Thursday at school meeting. Johnson, who began playing the cello at the age of six, describes his style as a fusion of classical, jazz, EDM, reggae, and funk.

Johnson’s address began with an explanation of the first song that he would perform, “Fire,” which he hoped would remind Lawrentians of Martin Luther King’s “yelling fire” by demanding equality during the Civil Rights Movement. He hoped Lawrentians would imagine “a small flame that grows into a towering inferno” as he performed.

The second song Johnson performed, “Story Time,” had an interactive component.

“I like to tell stories with my music […] If I can put a series of experiences or emotions into a sequence or conversation, then I can support the plot of a narrative,” Johnson said, as he invited students to close their eyes and create a mental story that accompanied the music.

“Imagine a protagonist, a setting, a historical era, or maybe a color, and watch the movie that unfolds before your eyes,” Johnson said.

The third song that he performed, “Liminal,” is arguably his most famous. “Liminal” is a tribute to Johnson’s youth, in which he “travelled between different worlds,” such as his hometown, a predominantly black community, and his prep school, a predominantly white one.

Johnson concluded his set with “Springtime in Wakanda,” which takes inspiration from the beauty of the springtime and the fictional country of Black Panther.

On his inspiration for improvisational music, Johnson said, “There’s this feedback loop between risk and expression, […] and I believe that it’s important to take the risk because the risk creates motion. That’s what keeps me going.”

Following Johnson’s performances, Assistant Dean of Faculty Alison Easterling P’19 invited members of the Lawrenceville community to join Johnson in the Stephan Room of the Abbott Dining Hall for a question and answer session. Johnson also hosted a master class in the Clark Music Center that evening.

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