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Inside ‘When the Caged Bird Sings’

Mark Clague

By Mark Clague

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
   When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
   When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats her wing
   Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For she must fly back to her perch and cling
When she fain would be on the bough a-swing;
   And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why she beats her wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
   When her wing is bruised and her bosom sore,—
When she beats her bars and she would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
   But a prayer that she sends from her heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven she flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

Adapted from the poem Sympathy (1899) by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Program Notes by Mark Clague

When the Caged Bird Sings is something new and old at the same time. Like an oratorio, it fuses orchestra and chorus into a sacred service, here bringing the sounds of the Black American church into the concert hall. Like an opera, it tells a timeless story with words, music, drama, costumes, and characters. Four powerful voices command the stage: a soprano (the mother), an alto (the daughter), a tenor (the guidance counselor), and a baritone (the father). The entire chorus speaks as the community, while a subset represents Black congregants in worship. The narrator is both sage and celebrant, timeless and all-knowing. She is an ethereal pastor—unseen by the other characters—but always at the center of the drama. The composer originally called the composition “a gathering,” signaling that it was a communal ritual, bringing people together as an act of healing, hope, and celebration. When the Caged Bird Sings is all of these.

Text and music have been created and woven together by composer Dr. Nkeiru Okoye, a woman of African American and Nigerian heritage, to explore themes of perseverance and triumph. It is the story of the transformative power of Black womanhood. It speaks of hope and possibility, while it is also a warning that past traumas will be repeated, until such a time when the community listens, learns, and is itself transformed.

Dr. Okoye’s work draws from a powerful well of Black history. Inspired by the life and work of Dr. Maya Angelou, When the Caged Bird Sings pulses with the strength of countless Black women whose courage and creativity have changed history: the poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, journalist Ida B. Wells, entrepreneur C. J. Walker, vocalists Sissieretta Jones and Marian Anderson, author Zora Neale Hurston, dancer Katherine Dunham, activist Rosa Parks, singer Billie Holiday, politician Shirley Chisholm, athletes Althea Gibson and Serena Williams, activists Coretta Scott King and Dr. Angela Davis, actress and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and First Lady Michelle Obama. These and countless others exemplify the exceptional and everyday activism that has shaped our world. Their stories echo in Okoye’s music, in the words spoken and sung through the Black church, as acts of faith, hope, courage, and community.

Woven throughout When the Caged Bird Sings is the story of “Cerise” [Cherish], a young Black woman that the world seeks to doubt and diminish merely because of the color of her skin and braids in her hair. Cerise, whose name itself signals her parents’ love and protection, nevertheless encounters racial prejudice in her neighborhood, which is predominantly White — sometimes overt, often surreptitious, always relentless. Her family offers support and solace. At one point, she falls victim to peer pressure in an attempt to fit in. Her high school counselor intervenes. She recovers, escapes the cage of discrimination, triumphs, and gives back, adding to the legacy of Black womanhood, and adding her voice to a historical chorus of those who transformed adversity into opportunity. “She sets herself free,” as the lyrics state. Her story also parallels the composer’s own. It is the all too personal story of lived experience, but one less autobiographical than simply human and universal. As the composer has remarked, “Cerise is not a stereotype. She’s just a girl.”

When the Caged Bird Sings is organized into five parts, each titled after a Maya Angelou book or poem:

Part I

Gather Together in My Name introduces us to the cast and invokes the drama’s central question, “Who am I supposed to be?” It is a question that vexes each of the tale’s protagonists.

Part II

Now Sheba Sings the Song focuses on the first part of Cerise’s story — her mother’s joy at her birth. The tenor offers praises and what the composer calls a “valentine to all Black women.” The narrated choral number, “Sometimes Life Gets Ugly,” presents the emotional crux of the composition. It gives voice to a pernicious inner dialogue, a voice telling African American women that they are “too dark, too poor, too ugly, too broken…unworthy, subhuman.”

Part III

And Still I Rise tells the second part of Cerise’s story, of her relentless determination despite the forces holding her back. Her father laments that his new job as a junior vice president was “still not enough” to protect her.

Part IV

I Shall Not Be Moved recounts a crisis for Cerise. The tenor, representing her high school guidance counselor, recounts the story of collapse and collision. The music here is punctuated by references to the Dies Irae [Day of Wrath], a melody associated with the Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church that represents turmoil and confusion.

Part V

A Song Flung Up to Heaven depicts the triumph and transformation of Cerise, now a grown woman. Here, a lyrical flute melody represents the butterfly — a living symbol of transformation that echoes in the poetry of Maya Angelou. It serves as an example of true beauty, but a beauty that often masks the change that has made its realization possible, that masks the trauma that inspired such transformation.

 

Musically, When the Caged Bird Sings is rooted deep within the sounds of the Black church, couched in concert music tradition. Okoye’s compositional voice travels seamlessly between styles: the romantic, minimalist, gospel-inflected, and improvisatory. The melodic passion of a solo vocalist often foreshadows the lyrical contours of specific hymns and spirituals, shifting from minor to major and blossoming into full arrangements of traditional sacred melody, such as “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” or “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.”

According to the composer, the goal of When the Caged Bird Sings is to celebrate the transformative power of Black women and use the power of art to transform the world. The drama closes with an original hymn of the same title. Okoye’s lyric encapsulates the journey, traveled and envisioned:

When a caged bird sings
Despite captivity
I think it means that in her dreams
She can see
Herself
beyond the bars
And beyond her tears
beyond her scars
And beyond her fears
She is transformed
And she set herself free.

Maybe not coincidentally, the composer’s own name—Nkeiru—means “the future is greater than the past” in her Father’s native language of Igbo. In this sense, When the Caged Bird Sings envisions a world in which a parental prophecy is fulfilled. When the Caged Bird Sings is both prayer and promise. Through this work, Okoye gives voice to the hope that we, as the audience, will be changed. That we will understand our nation and world as more capacious and come to “see Black women in a different way.” Yet When the Caged Bird Sings is also Dr. Okoye’s own personal proclamation as an artist and person. With pride, it shouts to the heavens on behalf of all Black women—“we are triumphant…we are doctors, lawyers, educators, entrepreneurs, and we are FABULOUS.”

Hear additional insights from composer Nkeiru Okoye and U-M’s Kenneth Kiesler and Eugene Rogers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Clague researches all forms of music-making in the United States, with recent projects focusing on the United States national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”); American orchestras as institutions (especially in early Chicago and San Francisco); the Atlanta School of composers; Sacred Harp music and performance; critical editing; and the music of George and Ira Gershwin. His interests center on questions of how music forges and shapes social relationships: the art of sound as simultaneously a transcendent emotional expression and an everyday tool for living. Professor Clague is an associate professor of musicology with tenure at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan who also enjoys affiliate appointments in American Culture, African and Afro-American Studies, Non-Profit Management, and Entrepreneurship. He serves as director of research for the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and as co-director of its American Music Institute. He further serves as faculty advisor to student organizations including Arts Enterprise@U.Michigan, the Ypsilanti Youth Symphony Mentors, Mu Phi Epsilon, and the Interdisciplinary Music Forum. Read more at smtd.umich.edu
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