Composerly Thoughts

Music, Slavery, Chocolate, Change

Music, Slavery, Chocolate, Change

A change in a society’s consciousness usually happens slowly, over decades or centuries. So when I see such a shift happening faster than that, I sit up and take notice:

When I was composing Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery six years ago, I had a heck of a time getting people to understand that I was writing a piece about modern slavery. Someone at a dinner party would lean toward me and ask, “What are you working on now?” and while I described this work-in-progress the guests would become terribly interested in either their mashed potatoes or their fingernails. There would be an awkward silence, and then someone would inevitably declare, “You’re right; slavery in the Deep South was a horrific thing!” and then someone else would say how good that dessert looked.

After the piece was premiered, many prospective performers voiced concerns about the song’s theme. Conductors feared that the song might alienate board members, depress audiences, come off as strident or irrelevant, or interfere with a cohesive program. Given the tight budgets that arts institutions are often constrained by, it was hard to fault them for shying away from controversy. But then…something started to give. Suddenly, two or three years later, modern slavery was no longer quite the taboo subject it had been in 2010.

Watch a video on the background of this song

Was it because news agencies stepped up their investigations of sweatshop prisons, militia-controlled mineral mines, and sex trade hotel rooms? Or because TED Talks now offers nearly 100 presentations about modern slavery? Or because 1100 nuns in 140 countries have made stopping sex trafficking their core mission? Or because more and more organizations are raising awareness about common products that are grown or manufactured by slaves? (“Fair trade chocolate” doesn’t just mean “fair pay.” It also means “No slaves.”)

Yes, yes, yes and yes…and maybe, a little bit…because when conductor Phillip Swan and Cantala premiered Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery, their performance was nothing less than electrifying. And because conductor Hilary Afpelstadt included the song on her program at Avery Fisher Hall. And because Wendee Wolf-Schlarf trusted that the Michigan High School Women’s Honor Choir was mature enough to handle the song. And because Bob Natter believed that the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th Anniversary Concert wouldn’t be complete without a song that decried slavery in our own time. And because the choirs of Patti Milford, Jessica Corbin, Laura Sam, Rhonda Juliano, Jill Crandall and Jennifer Anderson brought this issue home for over a thousand more singers and audience members all across the country.

Maybe. A little bit.

In life-or-death situations like this, every little bit helps.

However you are working for change – singing, talking, teaching, cooking, writing, nursing, witnessing, voting – keep at it!


About the Video Interview on Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery: Most of the photographs of slaves in this video were taken by U. Roberto (Robin) Romano, who dedicated his life to documenting and exposing slavery all around the world. The use of these photographs for educational purposes was generously granted by the Thomas J Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, to which Romano donated a large collection of his work. Romano was also part of the journalist team which created the compelling 2010 video The Dark Side of Chocolate, which exposed the slavery and corruption currently involved in chocolate’s trip from the plantation to the supermarket.

What we can do: Unless we grow and make everything we need, it’s impossible to avoid purchasing products tainted by slavery. What we can do is make sure that at least some of our buying power supports business that are certified by the most trusted monitoring organization, Fair Trade International. And keep singing about justice.

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —