Jan. 13 2016 12:15 AM

MSU's Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert takes on human trafficking

When Jane White tells people she is the director of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Task Force, about half of them give her an odd look.

“Are you sure there is still slavery?” they ask.

Guest artist Alicia Olatuja, who gained national attention after a performance at President Obama's second inauguration, takes on lead vocal duties for the premiere of "Do You Know My Name?"
Courtesy Photo

The United Nations, the CIA, the U.S. Department of State and the 90 member agencies of the Michigan task force agree that there is a largely hidden, borderless gulag of sex and labor trafficking around the world — and even here in Michigan.

White has found that getting the word out is not easy.

“I knew there were times when the message needed to be given in a different way,” White said. “There are people who want to hear about it, but they really don’t.”

MSU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day concerts have taken on a lot of civil rights issues in their 15-year history, but the College of Music and Jazz Studies program will enter new territory Sunday with the premiere of an ambitious work meant to give voice to the victims and survivors of human trafficking.

This is no quick public service announcement. “Do You Know My Name?” was commissioned, with White’s approval, from Grammy-winning composer/pianist Billy Childs. A much sought-after composer, Childs has written for the world’s top musicians, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Wayne Shorter to Yo-Yo Ma to Sting.

Childs doesn’t come cheap, but MSU President Lou Anna Simon and her jazz-loving husband, Roy, put up the commission fee personally.

The guest vocalist with the job of giving voice to the voiceless will be Alicia Olatuja, who soared to national fame after a star turn at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

Just last week, Childs finished the half-hour-long score. He called it one of the most difficult jobs he’s ever done.

Tuesday, MSU Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker blew on the wet ink, started studying the score and geared up for an intense week of rehearsals. Childs is due to arrive from L.A. Thursday to work with Whitaker and the student musicians in person.

“Billy is a force,” Whitaker said. “A lot of the students don’t know his writing — but they’ll know it tomorrow when they play this hard music he wrote.”

“I just hope I do justice to the subject,” Childs said.

Elusive evil

Mark Sullivan, a composer and professor of music at MSU, is under no illusions that music can stop injustice. As a staunch proponent of avant-garde music and director of the college’s computer music studios, Sullivan is no softie.

But as the chief instigator of Sunday’s premiere, Sullivan has practical reasons for spreading the word about human trafficking via music.

“Survivors often have a hard time putting their story together,” he said. “And they’re afraid that if they tell their story to the public, it will open them up to repercussions from pimps, handlers, drug cartels.”

Sullivan took note as a handful of works dealing with human trafficking appeared in recent years. “Cuatro Corridos,” a 2013 chamber opera first produced in San Diego, tells the story of four women involved in human trafficking across the Mexican-American border. Another experimental opera, “Angel’s Bone,” premiered in New York earlier this month.

Closer to home, the Wharton Center has commissioned a new dance and theatre piece with Inlet Dance Theatre of Cleveland and playwright José Cruz Gonzalez, scheduled for a spring 2017 premiere. “Among The Darkest Shadows” will draw on dance, spoken word and music to tell the story of Lodi, a young victim of labor trafficking, and Pinta, a victim of sex trafficking.

“Artists can get the stories out in ways that could be powerful but that wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the people involved,” Sullivan said.

When it comes to human trafficking, art also has to stand in for statistics, which are virtually impossible to come by. In 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that as many as 800,000 people around the world are enslaved each year, including nearly 20,000 in the United States, but nobody really knows the extent of it.

“We don’t yet have a system yet, how to quantify it,” White said. “We’re just starting to get some good studies. But there is hardly a city or town in Michigan where a case of trafficking hasn’t been identified.”

Grammy-winning composer/pianist Billy Childs takes on human trafficking with "Do You Know My Name?," a half-hour-long piece commissioned by MSU's College of Music and Jazz Studies program.
Photo by David Katzenstein

According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking” and “modern slavery” are umbrella terms for “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.”

The sex trade is the most notorious form of human trafficking, but a 2014 United Nations report found that trafficking for forced labor “has increased steadily in recent years.” Some 40 percent of the victims detected between 2010 and 2012 were trafficked for forced labor, a broad category which includes manufacturing, cleaning, construction, catering, restaurants, domestic work and textile production.

