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Okorie “OkCello” Johnson

When Okorie “OkCello” Johnson plays his cello, it reaches into your heart and holds it. His music is both intentional and extemporaneous. 

Johnson says his eclectic musical style — with nods to jazz, EDM, reggae and funk — is a form of storytelling. His compositions explore African Diasporic melodies and narratives, and the ways they intersect with common assumptions about the cello as a classical, European instrument.

His music, which includes four studio albums, has received numerous accolades. InStyle and Atlanta magazines included him in their features on Atlanta’s rising creatives. He has performed at SXSW and at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, as well as with India.Arie, De La Soul and Outkast’s Big Boi, among others.

In the following interview, Johnson speaks with NEXT Executive Director Faith Carmichael about how his music has evolved over the past few years, why pursuing social change isn’t enough and how he hopes instead to help create a completely new future. Hear one of his musical stories for yourself: At the end of the conversation is a link to Johnson’s performance of “Right Now,” the song he wrote for the NEXT Movement. See his work | Buy his work

Photos by: Terence Rushin and Steve West


NEXT: What have the past couple of years, the pandemic and the racial reckoning that we’re living through, been like for you?
Okorie “OkCello” Johnson: The pandemic, for so many artists, was really a sidelining event. And there was in the beginning a lot of stillness — and then into that stillness was injected this real serious unrest. It’s not really appropriate to say unrest, right? Because it’s the kind of unrest that is right underneath the surface and always has been in this country for years and years and years. But without the distractions of concerts and football games and whatever else we used to numb ourselves with, we had to face it.
NEXT: And how was your music impacted by all of this?
Okorie “OkCello” Johnson: There was a unique opportunity for artists, in that stillness, to find ways of commenting, redirecting their work, or at least harnessing the relevance and the energy of the world and using that for the work. And I would love to say I intentionally did that, but that’s not exactly what happened. What ended up happening is that people reached out and started asking me, “Do you think that you could score something for this poem about racial justice?” “Can you come up with a soundtrack for this documentary about an older Black couple who were murdered, and the person who was convicted for it isn’t the right person?” All of a sudden, there was an opportunity for my work to be as relevant as my life. Because as a Black man in the United States, it’s difficult to live in a bubble where those things aren’t affecting you and impacting your life. And there was something at the same time, fortunate and unfortunate, that happened in 2020 — my work became focused.
NEXT: How so?
Okorie “OkCello” Johnson: I really began to lean into the fact that my work is rooted in the African diaspora. I began to realize that the cello and my voice were well-suited for commenting both on the state of our community and the violence, the racial violence, that is the foundation of our very thinly veiled society. And also on the possibility for hope and healing. I think all of that you can find in the cello, and I was honored to be able to explore that.. Despite how devastating the pandemic has been for us globally, it wasn’t really devastating for me personally. But it did aggressively shift the trajectory that I was on. I’m feeling really amazing about the path that I’m on right now personally, artistically, professionally, and I’m realizing that in some ways I’ve always wanted to go where I currently seem to be headed, but I don’t think I was really going there until just recently.
NEXT: Beyond expressing what’s happening around us right now, do you feel like your music can inspire real, positive change?
Okorie “OkCello” Johnson: You know, I don’t know that I love the word “change” as it relates to the kind of progress we want to see. I really believe in the idea of birthing a new world. I’m not so sure that I’m completely invested in the idea of changing the world that we have. I believe in the idea of rebirth. I believe in the idea of the world that we’re living in right now. Once it didn’t exist, and there were artists and thinkers and philosophers who, through their work, through their ideas, through their lives, created the conditions that allowed this world to be born. I’d like to be part of that community. I’d like to be part of that class of either inspiring the people who build the worlds or inspiring the world through the things that I create. I’m sure that things will change as a result. But I think I’m interested in a more ambitious word than “change.” Change requires in some ways that we focus on what is, and I think I’m much more interested in focusing on what will be or what could be.
NEXT: The NEXT Movement is very much about that — about harnessing the power of art to be transformative. Can you say more about your ideas of rebirth and how art can enable that?
Okorie “OkCello” Johnson: In order to create a new world, you need dreamers. You need people who are invested in the impossible. You need people who are grounded enough in the world to be able to communicate with it, but also enough to be laboring in the creative work of generating something new. I want to be part of that effort. I want to be part of writing the documents that birthed the future. And by that I mean songs and music and literature and poetry and philosophy and governing documents. I want to inspire that class of creators and dreamers. And I want a little footnote when someone is writing the history of the world that is yet to come.

5 Artists. Many Stories. 1 Movement.

NEXT joined forces with MARTA to amplify the voices of Atlanta’s premier artists reflecting on a post-pandemic world dealing with a cultural reckoning.

At NEXT, we are about more than art for art’s sake. At NEXT, we believe that together we can use our individual creative expression to find solutions to our community’s intractable social challenges. Through our talents and our passion, NEXT unleashes the potential of creative communities in order to inspire countless others who share our vision to get involved.