For Okara Imani, hosting Classical Music Indy’s syndication is a dream come true
Words by Crystal Hammon.
Becoming a host for Classical Music Indy’s (CMI) radio syndication programming feels like the fulfillment of destiny to Okara Imani, a local musician who grew up listening to National Public Radio (NPR) with her dad on their daily commute. NPR’s neutral yet human approach to covering world news were big draws for the budding artist, but the network’s most lasting effect on Imani was its music segments. “They were playing contemporary and classical composers, people I’d never heard of, and that was before I was truly savvy about finding music on the internet,” she says.
In her new role, Imani hopes to give CMI listeners the kind of experience that seeded her career as a musician, adding context to classical music, new music and music written by women and composers of color. “As a Black musical woman, it feels very important for me to have this spot,” she says.
For any aspiring artist, Imani’s path thus far confirms the importance of having the courage to chase your dreams, the audacity to ask for what you want, and the gratitude to appreciate the opportunities that come your way. Encouraged by a creative family, Imani’s interest in music flourished through high school. “Every Saturday, we listened to music and danced together all night,” she says.
A career in the arts takes flight
When it was time to choose college and a field of study, Imani showed a practical side. She picked music therapy, essentially tiptoeing around what she really wanted: a career as a musician. During her sophomore year, she changed her major and never looked back. “I just knew that I would have to make the degree [music performance] work for me because music is my passion, and creativity and the arts were where I wanted to spend my energy as an adult,” she says.
Equipped with a bachelor’s degree in music performance from IUPUI-Fort Wayne, Imani returned to Indianapolis in 2016 and started a medley of internships, part-time jobs and fellowships—whatever it took to support herself while playing gigs, performing on the city’s open-mike circuit and singing at #RandomActsofMusic concerts—one of CMI’s signature community outreach programs.
This year Imani landed a full-time position as a student services coordinator at a public high school, a job that provides stability for her creative endeavors, including CMI programs. “It’s also something I care about, so I can give 100 percent to help students have a successful experience at school,” she says. “That’s super important to me.”
Hustling toward opportunity
Imani’s relationship with CMI started with a stroke of serendipity. Until recently, she lived just a few blocks from WFYI, the local NPR affiliate she listened to as a kid. Most people would deem the station’s proximity just a coincidence. Not Imani. Every time she passed WFYI, she remembered all the shared moments of listening with her father. “I wondered, ‘How can I get in there? It’s right here. It’s so close to me. It feels like that’s not a mistake,’” Imani says.
The circle from past to present was closed when Imani scored a Small Studio Session with WFYI producer and host Melissa Davis. After the interview and performance, Imani told Davis, “Hey, I really want my name on the table if something small and bottom tier comes up. If you need someone to fill it, I will love the heck out of this place.”
A month later, Davis told Imani about a job opening at CMI, whose offices are located at WFYI. She didn’t land that job, but a few months later, CMI reached out to her about a different position as backup announcer for its syndication program. Interviewing for the role was a chance to express her passion for using radio as a music education tool. “I really want to have the kind of voice NPR has and be part of what Classical Music Indy does to add context to music,” she says. “Michael [Toulouse] doesn’t just describe a piece; he lets you know what the composer was doing and thinking at the time,” she says. “That’s what I love about music. It’s something I could study my whole life—the anthropology of music and the people who make it.”
From pageantry to performance
Although Imani’s voice may be new to the audience for CMI’s syndication, she’s a familiar personality to people who know her as Miss Indianapolis Black Expo (2011), Miss Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (2017), or to listeners of Just Happy to Be Here, a podcast she founded in 2019. A self-proclaimed book head, Imani uses her podcast as a platform to explore music, poetry and literature with guest artists, readings and cultural context and analysis. “I’ve been guided by a lot of Black content creators on the internet,” she says. “They inspired me to feel like, ‘Hey, you can do this.’”
Imani named her podcast by reflecting on what it’s been like to build an artistic career in her home city and benefit from a creative scene that hums with support, love, collaboration and cooperation. Each time she gets an opportunity to sing background or to open for another artist, Imani has the same reaction: “I’m just so happy to be here,” she says.
Producing 11 episodes of Just Happy to Be Here was like a warm-up for the work Imani is doing on CMI’s syndication. After years of hustling, developing her own content and laying the groundwork for a creative career, Imani’s new role as a syndication host is a chance to become further entrenched in the local arts scene. “It felt so right,” she says. “This is what I was asking for. This is the path I wanted to take.”
Listen for Imani on CMI’s radio syndication partners, including weekday mornings on WICR 88.7 in Indianapolis.