SOCIAL JUSTICE + MUSIC: MEN’S GLEE CLUB PREMIERES “SEVEN LAST WORDS OF THE UNARMED”
These men are the subjects of a powerful multi-movement work by up-and-coming Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson titled “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.”
The song was recently premiered by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club under the direction of Eugene Rogers, associate director of choirs and professor of conducting at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Known for selecting songs that promote musical “ubuntu”—a peace concept widely popularized by late South African president Nelson Mandela—Rogers says that “Seven Last Words” challenged students to allow themselves to see the world through the eyes of others.
“Great art should do more than entertain—great art should provoke thought and critical discourse, engage the audience, and build a safe, strong sense of community through the exploration of important issues,” Rogers said. “This is why I choose to include repertoire in my programming that focuses on themes surrounding social justice.”
Thompson, who met Rogers while workshopping his composition in 2015, was initially inspired by Iranian-American artist Shirin Barghi’s #lastwords project. From more than a dozen of Barghi’s illustrations containing the dying words of unarmed black men shot and killed by authority figures, Thompson chose seven statements that aligned most closely with the classical structure of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross.”
“I wanted to process my personal feelings about being a young black man in this very racially tense time we’re living in,” Thompson said. “I also wanted to figure out a universal way to remember these men who had lost their lives too soon.”
The song’s seven movements represent the last words of seven different men:
“Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66
“What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16
“Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23
“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18
“You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22
“It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22
“I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43
“I was contacted on behalf of The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and their conductor, Professor Eugene Rogers to attend a campus-wide screening of a film that highlights a song that they premiered some months ago titled “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., tells BW. “There will be a panel session after the film and I was asked to be a part of the panel and share my thoughts of the film and music, as well as discuss how we can overcome such acts of racial bias. I am honored…. October 24th from 7:00 to 8:30 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI.”
Each movement is distinctly different, borrowing influences from musical theater, Bach, Brahms, and even aleatoric music—a style of music where an element of the composition is left to the spontaneity of the performers, which can be heard as students repeat Oscar Grant’s last words “You shot me! You shot me!” in Movement V.
The group has performed the piece, paired with Rogers’ arrangement of “Glory” from the film “Selma,” several times as part of this year’s roster of songs that convey themes of “love, life, and loss,” and “hope in the midst of struggle.”