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Seven Last Words of the Unarmed: Michigan Men's Glee Club

Seven last words

By Sydney Hawkins
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You’ve heard their names in the news.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Kenneth Chamberlain. Amadou Diallo. John Crawford.

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 University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club recently premiered the song under the direction of Eugene Rogers, associate director of choirs and professor of conducting at U-M’s 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 “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 says. “This is why I choose to include repertoire in my programming that focuses on themes surrounding social justice.”

Inspired by Haydn

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 says. “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. The audio slideshow below combines those words with Barghi’s artwork and Thompson’s composition.

  • “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

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.

Love, life, loss, and hope in the midst of struggle

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.”

Learn more about the arts at U-M – arts.umich.edu
As part of his teaching process, Rogers had his students — who represent various ages, races, religions, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds — write essays about their reactions to the piece.

The responses were varied. For African-American students, the experience presented a personal struggle. Other students expressed feelings of guilt, hesitation, or fear of the polarization of the subject matter.

“The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had a great impact on me and how I view my own mortality,” wrote Wesley Fields, U-M SMTD student. “I was unsure if I could handle the emotional weight of conveying such a powerful message that was very much tied to my own racial identity. I spent many early rehearsals holding back tears and blocking myself off from the piece. Consequently, I was too afraid to audition to be a soloist in the third movement.”

A new story

Composer Joel Thompson. (Image credit: Laura Emiko Soltis.)

Composer Joel Thompson. (Image credit: Laura Emiko Soltis.)

Ryan Carrell, a U-M engineering student and president of the Glee Club, reflected on how performing the work made him rethink the controversial news reports.

“Every time I heard ‘Mom, I’m going to college,’ I felt a pang of guilt,” he wrote. “I had fallen prey to a common byproduct of media coverage. I had based my personal judgments on a single instance in the lives of these men. Like many others, I had come to conclusions from sound bites and 140-character tweets. These seven quotes, free from commentary and forensic file re-enactments, offered a new story. There was human life in this story. I chose to embrace the work as a remembrance of lost possibilities.”

“I think these songs made us all realize that this is not just a black issue or a white issue. We all agree that every human life is valuable,” says Daniel Passino, U-M SMTD student, lead “Glory” soloist, and a contestant on NBC’s reality singing show “The Voice.”

“I am really proud of the way that our students opened themselves up to this experience,” Rogers says. “I was very conflicted about presenting this piece to them because I did not want it to be misinterpreted purely as a political statement. In the end, we practiced ‘ubuntu’ — we listened to each other, and we grew together through song.”

(“Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and “Glory” are available on iTunes, CD Baby, Spotify, Apple Music, and all other streaming outlets.)

Sydney Hawkins

Sydney Hawkins

SYDNEY HAWKINS joined the University in 2012 and currently manages communications, branding, and digital marketing strategy connected to the University of Michigan's arts and culture initiative. She spent eight years as a radio broadcaster in Michigan before working in marketing communications roles at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

COMMENTS

  • Katrina E

    Powerful.

    Reply

    • carolyn Eynon - 1969,70

      I have directed for 40 years and am always looking to do powerful social commentary choral NEW works here in Arizona. Can you please have Dr Rogers contact me for I graduated in 1970 with my masters in choral music and have ABD in DMA for conducting.
      My 32-voice choir starts up again this Fall for our 10th anniversary and I want to perform powerful works.

      Reply

      • Deborah Holdship

        Hi, Carolyn: I will pass your contact information along.

        Reply

    • William Moran - 1984

      I don’t recognize all seven but the ones I do were shot for very good reasons. I hope that point is proudly represented.

      Reply

      • Mia Bell - 2012

        No, sir. They were not shot for “very good reasons.” Maybe you made a typo when you wrote this? If this was not a typo, can you help me understand why you feel they were shot for good reasons?

        Reply

        • Jane Rodgers

          Mia, why do you think your opinion supercedes William’s?

          Reply

  • Doug Cooper - 1966

    A truly powerful work of art that will resonate with profound feelings of sorrow and rage, vulnerability and strength, confusion and understanding in the minds of the performers, the audience and, now, thanks to this article, University of Michigan alumni. “Seven Last Words of the unarmed” serves as a reminder, from the solo voice to the full chorus, that the madness of gun deaths in America will be solved when each of us chooses to speak out as individuals and part of a rising chorus.

    Reply

  • Jane Arsham - 1967

    Thanks for writing this piece, Sydney. The music is captivating–(hope that the whole piece is out there on YouTube) and so glad to know U of M is home to this work and this Glee Club– phenomenal!

    Reply

  • Terry Stackpole - Rackham 1972

    What a powerful and moving work. Thank you.

    Reply

  • Paul Suckow - 1984, 1986

    I love this. Thank you, Glee Club.

