Composition Fosters Human Rights Awareness

Billy Childs to premiere work at College of Music MLK event.

Billy Childs worked worked with students in Jazz Studies and the Composition Area during his residency.

He’s nearly done with a composition he’s writing for Michigan State University. And he’s visited with the MSU student musicians who will premiere the work in January. But as soon as the first note sounds on Billy Child’s original piece, many say the work is just beginning for a highly sensitive initiative led in part by the MSU College of Music.

In late 2014, Childs was commissioned by Drs. Lou A. and Roy J. Simon to pen a composition on the plight of human trafficking. The idea for his work sprung from a MSU collaborative effort fostered by Associate Professor of Composition Mark Sullivan to build awareness of what’s considered a modern-day form of slavery. Childs' piece, titled “Do You Know My Name?,” will premiere Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, at the annual Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer, and Protest concert that commemorates the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., part of MSU Project 60/50, which is supported by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives.

“Many of Mr. Child’s arrangements and compositions capture a wide range of emotion,” says Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker. “We felt that he would be able to evoke the story of human trafficking through his music.”

Billy Childs. Photo courtesy

Preparing to inform

Childs came to MSU in late September for a weeklong residency generously sponsored by Ken and Sandy Beall, members of the College of Music National Leadership Council. During that time, the Grammy Award-winning composer met with Whitaker to discuss the piece he’s writing for a standard big band and vocalist, and to prepare for the upcoming performance.

“We came up with the idea of providing an opportunity for him to hear and coach the ensemble he’s composing for,” Whitaker says. “He also played recordings of his composition, displayed copies of scores and discussed compositional techniques with students.”

In addition to working with the MSU Jazz Orchestra I who will perform his work with vocalist Alicia Olatuja, Childs held sessions in the popular jazz composition class led by Assistant Professor of Jazz Trumpet Etienne Charles. He also conducted a workshop through the College’s composition studio that was open to the public, attracting a mix of nearly 50 students and musicians from the greater community.

An important element of Childs’ residency involved meeting with Mark Sullivan, MSU associate professor of compostion. Sullivan, a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, worked with Jane White, director of the task force, a 90-member statewide consortium representing a broad spectrum of those involved in the anti-trafficking movement, which include law enforcement, prosecution, victim service providers, non-governmental organizations, community members, health professionals, educators and faith-based groups.

“It was part of his process of learning," says Sullivan. We talked about the differences between labor and sex trafficking and how survivors integrate back into life.  He talked about ideas he was trying to explore and how he wants his composition to focus on empowering people who break free, rather than victimization.”

While there have been works of musical theatre, opera, rap, and other kinds of popular music that have been the voices of the anti-trafficking movement, Sullivan believes that Childs’ piece is the first large-scale jazz work to address the issue. After the premiere, Sullivan is hoping to have students and alumni take the piece on tour, coupled with educational components that heighten public awareness of the scourge of human trafficking.

“For now, it gives our students a chance to learn about trafficking as an issue and social problem,” he says. “Unfortunately, many people now are only dimly aware of the magnitude of trafficking, which ranks with the sale of drugs and illegal weapons as one of the foremost criminal enterprises in the world.”

Human trafficking is defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, or obtaining a person for labor or sexual services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. The law applied to minors does not require proof of force, fraud or coercion. Human trafficking occurs globally, nationally, in Michigan and in our communities. 

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