Art Talk with Conductor Eugene Rogers

By Ann Meier Baker
a seated shot of Eugene Rogers

Eugene Rogers. Photo courtesy of Mr. Rogers

When conductor Eugene Rogers and I first met over lunch in Ann Arbor, Michigan, several years ago, it was clear that he was someone to watch, a musician who would make a real difference in the choral world and beyond. So it was no surprise when I discovered an incredibly powerful performance he led with the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club and the Sphinx Orchestra of Joel Thompson’s The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which I’ve since listened to dozens of times.

The piece is based on the last words of seven Black men who died from police or vigilante intervention since 1999, including Michael Brown, Kenneth Chamberlain, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin. Thompson composed the piece for himself—as a diary entry of sorts—to process his own anger and fear in 2014 after the killing of Eric Garner. For Thompson it was a cathartic process, a way for him to work through his feelings as a young Black man.

The killing of George Floyd a few months ago led me to listen to this work again, and to reach out to Eugene Rogers to learn more about his relationship with this piece. Rogers is the director of choirs and associate professor of conducting at the University of Michigan; the founding director of the professional ensemble EXIGENCE; and the recently-appointed artistic director of the Washington Chorus

NEA: How did you become aware of this composition?

EUGENE ROGERS: Even though Joel [Thompson] wrote the piece for himself as a way for him to process his own feelings at the time, some friends convinced him that he should hear how the piece sounded, so he assembled some folks to come together to sing through it. It was after that read-through that someone said, “I think you should let Eugene Rogers hear this,” and Joel reached out to me and sent me the score. And I’m going to be honest with you: I sat on it for about a month. I loved it and it resonated with me. But I didn’t know how I was going to do it with an historic group of mostly non-African American singers. I worried how it might be received by this community. It took me a long time, but I couldn’t put it away, I kept coming back to it.

NEA: What convinced you to move ahead with performing the piece?

ROGERS: We were going to South Africa that May with the Men’s Glee Club, and I was already reading a book about Nelson Mandella and his Unbutu philosophy about how our personal humanity is dependent on the humanity of others. Today people have “Black Lives Matter” on yard signs and t-shirts, but in 2014 that phrase was more charged, and I knew that it wasn’t going to get me very far. It was finally the idea of focusing on a universal theme—of love, loss, and humanity—that helped me figure out a way to get my students to consider the piece as not just a political piece of music, because it never was intended to be political. Whatever you thought about the different cases surrounding these seven individuals, we could all come together and unite around the value of human life.

NEA: Did you have any pushback at your university or from your singers about it?

ROGERS: Not as much from the students, because they were part of it from the ground up. In teaching the piece, there were opportunities for dialogue and discussion. I did my best to sit right in the middle, and not to try to get them to side one way or the other. I think it’s very important for us to listen, and to acknowledge different perspectives. While they were learning the piece, I tried to make sure they studied the cases and knew factual information about these individuals and their situations so they could form their own opinions based on the facts.

I actually got more pushback from my African-American students than from my non-African-American students. One told me that he felt uncomfortable processing this in front of “mixed company.” And I get that...that this is so personal for him as an African-American male that he’s having trouble working through this in front of a roomful of people that he may not all trust.

I met with all of my administrators that summer and a few asked why I would do this piece since it could be controversial. Then as we began to perform the piece, I got emails from people saying this was the greatest thing they’ve heard in their lives, and from people who thought this was a critical topic for our students to discuss. Of course, there were a few dissenters, but I got more positive feedback than negative.

NEA: What do you think about the intersection between music and social justice?

ROGERS: Music—and especially singing, because of the text—gives us an opportunity to delve into some deep topics. The Black community has always seen the arts as a way to help cope, process, and communicate. I also see it as a way to bridge, find connections, and unite. I’m definitely a firm believer in the power of music to bring needed change not only to the singers, but also to the community, which is why it was very important to me that the families of the victims knew about this piece. The University of Michigan did a wonderful job of reaching out to the families. I met and was able to talk with four of the families, and Miss Diallo was at the premiere performance and attended other performances, too. She said, of all the tributes to her son, that this setting of his last words—“Mom, I’m going to college”—was especially meaningful because it focuses on where her son was headed, not on where he was.

End note: A recent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra supports the commission of a new work by composer Joel Thompson, which will commemorate Tallahassee's 1956 Bus Boycott.

Ann Meier Baker is the Director of Music and Opera for the National Endowment for the Arts.