    Reply

  • Joe Rhome - 2014

    Very moving project. I empathize with everyone involved, as well as everyone who is emotionally impacted by the senseless violence displayed in these cases. My only concern is the implication that unarmed = non-threatening. Don’t get me wrong. In almost all of these cases there seems to have been some injustices perpetrated against the deceased. The Brown and Martin cases, however, are still blatantly misrepresented again and again. Martin’s last words were “You got a problem? Well you got one now. You’re gonna die tonight mother***ker,” bashes Zimmerman’s skull against pavement repeatedly, gets shot, and says, “You got me.” He had the Watermelon Tea and Skittles so he could mix it with cough syrup and create a drug laced concoction called ‘Lean’, not because he was an innocent child. I still feel terrible, however, even to this day when I think about such a young man being killed. It’s a horrible thing to happen. I can’t imagine losing my son because he, in his youth, was foolish enough to ambush and attack someone. As far as Michael Brown is concerned, however, I cannot say I feel as much anguish. The record is crystal clear. Even the Department of Justice investigated this case exhaustively, and they really wanted a conviction of the cop….badly! The facts, though, exonerated everyone except Brown himself. He was a bad man who was trying to gravely harm or kill a police officer after bullying and robbing a store owner. Forensic evidence proved that the “Hands up/don’t shoot” narrative was a lie. He deserves no memorial plaques, no tributes. The police officer does. The bottom line is this, when someone is smashing you in the face, slamming your head into the pavement, or trying to disarm you in a violent and malicious way, the fact that they are technically “unarmed” is irrelevant. I pray for all of the involved families….especially those of the innocents.

    Reply

    • Andrew Yeager - 1990

      Thank you for setting the record straight. Loss of any life is tragic, certainly young people. The media has not shared the facts, rather the bias in covering these events. That said, I’m not certain these are the people our society should praise and celebrate for their proven criminal behavior. It also wrongfully positions law endowment as the aggressor.

      Reply

  • Thomas McGowan - 1969

    First, the idea of somehow having any comparison with the last words of Christ is somewhat appalling. I recognize, however, that the composer was using the composition by Haydn as a model. The other issue is accuracy. As pointed out above by Mr. Rhome, the words are not quite correct. Not even close for a few of the individuals. It might be a more interesting piece if the actual words were used. Certainly, a lot more moving. I would also like to have included the last words of whites who were unarmed and were shot ironically a white man lying on the ground who was shot by a black police officer. Same week as Michael Brown, I believe. It does not matter one bit the color of the individual who was shot, it is the circumstances under which the shooting occurred. If the police have acted wrongly, prosecute them.
    The composer might also want to write a piece about the officers who have been killed in the course of their duty, some in simple ambush by truly evil persons. Oh, wait a minute. There could not be a piece as the officers had no chance to uttler last words.

