Stephn: a student, an artist, a presence to watch
Junior Stephen Okonkwo speaks about his growing music career
Junior Stephen Okonkwo sat in the back of his lecture hall during midterm season, with a pen in hand. Instead of taking notes, he was writing song lyrics. Later, he recalled finishing up his midterm while sitting on a train to record at a studio in New York City.
These two sides — a student studying business administration and a budding artist making his name in the world of music — are what make Okonkwo’s college experience so unique.
Okonkwo, also known as Stephn, began making music during his freshman year at American University and has become a presence on campus known for his unique sound.
For him, AU is much more than a place to attend classes. He said he’s found a community on campus that has made his success possible.
In February of 2019, Stephn released his visual project — including his album and a corresponding photo series — “Time Before Us,” at an event he hosted on campus. He said that the 150 tickets that he released sold out in less than 30 minutes.
“It was crazy because nobody had heard my music before, but they just came out off of the strength of … ‘We want to support you, we see you out here doing this,’” he said.
This support encouraged Stephn to launch three more singles after “Time Before Us”: “24/7,” which features artist and AU alum P.S, “Wit Da Crew” and “Pillowfight.” Stephn also released “Wit Da Crew (Remix)” featuring DMV artists O-Slice and Biggs Cooley.
On Feb. 22, exactly a year after the release of “Time Before Us,” Stephn opened for singer Ari Lennox at a Student Union Board “SUB Sessions” event. He performed with junior Eddie Cascella, sophomore Julian Rigg and Howard University students Anexis Ruiz and Aaron Ivey.
Stephn called the day of the concert “the most hectic day of my life” — he was up at 5 a.m. ready to film a music video in Virginia and was back on campus just 30 minutes before his sound check.
“It was a crazy day, but I was able to bring out my friends to come perform with me,” he said. “We were trying to have a celebration because it was a full year of the project being out, so I brought out O-Slice and Biggs Cooley.”
Though opening for big names like Lennox and singer-songwriter Mac Ayres at the 9:30 Club were “huge moments” for Stephn’s career, he said his favorite performance was last year’s Founder’s Day Ball.
“I really love that venue, the Air and Space Museum,” he said. “Performing in that historic museum was really dope.”
Stephn’s Founders Day performance came just one day after the release of “Time Before Us,” which combined music and visuals to depict the “mood” and “vibe” of the music, he said.
“Before I became an artist, I was a stylist,” he said. “So playing with different colors and materials is second nature to me.”
The project is deeply personal to Stephn, who said that he was going through a difficult time transitioning into his sophomore year after many of his friends left AU.
“I didn’t really know how else to let my emotions out so I just started writing,” he said. “And after writing, those words turned into poems and those poems turned into songs.”
Despite only picking up songwriting in college, music has always been a presence in Stephn’s life. He grew up singing in a gospel choir in Lagos, Nigeria and was selected to represent his school’s district in the District Chorus, which qualified him to sing with Virginia’s All-Virginia Chorus, after he moved to Maryland in 2013.
Though he said he never thought of creating his own music when he was young, Stephn grew up around the genre he now strives to pay homage to. He cited his uncles, who are members of Nigerian R&B group Styl-Plus, as a source of his love of early 2000s R&B music.
“It’s so crazy that I had those people around me growing up during that time,” he said. “They’re a huge inspiration for me.”
Writing his own music, however, was something that Stephn got into when a friend of his introduced him to the studios in the basement of Kreeger Hall.
“I’ve been vocally trained since a really young age, but making music is a whole different ball game,” he said. “Going in the studio, creating melodies and harmonies that people vibe to is different from just singing already-made songs.”
Stephn said he strives for a sound similar to what he grew up listening to.
“I feel like the project I put out before was a little alternative and jazzy a little bit,” he said. “But the one I’m working on right now is very much D’Angelo, early 2000’s R&B infused with modern-day R&B too.” His influences include Frank Ocean, Solange and Ginuwine.
Despite an increased focus on growing his music career, Stephn still finds time for his studies.
“I have the mindset that I need to get this degree at the end of the day and once I get the degree … I can focus on music,” he said. "I started here before I started doing music and I’m going to finish what I started.”