Billy Childs Commission Puts New Project to Music

College of Music retains renowned artist to compose awareness-building work on human trafficking.

Roy Simon typically prefers to remain anonymous when he and his spouse support programs at Michigan State University.

But when he and MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon heard they could personally commission renowned jazz artist Billy Childs to write and perform compositions on the complex issue of human trafficking, he was fine talking on the record.

“We are so thrilled that we are able to support this important and much-needed initiative through the College of Music,” says Simon. “My father, who is now 97, always told us to never forget where we came from, and to always give back to programs that help others.”

Billy Childs. Photo courtesy

With support from the Simons, the College of Music is poised to launch a program that heightens awareness of human trafficking on the state, national, and international level—starting with commissioned works by Childs. Fostered by Mark Sullivan, associate professor of composition, the initiative puts the spotlight on the scourge of human trafficking through music, the arts, and collaborative educational activities across campus. The Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, a 90-agency consortium administered through MSU’s School of Criminal Justice, will partner with the college as the initiative takes shape.

“Having artists and arts-based organizations participate in the Michigan task force will be a complete game changer,” says Sullivan. “First responders are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem that there is a real need to get the story out in ways that educate others and don’t endanger the lives of victims and survivors.”

The impetus for the college’s human trafficking initiative came in early 2013 when Sullivan and his university colleagues were organizing the annual Latin IS America festival. Sullivan was strongly moved by the contemporary opera Cuatro Corridos that told excruciating stories of human trafficking. And while unable to line-up the opera for MSU that year, he set out to propose an annual event that would build awareness of the problematic illegal activity through arts-based and educational activities. 

“After meeting with Dean Forger and Mark Sullivan and hearing Mark’s passion about the subject, I knew just the right composer who could communicate and capture the emotion and humanity of this very important subject.” says Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker

Whitaker picked up the phone and contacted Billy Childs—Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist and composer. After spending a little time on the phone discussing the subject matter and the possibility of a commission, Childs said yes, he would write compositions to premiere on campus as part of an initiative that examined human trafficking.

Childs is slated to premiere his original compositions to the MSU community some time in the Spring of 2016. After the premiere, plans are to take the pieces on tour and pair with panels of educators and students across campus and the state to encourage dialog. 

Between now and then, Sullivan is working to add discussions of human trafficking into university-wide Project 60/50 events, as well as to arrange exhibits and workshops that feature artwork and narratives of human trafficking survivors. He also anticipates that more musicians will come forward with original works. 

“I was surprised when I first heard from Mark and his interest in getting the arts involved,” says Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. “But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered an evaluation I received from a young audience member who believed that the examples given were too stressful and should not be part of a presentation. At that point I realized how the arts could be so valuable in delivering a message about the sexual and labor exploitation of people in a way that would open doors to the beginning of awareness of these complex issues.”

College of Music Dean James Forger agrees about the part the arts can play in delivering sensitive messages about social, political, and cultural issues.

“Music can communicate through lyric and mood with the ability to reach audiences—including young people—in a magical way,” says Forger. “The arts have the power to address important topics and bring communities together, setting the stage for further exploration and discussions. And it can be done in a beautiful and inclusive manner.”  For more, see “Message from the Dean.”

Five things to know about Human Trafficking

  1. Human trafficking is modern day slavery. 
  2. 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. For minors, the law of sexual exploitation excludes the elements of force, fraud, or coercion to be present.
  3. Human Trafficking is the third largest criminal enterprise in the world.
  4. Human Trafficking occurs globally, nationally, in Michigan, and in our communities. The United Nations estimates that globally, the number of labor trafficking victims far exceeds the number of sexual trafficking victims.
  5. Domestic trafficking refers to cases where victims live in the United States. The 2014 Trafficking in Persons report issued by the U.S. Secretary of State estimates that about 17,500 to 20,500 foreign nationals are brought into the U.S. yearly from various countries.

Source: Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force

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