He turned ‘I Can’t Breathe’ into protest music
By Geulia Heward
When Joel Thompson composed “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” he didn’t intend for anyone to hear the piece.
It was 2014. That summer, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner died in a chokehold during a botched arrest on Staten Island. For weeks, Thompson — then 25, with a degree in choral conducting — watched footage of Garner’s death on loop.
Reeling, he tried to find a way to channel his sadness and anger. He eventually took the final words of Brown, Garner and five other unarmed Black men who had been killed during encounters with the police, and set them to music for choir. But when he was finished, he put the piece away.
“I didn’t think of myself as a composer back then,” Thompson said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t think anyone would hear it. I didn’t think anyone would listen to it, or even want to listen to it.”
The work may well have stayed on his computer’s hard drive had Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, not died of a severe spinal cord injury the following year while in police custody in Baltimore. Gray’s death inspired Thompson to post on social media, asking if there was anyone interested in helping him bring his piece to life.
A friend suggested that he reach out to Eugene Rogers. As the director of choirs at the University of Michigan, Rogers was known for leading works that involved history and activism, on subjects like Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was murdered in 1998, and Harriet Tubman. “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” was a bit riskier: The Black Lives Matter movement was still fairly new then, and still widely perceived as extreme. But in October 2015, Rogers led the university’s Men’s Glee Club in the premiere.
Thompson’s 15-minute piece echoes the liturgical structure of Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” The first movement is a moody setting of “Why do you have your guns out?” — the final words of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., who was shot and killed by a bullet from an officer’s .40-caliber pistol in White Plains, New York, in 2011. After moving through the words of Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Brown, Oscar Grant and John Crawford, the final section is a stirring rendering of Garner’s words, now a rallying cry: “I can’t breathe.”
The audience response to early performances was mixed, at best. When Rogers and the glee club toured cities including Washington and Johannesburg, the reaction was sometimes aggressive.
“I took a lot of heat,” Rogers said in an interview. “I went against many people who asked me not to do the piece. We had people in the audience rip up their programs and throw them in the trash, right in front of the choir, and walk out. I had letters written to my dean about it.”
But now, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the protests about police violence that have engulfed the nation and the sudden, broad realignment of opinion on racial issues, the work is finding new, and newly enthusiastic, listeners. On June 4, Carnegie Hall streamed a recording on its website and social media channels.
“People wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole five years ago,” Thompson said. “I’m grateful that people are willing to engage with it now, but I’m also simultaneously frustrated. I’m hoping that the people who are sharing this piece come to realize how white supremacy itself has been embedded into this genre. We need to make substantive structural change to how things are run in classical music.”
Had the coronavirus pandemic not hit, Thompson said, he would currently be lost in the archives of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra; the ensemble received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to commission a piece from him about the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott. Instead, he spoke from his apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, occasionally setting the phone down to play riffs from his keyboard as he explained his work. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You’re a Black Jamaican American in a predominantly white space. How did you get involved in classical composition?
A: I started playing piano in church services. I was pretty much self-taught up until that point, so I had horrible technique. Classical music moved to the foreground when I was an undergraduate at Emory.
I didn’t think it was really possible for me to do classical music. But I remember, I went to my first Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. They played Alvin Singleton’s “PraiseMaker,” and it was the first time I heard classical music from a Black composer. That’s when I sort of figured it was possible.
Q: Do you think it was easier to trust another Black man to be the conductor of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” because of your shared experience?
A: When Dr. Rogers told me he was interested in the piece, he came down to Atlanta and met with me over tea. We went through the score together. He shared how moved he was, as a Black male, studying the score, and seeing what I was saying, and what I was feeling. I saw the emotional effect that the piece had on him. We had frank conversations about our experiences as Black people in classical music.
Q: While you’re both Black, the Men’s Glee Club, which originally performed the piece, is largely not. Was this something you all talked about?
A: Oh, it was hard. There were people in the chorus who didn’t want to perform it. We had alums of the club who had a problem with it. But Dr. Rogers’ pedagogy was crucial, and needs to be adopted by other predominantly white choirs. He made sure all the men did their research about these deaths, that they were educated. Everyone’s cultural competency went up like five notches.
Q: The piece itself is just so emotional and raw.
A: There was everything about me in there; there was no need to censor myself. It was as honest as possible. Now that I’m aware of an audience, it’s hard to return to that same state of vulnerability, but it’s always something that I’m aiming for.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m supporting myself through composition commissions right now, but I’m also a full-time student at Yale. I start the doctorate in musical arts program in September. I’ll be either the fourth or fifth Black person to be in the program.