Greg Osei (‘06) on Making Art in NYC


“The things I see, hear, and feel in this city directly inspire the things I write."

We asked Greg Osei (YC ’06) to tell us about his multifaceted artistic pursuits, what’s on the horizon for him, and how his time at Yale prepared him for success in the arts.

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career?

I was seven years old listening to Michael Jackson's "Bad" on a little MJ record player my parents bought me. I remember I was reading the lyrics as I went along, and then "Man in the Mirror" came on. I was so moved by everything: the lyrics, the gospel choir, the orchestration. By the end of the song, I heard a voice in my head say, "Music can change the world. I will be a singer," and that was it. There was no doubt in my mind that I would sing, and interestingly, there was no doubt in my mind that I could sing though I hadn't really ever tried before. I started then and there and began singing everywhere I went and studying the artists I heard obsessively.

Were you involved in the arts scene at Yale?

I was a double major in Music and Theater Studies. The theater studies major revolutionized the way I thought about the possibilities of art. Music 252 (Music History from the Romantic Era to the Present) with James Hepokowski revolutionized my thinking about art and music. I was in the Dramat and did a few other theater productions as well. Singing in (and eventually directing) Shades was definitely the defining experience of my time at Yale. To this day, Shades influences who I am as a person and an artist. I learned so much about music, singing, honing your craft, social responsibility, and purpose, in the four years I sang with Shades.

What is your favorite show/exhibit right now?

Taylor. Mac. Late last year I saw all 8 Acts (24 hours) of Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and it blew my mind. I don't think I have been more inspired and transformed by a single piece of art in recent years.

What current projects are you working on?

I'm in the process of recording my EP and am developing some video projects in connection with my music. I'll be performing a collaborative dance-music piece that explores gender and identity with Abdiel Jacobsen of the Martha Graham Dance Company, dancer/actor Kelsey Burns, and percussionist Meredith Butterworth at the Cape Dance Festival on July 29, and I'll be touring in Boston from August 10 to August 12. I'm also conceiving some larger musical works based on some interviews I conducted while I was living in Argentina.

How did this current project come about?

I've been performing my music for years now, and I've been really excited about the music I've been producing recently. Plus, my audiences are asking more and more frequently, "Where's the album?" So it's time.

Regarding the larger works, I've been fascinated with the idea of personal and collective histories and imagined narratives for a long time. Seeing Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music really stoked that fire. When I was living in Argentina a few years back, I conducted interviews with people around issues of identity and race in Argentina. I basically got them to tell me their stories on camera. Originally, I wanted to create a film inspired by those lived experiences and to give voice to histories that weren't being told. That has since evolved, and though film will be a part of it, the core of the work is going to be music. I'm also planning to do similar interviews here in the states to inspire a work based on U.S. American histories.

If you could perform or have your work displayed in any venue, which would it be?

That's a hard one. I'll name three: MoMA, Madison Square Garden, and Parque de Exposições de Salvador (Brazil).

In pursuing your art, have you taken on secondary jobs? If so, which was the most interesting?

I sure have. Tutoring has been my secondary job for a few years now, and it has actually been great because aside from giving me great flexibility in my schedule, I've learned so much about people, society, and myself, which really fuels my art.

If you could meet one artist/author, alive or dead, who would it be?

Michael Jackson. I cried for days when he died. I always assumed I'd meet him one day, and we'd get to chat it up. Now I dream up our conversations through his music.

I also think a sit down tea with Patti Labelle, Beyoncé, Taylor Mac, Anna Deveare Smith, Ang Lee, Ava DuVernay, René Pérez Joglar, Chance The Rapper, and Wong Kar-Wai would be EPIC, especially if it all happened at once.

Have you always been or plan to be based in NYC?

I always knew I'd end up in New York. Interestingly, I see myself moving back and forth between Latin America and New York in the future.

How does NYC affect your work?

If you want to know what's going on in the world, all you have to do is carefully observe your immediate vicinity. I think that's actually true anywhere in the world. In New York it's absurdly easy to do that because you literally have most of the world packed into this space. The things I see, hear, and feel in this city directly inspire the things I write. I've even got a song called "Welcome to Harlem" that's named after a storefront I saw in the neighborhood.

Best advice for recent grads:

Spend time defining clear intentions for yourself, release control of how you get there, and keep your eyes open for opportunities. Fear and discomfort are ok. Know. Your. Worth. Be patient with life and with yourself.

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