Joel Thompson

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed


Duration: 15'

Instrumentation: SATB or TTBB Chorus with Piano, Chamber Ensemble, or Orchestra

Instrumentation: SATB Chorus
Performance Materials: Vocal Score (Octavo)

A meditation on the lives of seven Black men and an effort to focus on their humanity, this powerful work by Joel Thompson has quickly become a mainstay of the choral repertoire.

Available in several different versions:
For SATB Chorus with piano, chamber ensemble, or orchestra
For TTTB Chorus with piano, chamber ensemble, or orchestra

Orchestral performance parts are available via rental.

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Instrumentation: SATB Chorus
Performance Materials: Vocal Score (Octavo)

About the Work

Duration: 15'

I. Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., 68
"Officers why do you have your guns out?"
II. Trayvon Martin, 17
"What are you following me for?"
III. Amadou Diallo, 23
"Mom, I'm going to college."
IV. Michael Brown, 18
"I don't have a gun! STOP!"
V. Oscar Grant III, 22
"You shot me!"
VI. John Crawford III, 22
"It's not real."
VII. Eric Garner, 43
"I can't breathe."

Instrumentation: SATB or TTBB Chorus with Piano, Chamber Ensemble, or Orchestra

Commissioned by: University of Michigan Men's Glee Club
Eugene Rogers, Director

Dear Listener,

In November of 2014, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict the officer who murdered Eric Garner. To me, the message was clear: if I were to be killed in some interaction with authority figures, my loved ones should not expect justice. There could be a video recording of my futile attempts to describe my distress – “I can’t breathe” – with the arm of the law around my neck and the life fading from my eyes, and still, my death wouldn’t matter. My death wouldn’t matter enough to warrant a formal charge of even manslaughter or negligent homicide. This was not an isolated incident – this was a trend. The color of my skin is a capital offense. Seven Last Words of the Unarmed wasn’t written to be heard. It was essentially a sonic diary entry expressing my fear, anger, and grief in the wake of this tragedy. I was serving as a choral conductor at a small college in south Georgia, but I occasionally composed pieces and hid them away. Finishing this work in early January 2015 was a much-needed catharsis; I felt exorcised of the emotions that had drained my spirit. However, Freddie Gray’s death the following April impelled me to try to bring Seven Last Words of the Unarmed to life. A Facebook post asking musician friends to sightread the work, a phone call by a friend to Dr. Eugene Rogers of the University of Michigan, a commission from Andre Dowell to fully orchestrate the work for the 20th anniversary of the Sphinx Organization, and the piece is alive several years later and I am very grateful.

Liturgical settings of the Seven Last Words of Christ are not trying to demonize the Roman soldiers that orchestrated the crucifixion, but they are designed to stir within the listener an empathy towards the suffering of Jesus. Inspired by that template, this piece is a meditation on the lives of seven black men and an effort to focus on their humanity, which is often eradicated in the media in an attempt to justify their deaths.

Listening to Seven Last Words of the Unarmed can be uncomfortable. As you listen, I ask that you try to remain open. It can be easy to let a spirit of defensiveness pollute the experience of the piece. I ask that you revisit the last moments of these men with fresh hearts:
- Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr: the retired Marine who accidentally pressed his Life Alert necklace which recorded the police calling him a n***er before he was killed.
(“Officer, why do you have your guns out?”)
- Trayvon Martin: the teenage boy with his bag of Skittles being chased in his own neighborhood. (“What are you following me for?”)
- Amadou Diallo: the young immigrant who called his mother in Guinea after he had saved up enough money to pursue a degree in computer science. (“Mom, I’m going to college.”)
- Michael Brown: the recent high school graduate and amateur musician whose body lay baking in the street for four hours before being taken to the coroner. (“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting!”)
- Oscar Grant III: the young father (of a 4-year-old girl) who was shot in the back while handcuffed in a prone position at Fruitvale Station. (“You shot me! You shot me.”)
- John Crawford: another young father who was purchasing a BB gun in a Wal-Mart in the open carry state of Ohio. (“It’s not real.”)
- Eric Garner: the 43-year-old grandfather who was choked to death on camera on the streets of New York City. (“I can’t breathe.”)

When the music is over, let us continue to listen. Let us listen to each other with love and hope for a more just future. Thank you.

With love, Joel Thompson

Pages: 40

Shipping Weight: 0.25