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Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” Explores Final Words of Black Men

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Image credit: University of Michigan Arts and Culture

Composer and UM Men’s Glee Club director say music can help make tough conversations about race easier to approach.

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The very question of ‘why?’ sort of sets up the whole rest of the piece,” says composer Joel Thompson. ”Why is this happening? Particularly to unarmed people of a certain community.” 

U of M Men's Glee Club Conductor Eugene RogersJake Neher/WDET
Jake Neher/WDET

U of M Men’s Glee Club Conductor Eugene Rogers

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a multi-movement piece of music exploring the final words of African American men who have died untimely deaths — in many cases, while interacting with police. You probably know many of their names: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner.

The University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club has been performing the piece along with the Academy Award-winning song “Glory” by Common and John Legend. The group recently returned from a tour of South Africa where it performed the work. And a documentary containing the full performance and a music video called “Love, Life, and Loss” is expected to air next month on Detroit Public Television.

Seven Last Words… composer Joel Thompson and U of M Men’s Glee Club Director Eugene Rogers join Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson to talk about the piece.

It was shortly after the grand jury failed to indict the officer whose actions led to the death of Eric Garner,” says Thompson. ”And the piece was really my response to that event.”

Thompson talks about beginning the piece with the final words of Kenneth Chamberlain, 66, “Why do you have your guns out?” 

The very question of ‘why?’ sort of sets up the whole rest of the piece,” says Thompson. ”Why is this happening? Particularly to unarmed people of a certain community.”

Glee Club Director Eugene Rogers talks about introducing the piece to his students, who are mostly white.

I welcomed the students to have their own opinions about who’s responsible, where this should lie, who’s guilty, but at least we could all agree on the value of human life and then allow us and them in their own way to work through these political issues,” says Rogers. “It’s been absolutely remarkable to see how the students have, through singing the words of these individuals… through that journey it has really, I think, provided a great place for students to know that they can agree and disagree respectfully and be stronger in the end.”

To hear the full conversation, click on the audio link above.

Here is the trailer for “Love, Life, and Loss”:



And here is the full audio of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed:

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