Ajibola Rivers

School: Boyer College of Music and Dance 
Degree: BM, music performance, 2016
Hometown: Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania

When Ajibola Rivers, BYR ’16, decided to compose six solo cello suites, he knew what he was getting into. Suites are ordered sets of instrumental or orchestral pieces intended for a concert setting. Until recently, only Johann Sebastian Bach had written six suites for solo cello. The work would be arduous, lengthy and inevitably compared to Bach’s legendary collection. Rivers, however, had good mentors and good intentions, and he was ready to make history as the first Black and Native American composer to do it.  

Early melodies

Rivers was 9 years old when he started playing the cello. He’s now been playing for 20 years, building a relationship with music that has at times been rocky. “Currently it is a voice through which I speak, and it is a way that I engage all different kinds of communities,” he said.    

But for a while it was an obstacle. Peers and adults in his life tried to get him to play basketball or football instead. “I was the only person who looked like me who played a classical instrument,” Rivers said. “The cello was something that isolated me in some ways, but it also was something that freed me, because while playing I found I was able to work through my struggles and challenges.”

Striking a new chord  

Rivers entered the Boyer College of Music and Dance in 2012 as a double major in cello performance and composition. He switched solely to cello in his sophomore year, but his composition story didn’t end there. In spring 2015, Rivers attended a Temple University Women’s Chorus performance, conducted by Professor Christine Bass. The following day the two crossed paths, and in a brief conversation he mentioned that he had always wanted to write a piece for Women’s Chorus.

“She said if I showed her something by the end of the year, maybe [her choir] would perform it,” Rivers said.

After presenting a draft for his choral piece, Bass, along with professors Rollo Dilworth and Paul Rardin, gave Rivers composition lessons to review and polish his work. In short, collaborating with Boyer’s Choral Department revived his composition career, and within a year of graduation he took on a bold project—his cello suites.  

The project started as a training exercise but quickly evolved into a cultural initiative. “Representation is extremely important,” he said, referring to the single-digit percentage of orchestral musicians that are Black, Latino or Indigenous.     

He was also acutely aware that longstanding biases and gatekeeping traditions have limited representation in concert halls. So, Rivers produced a unique solution: a fusion project pairing highly advanced baroque counterpoint with African, American and Latin jazz.

Ajibola standing next to his cello
Ajibola Rivers playing his cello

“Philly is a very artsy town. And one of the big advantages of going to Temple is that by the time you graduate, you are already part of that network.” 

–Ajibola Rivers
Cellist and composer

Holding the high note

Over time Rivers has noticed something unique about Temple’s music staff and faculty. Throughout Philadelphia’s performing arts scene they are revered for their work, but their influence extends deeper into the community through the opportunities they create for others.   

“Philly is a very artsy town,” he said, “and one of the big advantages of going to Temple is that by the time you graduate, you are already part of that network.” 

Following the example set by his Temple mentors, Rivers is developing a concert series for new classical music listeners, addressing underrepresentation of Black and Latino culture through composition, and redefining what it means to be a composer, among other pursuits.