Renaissance man Ikechi Ojore

In this modern reality of hyper-specialization, there are few Renaissance men and women, individuals who do multiple things at an exception level. But in the spirit of professional athlete, opera singer, actor, activist Paul Robeson and scientist, dancer, African American Studies aficionado and astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, millennial Ikechi Ojore is living his best life, making his mark in music, education, visual artist, literature and more.

The Defender caught up with the TSU alum, licensed barber, part-time model and globe-trotting musician who has played with the likes of Brian McKnight, Kirk Whalum and others, to discussion his multiple paths and passions.

Defender: What do you do for a living?
Ikechi Ojore: At this current moment, I’m an academic advisor at HCC. I was speaking to somebody a second ago, and they asked me what my passion was. And they asked me if my job was related to my passion. And I laughed because like, in some ways, yes, some way hell no. I’m an academic advisor. My passion is to introduce dope people to dope people. So, in so many ways, everything that I do, whether it’s being a musician, photographer or academic advisor, is really to just intertwine or interlock those people from one place to another in order to connect them with what they want to be doing or what they need to be doing.

Defender: You have an initiative going on. I don’t remember the name of it. Can you share what that is, where you had these gatherings of dope people?
Ikechi: It was called “Conversations in the Kitchen,” where it was pretty much a way for me to connect people with other people. You’re an editor of a newspaper, you’re a professor and you might want to be animator. Who knows what you want to be. But in that room, there were people who were doctors, lawyers, who needed animators. So, it was like to connect people who want to be something to the people that could make it possible, and just pushing people towards their passion. Like sometimes we’ve done things for years and years and years. We call them jobs. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to be doing this. You’re doing it because of a lot of things or reasons that we all have. Things that we need to take care of. But, the Bible says that your talent, your gift will make way for you. And that’s literally, wholeheartedly how I live. I try and take every talent, every gift that I have and use it towards living and living my life more abundantly.

Ikechi Ojore in Paris

Defender: That’s an understatement, which is why we wanted to interview you because in your life you’ve been a professional musician and high school band director. You’ve been an author, a relationship guru, a barber, visual artist, photographer and videographer, skateboard designer. What am I leaving off?
Ikechi: I think you’ve got it, man. I don’t even pay attention to that stuff… Most of the time the world says that we only can be one thing. And all the things that I told myself I wanted to be when I was a kid, I kinda became those things. It was like, I want to be an architect, but I guess I am in different ways. But a lot of people believe that they can only be the thing that they’re doing right now. In reality, like the way God made us, He made us to be so many things at one time. But most of us don’t promote those other things. We don’t talk about the other things. So, that’s really all it is that I’m doing. I had a conversation with my best friend and he says the same thing. He’s like, “If anybody could do it, you can do it.” And I’m just like you tripping. I mean, I would just really want to, by any avenue or talent or ability that I have, I want to push people into doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Ikechi Ojore mentoring students

Defender: Just from your first few responses, you sound like someone that’s really grounded in their faith. How important is faith to who you are and what you do?
Ikechi: It’s the backbone of everything that I do. I grew up in a church. In that church, it was more about a spirituality or connection with God. And from that connection to everything around you. I learned how to meditate and how to connect with God on a channel that was not so seen. And that connection, I strongly believe that it moves me rather than I move it. So, the way the energy flows is pretty much where I go. So, one day I might be heavy into music and that’s all I’m doing is music. And the next day it’s a visual art form. But it’s really the spirit moving through me in order to get to that next thing. I strongly believe that we’re all interconnected, and every part of my life is interconnected, and it just makes the next part better. Being a visual artist allows me to be a better musician and allowing to, to speak in a manner, allows me to speak in a manner on an instrument. It’s just like, God is, for lack of better words, it’s how we live, move and have our being.

Ikechi Ojore in Thailand

Defender: So, you’ve not only done a whole lot of things, I ran down a laundry list, but you have done them and are doing them exceptionally. So, as a child, what did you want to be doing in your grown-up life?
Ikechi: Oh, man. That’s a joke. Honestly, I didn’t really have a vision of what that looked like, and that was the scariest part. Where at one point in time I was engaged, right. And she had like a line of what she wanting to do, and it was so, “This is what I’m going to do.” But there was a path. She wanted to be a lawyer. So, you can go to undergrad, you can go to law school, pass your bar. You’re a lawyer. When you have so many things that you’re able to do, it’s not that easy. And had to realize that the thing that I wanted to do was all this stuff that I’m doing. It’s all possible. It’s just about how you operate and how you flow…. Like I said, I wanted to be an architect. But in the manner in which architecture is building a building, I’m doing architecture just not in the same manner. I’m not sketching out buildings or plans. I’m really architecting relationships between people.