    Reply

  • Alyse Kowalick - 2011

    If any these Glee Club members disagree with the supposed “innocent victim” narrative of some of the violent thugs glorified in this song, can they still be forced by the University of Michigan to participate? Can the University and/or Glee Club organization force these students to sing a politically oriented song which violates their conscience? What if the Glee Club asked the students to sing a song which violated their sincerely held religious beliefs? What if this was a song about Casey Anthony and the students were forced to sing a song which supported the assumption that she did NOT kill her daughter? (Even though many people throughout the country felt like the evidence supported the likelihood that she did, in fact, kill her daughter to avoid the responsibilities of raising a child) Would the university support such a song? Would the Glee Club force students to sing such a song – as a condition of membership in that club? If not, then why are they doing this in the case of a song about police shootings? How can the university assume the narrative provided by “black lives matter” activists is the one true narrative – and refuse to allow any room for diagreement? Look at Ferguson for example. If you look at the surveillance camera footage of Mike Brown in Ferguson, it’s obvious that he committed a real crime and assaulted the store clerk. Mike Brown was not the “gentle giant” that social justice warriors try to portray him to be. He grabbed cigarillos from that gas station in plain view and began to walk out of the store. At that point, when the tiny Indian store owner tried to stop him, Mike Brown got in his face, put up his arms, and made a gesture that looked like he was saying “What the F are you gonna do about it??” Then, Brown violently pushed the Indian store clerk with such force that the clerk was nearly thrown to the ground! He acted like a complete thug! He technically committed a crime, which makes him a criminal! And we are supposed to assume he was completely “angelic” when interacting with police officer Darren Wilson? Maybe Mike Brown did reach for the officers gun. Maybe Mike Brown did punch Darren Wilson in the face. I mean, he certainly didn’t hesitate to shove that Indian store clerk to the ground. Did you see how 6 foot tall Mike Brown towered over that shorter, tiny store clerk? The store clerk was an honest man, who had immigrated from India – and he just wanted to operate a humble convenience store without people stealing from him and assaulting him! And let me remind you, the immigrant store clerk from India is also a person of color, who probably also faces systematic racism in America. How come nobody talks about that aspect?? But instead of gaming the system of welfare and lying to the government about their income in order to get a Food Stamp EBT card to use for cigarettes and alcohol (which many people do) – and instead taking government handouts and staying on them instead of seeking meaningful employment – this dignified Asian immigrant actually pulled himself out of the gutter through hard work and determination and made something out of his life by starting his own humble convenience store! If a poor Asian immigrant with a name like Abdul can make a better life for himself, then so can a young black man with a name like Trayvon! Seriously, why can’t these thugs leave his store alone! And why are all the alternate viewpoints suppressed?? What the about the fact that George Zimmerman had broken bones and serious lacerations on the back of his head during his altercation with Trayvon Martin? Police found Zimmerman was all blooded up with serious cuts and lacerations when they responded to the scene. Is Zimmerman just supposed to lie there and endure a violent physical beating just because the other person is a young black man? Nobody knows who struck first, but clearly Zimmerman was engaged in some type of situation where he was being physically wounded with deep lacerations to the back of the head. Do we just ignore all of this because Trayvon was a young black man? BOTTOM LINE: why does the University assume all the men in this list were completely innocent of any wrong doing?? This is not Constitutional AT ALL!! This is actually ILLEGAL!! The Glee Club cannot force a student to sing these types of songs, which are extremely politically biased in one particular direction, and then impose the forced participation in that song as a condition of membership in its organization. This is not free and open discussion. This is illegal behavior – and it is downright SHAMEFUL. I am ASHAMED of the dangerous and oppressive “follower herd mentality” that the Glee Club has been reduced to. I am ASHAMED of the Unviersity of Michigan and what is has become.

    Reply

    • Kelly Van Rijn - 1984

      Amen! But be careful what you say, because there is no Freedom of Speech on college campuses, or in America or that matter, if you don’t toe the left wing party narrative.

      Reply

      • Eser Uzun Belding - 1977 MA; 1981 PhD

        It is a shame for those of you identifying yourselves as the Right, or the anti-liberal, cannot even appreciate the reality that some are killed without any fault of their own. This clearly points to the fact that only you and your utterly biased views be real, nothing else, no one else. even to grieve!
        It makes me real sad to see one more time that human beings can be soo…

        Reply

        • Kelly Van Rijn - 1984

          Blah blah blah. Normal Americans are tired of the hypocrisy of the left wing oxygen bandits who have no problem getting in hissy fits over the statistically insignificant number of blacks killed by white police officers (of whom the the overwhelmingly vast majority were legally justified), yet are silent to the mass murder committed by blacks against whites and fellow blacks. Any crime committed against an innocent is wrong, regardless of race.

          Reply

      • Gerard Freeman - 1950

        Kelly is correct. The lefties have taken over many colleges and universities.
        The anti-police epidemic is unwarranted. When a thug, White or Black, resists a law enforcement officer in an aggressive threatening manner he better be prepared for the consequences.

        I’m ashamed of the PC stuff which has been reported as occurring at the U of M and other universities.

        Reply

    • Andrew Yeager - 1990

      Cheers Alyse! Glad you have the courage of your convictions. Many of us agree with you.

      Reply

  • Margaret Parker - 1969

    Joel Thompson’s music is immensely powerful in combination with the words, the experience they represent and the singing of the UM Men’s Glee Club. As the last two comments show, we have so much to learn about how to treat each other when race is involved. The repetition of the phrases to me is exploratory, as though we’re all reaching forward together (the group of voices makes this a communal event). We’re trying to come to terms with how to do this over, trying to do better. And it has the tremendous benefit of bringing the murdered victims back for these few moments filled with music.

    Reply

  • George Reindel - 1985

    This is why I don’t give a dime to the University. Garbage in garbage out. Crime statistics compiled by The Washington Post (hardly a conservative newspaper) for 2015:

    - White cops shooting unarmed black men accounted for less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings. Did you get that? 4%!
    - In three-quarters of the incidents, cops were either under attack themselves or defending civilians.
    - The majority of those killed were brandishing weapons, suicidal or mentally troubled, or bolted when ordered to surrender.
    - Of the total number killed (965) only 90 were unarmed (10%), and the majority of those were white.
    - Finally, for every 1 black man killed by a cop (justified or not) 40 black men were killed by other black men. Did you get that? So let’s seek “social justice” for the 2.5% and ignore the 97.5%. Any of these folks ever take a math class? Anyone care to look at the facts?

