This conversation was produced for the ear. Click the orange play button above to listen. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Ayres-Brown: I understand your new work is deeply informed by a part of the city of Newport’s history. Could you tell me a little about your inspiration?

Okpebholo: I was wondering about Black music history in Newport. And I wasn't going anywhere in particular, but I came across this fascinating figure named Occramer Marycoo, who was an enslaved African that lived in Newport. In fact, his enslaver renamed him Newport Gardner after he purchased Marycoo. And Newport Gardner — he went by that name for the rest of his life. He became quite educated, spoke multiple languages, was a classically trained musician and a composer despite his enslavement.

There were many things that were intriguing about Newport Gardner. But what I found most interesting as a composer — as a Black composer — is [that] he's the first Black composer credited with having a composition published in the Western style. So I said to myself, “I have to compose music about this figure.”

Ayres-Brown: Your new work is titled “Crooked Shanks,” and it has the same name as one of Newport Gardner’s original compositions. You’ve described that piece of his as a “whistle-worthy happy tune.” In what ways, whether melodically or thematically, is your new commissioned piece inspired by this work — and what made you decide to give it the same name?

Okpebholo: Well, “Crooked Shanks” was the actual work that was published, that first composition. And it's a very delightful tune. You will go away, again, singing it or whistling it. So I wanted to make that tune the basis of this composition.

That said, though, [Gardner’s] circumstances being a slave, and everything that was going on at that time…Even though he ended up having a pretty prosperous life, it was during a dark time in American history. So I wanted to create a piece that, you know, used that melody, used that theme — was inspired by that theme, I should say more accurately — but also reflect[ed] the reality of that time in our history.

Ayres-Brown: Shawn, I know this isn’t your first work inspired by history. Your song “Two Black Churches” reflects on the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and the 2015 Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston — both of which were violent attacks by white supremacists on Black churches. As a composer, how have you approached creating new musical works that address the legacy of racism in the United States?

Okpebholo: You know, I write a lot about race in my music. I'm a composer, and to me, the best way for me to express my thoughts, bring awareness to the history of it, and in many ways seek justice, is through my art.

So there have been some pieces that I've written that tackle those issues head on — and one was “Two Black Churches,” which as you describe, dealt with two atrocities in Black churches by white supremacists almost 60 years apart. Which is symbolic of the fact that this is still going on today in America. 

Ayres-Brown: What do you hope listeners will take away from your new composition, “Crooked Shanks”?

Okpebholo: Well, a couple things — one, I want them to be intrigued by the title, and intrigued by this incredible figure, and go research him some more.

Two, I want them to, as with all my music, just feel, right? Get something from it. It can be different things. But I want them to understand that this piece is more than music for music sake. There's some depth there. And whatever you decide or whatever you take from that, that's fine. 

Ayres-Brown: Shawn Okpebholo is an award-winning composer whose newest piece, “Crooked Shanks,” premieres July 9 at the Newport Classical Music Festival, performed by pianist Aldo López-Gavilán. Shawn, thanks so much for your time.

Okpebholo: Thank you so much.

For more information about the Newport Classical Music Festival and the premiere of Okpebholo’s new piece, visit

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at