Ikechi Ojore enjoying some global travel

Defender: You graduated from Texas Southern University. So, was your plan for your professional life after you graduated, to go the architect path, the musician path? Like where were you on graduation day?
Ikechi: I promise you, on graduation day, I was like, I could use some words, but I don’t think your viewers are gonna appreciate it. So, I went to Texas Southern. I started off as an art major. While I was there, I was already in love with music, and I just went the music route. But as many of us know HBCUs are not the most graduation-friendly places. So, I chose to graduate with a degree in general studies. So pretty much everything. It’s like, you have to take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of this. And you graduated with that degree. So graduating wasn’t, it didn’t necessarily, I wasn’t looking forward to the next path. I had no absolute idea what I was going to do. I just so happened to be in a family of educators, and have the ability to educate. So, my first job out of college was as a music teacher at an elementary school. I did that for about 12 years; from elementary school, all the way to high school band director.

Defender: I knew you were a band director at a few Houston high schools. Worthing was one of them; right?
Ikechi: I taught at Worthing. I taught at Kashmere. I taught at Johnston Middle School, which is Meyerland Academy now. And I taught at Foster Elementary School, which is in the hood, off of Yellowstone. Which is crazy because some of the most amazing musicians in the city of Houston actually went to that elementary school. Chris Daddy Dave went there. I don’t know if you know, Cora Dunham is. Chris Daddy Dave played with Mint Condition, Robert Glasper, like that whole litany of people. Cora Dunham, she played with Prince. So, it’s like this lineage of people who were in the hood, but they, again, they launched off into the stratosphere. Matter of fact, she played with Beyonce. She played with Prince. But like, it was crazy just knowing this stuff.

Defender: So, you went from band director at Kashmere and at Worthing to going all over the world. Where, what are some of the places you’ve been and who are some of the people that you’ve played?
Ikechi: I’ve played for, the most notable people, Brian McKnight. I’ve played with Kirk Whalum. I play with Brian Courtney Wilson. I played with, uh, I wrote it down somewhere. It’s the list, you know. It’s some people.

Ikechi Ojore on tour with Brian McKnight

Defender: You’ve been to South Africa. You’ve been to Asia. You’ve been to all these places, right?
Ikechi: Yeah. I have been to South Africa, Paris, London. I also played with the Jeremy Winston Corral, which allowed me to play with the Czech National Orchestra in Prague. Yeah. That was amazing. Like you have this 152-piece orchestra who’s like the number one orchestra in the world and they’re playing songs and everything sounds like a movie when they start playing. And I was like, “Oh.” I mean, seriously. And like, they don’t mess up. So, when you mess up, they know that you messed up. I really got called out by a guy in, in Czech. I was like, “Hey, first of all, I don’t know what you just said, but don’t be calling me out.” So, I’ve played in Columbia for the President of Columbia.

Ikechi Ojore playing with the Czech National Orchestra

Defender: And you’re not talking about Columbia University. You’re talking about the country.
Ikechi: Bogota, Columbia. Also Trinidad, Jamaica, just places.

Defender: So, are you done with this world tour or are you still…?
Ikechi: At this current Corona moment I’m enjoying the peace and quiet this of Sunnyside, Texas. But I’m open to traveling as much as possible. I love to travel… This guy when I was in London said something and it made so much sense. He said, “As much of the world that I see and I realized that everything is different, I realized that everything is the same. Poverty is poverty here in the United States, it’s poverty in Thailand. Beauty is beauty here in the United States, but it’s also beautiful in Jamaica. And it’s really to see as much as I’m allowed to see, I want to see it.