    We should NEVER excuse cases of police misconduct. Bad cops must be investigated and prosecuted. But this “Seven Last Words” composition is built entirely on a lie and false narrative. The numbers just don’t add up. The problem isn’t cops and this isn’t an “epidemic”.

    As Mr. McGowan correctly wrote above, “The composer might also want to write a piece about the officers who have been killed in the course of their duty, some in simple ambush by truly evil persons.” Great idea. Never gonna happen though as long as the media and academia continue to push this “killer cop” myth.

    Yep, garbage in garbage out.

    Reply

    • Gerard Freeman - 1950

      George Reindel- Bravo and many will agree with you but how many will dare?

      Reply

  • John-Paul Belanger - 1992

    Mr. Rogers said, “In the end, we practiced ‘ubuntu’ — we listened to each other, and we grew together through song.”
    Did they really listen to each other? Were any dissenting views to this piece allowed by such a “progressive” artist at such an “open-minded” university? Or were all the young men completely on board with such a project that (of course) is not to be seen as a “political statement”?

    Reply

  • Kelly Van Rijn - 1984

    What a load of unadulterated, left wing, liberal crap. Everyone one of those thugs shot by police officers would still be alive today had they simply obeyed the lawful orders of the police. Unfortunately for the thugs, they chose to either lead a life of crime, attack the police or talk back. I get that this kind of anti-police, Glee Club tripe appeals to a liberal university. As an employer, I can assure you these are not the people I would ever hire. Blue Lives Matter.

    Reply

  • francine harris - 2011

    Thanks Sydney. Great article. Very moving coverage of beautiful work of art. I do think it’s important to be careful of the language, however. Trayvon Martin was not yet a man, but a young teenager who was stalked by a grown man. As Brown was also 18, maybe it is better to say men and teenagers? I understand Thompson phrased it this way but I think it’s important to be clear about the age of the victims as the work of reporting. Thanks for covering.

    Reply

  • Francie Teitelbaum - 1972

    Wow! Thank you for such an important, powerful, and moving musical collaboration.

    Reply

  • Kenn Hildebrand - 1958

    Getting more attention than it deserves. Unless, of course, there’s a song written about ambushed cops.

    Reply

  • Henry Lowendorf - 1964

    Beautiful poetry, beautiful music. Let’s not be defensive about pushing a political agenda. Art and politics are intertwined. Why should we be surprised when cops shoot unarmed youth, or youth shoot each other, or a man walks into a school and massacres children and their teachers? Do we not catch the irony when a President decries such bloodletting, all the while ordering a nation or a town across the world to be bombed back into the stone age? When our leaders resort to massive violence to end political differences, isn’t a strong message sent to the rest of us? Humans are capable of great love and sacrifice and great violence. What is sowed in the seats of power is reaped in the village.

    Reply

  • Kerry Nye - 1978

    Joel Thompson deliberately misleads those who are weak-minded, and his “music” is racist. The last words he attributes to Trayvon Martin are incorrect, for he deliberately ignores, as court testimony proved, the words that Trayvon Martin said while Trayvon Martin was sitting atop George Zimmerman’s chest, while Trayvon Martin was pummeling George Zimmerman’s head and face with both fists, while Trayvon Martin was smashing George Zimmerman’s skull against the pavement over and over again. (Trayvon said, “You’re going to die tonight,  Mother F$$$$r.” And, “You got me.”)

    You also are deliberately ignoring the fact that at least one source reported that Trayvon Martin told Rachel Jenteal that he had been peeking in windows. Travon Martin was NOT “not armed”, as Michigan Today reports, as Trayvon Martin used his 17-year old body and fists to attack George Zimmerman, and to attempt taking his gun. If only you and other media would STOP reporting and repeating LIES about Trayvon Martin and others like him, all of us would be MUCH better off.

    As far as Michael Brown, had he not stolen from the C-store, had he complied with the officer’s comands, and had he not tried to take the officer’s gun, and then turned back and attempted to rush and reattack the officer, he would likely still be alive today, and serving out his sentence. End of story.

    I expected MUCH better from Michigan Today, and from the Glee Club. Very POOR and BIASED reporting.

    Reply

    • Kelly Van Rijn - 1984

      Come on, Kerry, you’ve been around long enough to know that the left isn’t going to let little things like ‘facts’ get in the way of their narrative. These are the same people who promote Hillary Clinton as the champion of the working women, yet pays her own male staffers 38% more than her female staffers. It is just sad that instead of the University of Michigan graduating the next generation of engineers, titans of business and political leaders, it churns out more left wing apologists, and believe me, America has enough of those.

      Reply

  • David Easlick - 1969, MBA 1983

    This is a good example of why I no longer donate to the University.

    Reply

  • Erich Jensen - 1975

    Thank you!

    Reply

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