Use music to build community: ‘Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ performed at FSU

Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat

“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

Those were the last words of six unarmed black men and one unarmed black boy killed in America.

Joel Thompson, a composer from Atlanta, strung those words together into a composition titled, “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.”

The Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, the Morehouse College Glee Club and the Florida A&M Concert Choir performed the piece together before a full house at Ruby Diamond Concert Hall Sunday afternoon. The event was sponsored by Leon County, TSO and Village Square.

Tears were shed by audience members and those in the ensemble during the powerful performance.

Two other pieces were also performed: “Lyrics of Strings” and “I Am the Voice.”

Before intermission, Leon County Sheriff Walter McNeil lead a discussion with Thompson along with Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra board members Byron Greene and Patrick Slevin.

Thompson talked about what inspired him to create his work. He spoke of the sadness he felt after watching a video of the death of Eric Garner on YouTube.

“It was an attempt to explore my own grief in a way that I could then move on from it,” Thompson said.

He emphasized his intentions were not to be anti-police, something the TSO board had grappled with while deciding whether to stage the event, which was discussed by Greene and Slevin.

“This piece is not an anti-police protest work; it is really a meditation on the lives of these black men and an effort to focus on their humanity, which is often eradicated in the media to justify their deaths,” he said in his message from the composer found in the event’s program.

Thompson applauded Amanda Stringer, CEO of TSO for the event.

“Dr. Stringer saw the piece and in a stroke of fearless leadership decided to program this piece in an effort to use music as a way to build community.”

The second half of the event was a performance of “Symphony No. 9” by Beethoven.

By Tori Lynn Schneider | Courtesy of the Tallahassee Democrat