Ikechi Ojore in South Africa

Defender: Speaking of seeing, you have an exceptional eye because you’re an exceptional photographer and videographer. So how did that door open for you?
Ikechi: By accident, man. It was, it was so accidental. For one, I took some art classes, some photography classes, way back in the day, at the Glasgow School of Art. And how did he come about? Me trying to impress a girl, is that what happened. She was in real estate and she needed some, she was doing videos on her phone, and I had some equipment. And I was like, “You mind if I, you know.” And her company called me and asked me to do like seven or eight videos for them. And I was like, “Well, I guess I do this now.” And I took some classes at the community college and just tried to progress it and make it as best as best as I could honestly.

Ikechi Ojore on a photoshoot

Defender: To you, this all sounds normal, but to a lot of folks, it doesn’t. So, what is it about you that has this openness to always learning something new; to, as you said earlier, go where the spirit leads you?
Ikechi: I don’t know. I think I grew up in an environment where everyone around me was amazing at something. And I learned that I was just okay at a couple of things… For instance, I’ll take you. And if y’all don’t know, I grew up under this guy. He’s amazing. But he was a visual artist. When I first met you, you were a visual artist, and I can see, even though you might be like 10 years older than me, 10, 15 years older than I am, I saw what you were doing. And I was like, I can’t do that, but I can try and become as good as he is doing what he’s doing. And being around 150 people at a time who are doing other things… There was a guy who was a chef. It was like, I can’t do that, but I can try and do that. I can try and do it on the level that he’s doing it. And someone who was a musician. It was like, I can’t do that, but I can try and do that. And it was to pick up as much of any of that from the people that are around me. And once I came out of that shell of my community, it was the same environment. It’s the same thing. Like I can’t do that, but I can still learn from this person. And he could teach me as much as I can. I can learn. A lot of people tend to, again, shut themselves down, and “This is all I know how to do. And I can’t do this. And I can’t do that.” Like, musicians are musicians and unless people are clapping, so you don’t have to be the best musician, but like, I don’t know that I’m any good unless you, you verify it. So it’s like the best musicians in the room are not the musicians on the stage. It’s the people clapping.

Defender: I’m think I need you to write a book about this experience, but you’ve written another book, right? Can you tell us about that book and how did that come about?
Ikechi: Again, it’s always a woman involved. So, my book is called “To My Future #WCW” and it’s me paying homage to whomever my future wife is… It’s a series of letters that I wrote to my future wife. It came about from a failed relationship. Someone I thought that this was going to be the end-all-be-all. We’ve all been there at least once or twice or three times. And it became an outlet to depression, to letting go of all of the issues that I was figuring out at the time. I don’t know how many men stop and think about the issues that they have. But I wanted to make sure that whomever I’m going to be in a relationship with that I get rid of the issues or I work on my issues. And that’s what it became: a series of unfortunately events.

Ikechi Ojore at book signing

Defender: But it became a book. And then all of a sudden, you’re going here and there and you’re representing on relationships.
Ikechi: Well, and I don’t want to say that I was representing our relationships. That’s not what I would say. I can tell you that I was speaking my truth. The biggest thing that I wanted to accomplish out of publishing that book had nothing to do with relationships. And to be honest with you, it really was to allow men to see that you can express yourself. You can say any and everything that you think about your wife or your significant other. A lot of times, and you might know this, that we haven’t been trained to think or express in that manner. I’m a man’s man at the same time. It’s possible for me to say, “Hey, this is how I feel.” While I was out on a book tour, this guy stopped me and we got to talking. He had a book about prison, Black men. And he said, “You know what? I love your concept. And I love what you’re doing.” And he said this thing, and it, and it stuck with me. He said, “There are so many men in jail who couldn’t, the reason they’re in jail is because they couldn’t express themselves.” And that hit home because like in the middle of Sunnyside, in the of South park, like there’s crime everywhere. Why? Because we don’t know how to express ourselves. You rather kill somebody than tell them how you feel. So, if we started with our significant other, someone we say we love, and we start there. Then the home becomes better. The community becomes better. Life becomes better, therefore everyone around us.

