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Songs in Flight

Producers: Sparks & Wiry Cries

50-minute song cycle

Co-comissioned with: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

Music by: Shawn Okpebholo

Text curator: Tsitsi Ella Jaji

Featuring works by: Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Crystal Simone Smith, and Tyehimba Jess

Original Production

January 2023 - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The premiere performance includes additional musical material by singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens

Additional Production dates

January 2023 - Kimmel Center in Philadelphia

March 2024 - Wheaton College

April 2024 - Duke Arts



Kimille Howard - Projection and Lighting Designer, Director

Gabriel Vega Weissman - Associate Director


Karen Slack - Soprano

Reginald Mobley - Countertenor

Will Liverman - Baritone

Howard Watkins - Piano

Director's Note

Songs in Flight is a unique song cycle that borrows texts from the Freedom on the Move

database, a collection of advertisements seeking fugitives from American Slavery,

held at Cornell University. This database contains thousands of such notices

containing specific details regarding these self-liberating individuals-- their

personality, appearance, life story-- and can be re-contextualized as thousands of

stories of resistance compiled into one resource. Dr. Tsitsi Ella Jaji wove these texts

with other poetic elements by herself, Tyehimba Jess, and Crystal Simone Smith to

respond to this primary source material, bringing them into the 21st century and

blending them with current events. The heartbreaking and violent murders of

Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 and Trayvon Martin in 2012, along with the imprint of too

many others to name, are embedded within the fabric of Songs in Flight.

Okpebholo's music ties the Western European tradition of art song to forms that are

distinctly American, especially those of formerly enslaved African peoples.


"The achievement of “Songs in Flight”… is that it takes these murky, dehumanizing documents and illuminates them, shifting their perspective to reveal the person hidden in plain sight."

-New York Times

"Resistance is the theme of Songs in Flight, but it isn’t so much focused on slavery itself as it is on the interior drive to be free...The music from the African diaspora performed in Songs in Flight thankfully failed to achieve a performance atmosphere common in classical music concert halls. The expected silence between songs was not quiet; it was not kept."

-Donna Lee Davidson, ICIYL




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