Defender: Where does the barbering and the skateboard designing come into all this?
Ikechi: Again, the connections. I learned how to cut hair. It was a thing that I learned how to do in that community. You know, there was a young brother there who knew how to cut and when he used to cut everybody in the neighborhood, and I was like, I want to learn how to do that. You know, it was a hands-on thing. It was a trade. And from there I learned how to do it and it literally paid my way through to grad schools. I trained at a barbershop in Atlanta. I came back to Houston and got my barber’s license and, it’s just a part of who I am. It’s a part of the creative side. Skateboards? I don’t even know where that came from. Honestly, it’s a medium, like you like different things. I like art. I love art. Like I said, I started off as an art major at Texas Southern. And Dr. Wardlaw would always take us to the museum at Texas Southern, and she would show us these different art pieces and introduce us to these artists that nobody, that are not worldwide and world known. And the manner in which they did art was amazing. And one artist, I can’t remember his name, would always paint on plywood, like these amazing pieces of art and that’s, that’s unconventional. When I started to paint or just do anything, I would always do them on, I wanted some kind of wood, but I wanted to be unique to what I was doing. And I can always find like these skateboards at local skate shops, for not too much. And I would be like, “Oh, this would be dope if I could do a piece of art on this.” And I now have like 40 or 50 pieces.

Defender: So, you’re a young man and have done everything in the world. What’s next? Where are you focusing your time and energy days? And where do you think you’ll be focusing it?
Ikechi: Man. TBD. I have no idea at this current moment. I’m focused on a home ownership is what I’m trying to do. It’s funny that we’re having this conversation. So, I’m in the process of buying a home and the builder of the home that I’m buying, I met him while on the, I guess the inspection period or whatever. And he was like, “Man, I looked you up.” And I was like, “You looked me up, like what you mean?” And he was like, “Yeah, you know, I wanted someone like you to be in a house like this. And, what he was saying was, and the house that I’m buying as much as I talk about the North side, is on the North side. Right. So, it’s Acres Homes. If you don’t know, just like 3rd Ward, Acres Homes, just like Sunnyside, is becoming gentrified and it’s becoming a place where we’re getting pushed out and, and others are being pushed or shipping in there, finding a cheap plan and, and making it what they want to, because it’s not that far from our community, not too far from the places that they desire to be. But he was a, a Black homeowner, a Black home builder. He’s a professor at Prairie View. He was an engineering professor at PV. He’s also a realtor and a builder. And he was like, I, I researched you. I looked you up because I wanted you people like you. I wanted someone like you to come into this neighborhood and, and build the HOA and, and, you know, and work with the community and, and say, Hey, look, we can do more than what others can do if we’re allowed to do it. And I just really took that in, like, he researched me first off, but, uh, you know, that you see that you see something more than, than what I was even thinking. I’m only trying to buy a house, the rest of, you know, it’s like, again, it’s that spirit move thing where you really don’t have a say of what is going on. You just allowed to do it. Um, it’s not, it’s not a man is not man approved as God allowed. You know, it’s like, I could say I’m going to do something, but like, until he say, okay, Hey, Hey, it’s kinda, it’s kind of a joke, but yeah. I mean, I’m, I’m focused on that at this current moment. Um, creating things is, is pretty much what I do. So is who knows.

Defender: Any words, any mantra that you live by that lifts your spirits when you need those spirits lifted up?
Ikechi: Yeah. The great philosopher Marlin Hall, he left a good thumbprint on me, man. And honestly, I could attribute what I’ve learned from the Shrines of Black Madonna and what I’ve learned from the Awakenings Movement to all of these paths, these avenues that I’ve seen in, and places I’ve been. I could not have done any of that without the Shrine, without the Awakenings Movement. But Marlon Hall, who was once the pastor at the Awakenings Movement, says something. And in the manner in which he presented, it always takes me wherever I need to go. He said, “You have to let go of what you can’t keep to gain what you can’t lose.” And that sentence is so powerful because it lends itself to relationships. It lends itself to jobs. It lends itself to talents and abilities. It lends itself to friendships and it lends itself to family. Sometimes you have to let go of what you can’t keep in order to gain what you can’t lose. If I only told myself I was a musician, then I wouldn’t be an artist and I wouldn’t be an author. And I wouldn’t be a teacher. I would only be a musician. But allowing myself to put my guitar down, put my drum sticks down, allows me to see other avenues of life, and vice versa. Um, but once you let go of that pain, once you let go of and what he said, he, he was really talking about seeing and how we, we, uh, we hold onto things that we don’t need, you know, um, uh, that, that, that, that thought of holding a swore, you know, trying to protect yourself, but at the same time, you cutting yourself, you know, to hold onto it. Um, and when you let go of that thing, you, you let go of that pain. You let go of that, that, that negative energy in order to gain, you know, so much more than we actually know that we need it.