Slaveryfootprint.org, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., offers a lively interactive site, “How Many Slaves Work for You?” Type in how many shirts, computers, shoes and other products you own and prepare for an unpleasant ending. (I was informed that I have 40 slaves working for me.) Cotton, chocolate and computer components are among the bigger red flags.

“Slave labor is attached to so many different things,” White said. “We are touched by it in what we eat, what we use, what we drive, the computers we use. I’m appalled that I would unknowingly be involved in it, but it would be impossible not to be.”

After delving into research into the signs of human trafficking, White met with about 30 police chiefs from around Michigan. She asked them if they had seen any of the signs.

Some sights, White said, scream for follow-up investigations: a car full of kids who can’t speak English with a driver who won’t let them say anything, a nail salon with beds in the back room, a massage parlor called “Happy Endings.”

“They all agreed, within about an hour, that we had (human trafficking) in Michigan,” White said. “Everyone had a case they believed was probably human trafficking but was labeled something else.”

White said that only about 25 percent of law enforcement agencies in Michigan (including the Lansing Police Deptartment) are trained to recognize human trafficking.

“Awareness is critical,” White said. “It’s easy to think it happens in some other country, but it has been difficult for Americans to understand that it happens here.”

Bittersweet vinaigrette

Like most first-time projects, “Do You Know My Name?” took some unexpected turns.

At first, Sullivan planned to bring “Cuatro Corridos” to MSU. He pitched the idea to James Forger, dean of the College of Music, last spring.

Forger was intrigued, but he worried that the music, a mélange of Mexican corrida — bullfighting music — fragmented into dissonant shards of modernism, might be too far out for a broad audience. And the opera’s U.S./Mexico border setting is distant from Michigan.

“Who, besides Mark Sullivan, is going to find this music engaging?” Forger pointedly asked Sullivan.

“Unfortunately, that’s probably true,” Sullivan conceded, “Or maybe fortunately, because that led to the second idea.”

Rather than bringing “Cuatro Corridos” to East Lansing, Forger suggested that MSU commission a new work.

White was an enthusiastic supporter, almost from the start.

“There’s no one way to make sure that we, as a society, recognize the issue of modern day slavery,” she said. “The ability to see art, to see visual movement in the theater or ballet or something like jazz, gives the opportunity to look at it with a different sensory impact.”

To find the right creator for the new work, Forger and Sullivan turned to Whitaker, among the world’s top jazz bassists and educators and a talent magnet who has brought many jazz luminaries for residencies at MSU.

Whitaker immediately thought of Childs, a sophisticated composer/arranger with towering credibility in the worlds of jazz, classical, folk and pop.

A genre unto himself, Childs is almost impossible to classify. But if you whisk Quincy Jones, Aaron Copland (or at least his melancholy side), Lalo Schifrin and Joni Mitchell into a bittersweet vinaigrette, you get an idea of his musical reach.

“He’s a sponge,” Whitaker said. “He’s absorbed so many different genres of music and really created his own style.”

Things like this give us credibility. (Human trafficking is) not just a dirty myth.

-Jane White, director of Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force

In “Map to the Treasure,” Childs’ 2014 collection of “reimagined” songs by Laura Nyro, each track is an encapsulated epic with a distinct narrative arc and mood. The disc brought Childs’ genre-straddling, story-telling art to its zenith and won a 2015 Grammy.

The cream-of-the-cream guest artist list on the Nyro CD testifies to Childs’ reputation in several music worlds: Rickie Lee Jones, Yo-Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves and many other top artists. Childs swirled this diverse group into a thoughtful, lyrical sound all his own.

“One note and you know it’s him,” Whitaker said.

Sullivan is more interested in avant-garde music, but he saw Childs’ potential to reach a diverse audience, including people unfamiliar with either classical music or jazz. Sullivan and Whitaker were also confident that Childs wouldn’t sensationalize an already sensitive and potentially lurid subject.

Pitfalls await even the most well-intentioned advocates. Sullivan cited a recent TV spot by a group called End It, who call themselves 21st century abolitionists.

“A swarthy-looking guy pulls out this wispy-looking young white girl and throws her in a truck,” Sullivan said. “It was intended to play on the fears of middle-class, white, suburban people by choosing to show a woman who looks like their daughters. It falsifies the reality. Women of color are predominantly the group affected by sex trafficking.”

Childs signaled that he was interested. After a few preliminary phone calls, Sullivan and Jane White were assured that they could entrust the delicate subject to him.

“He wanted to get away from the sensationalism you see in movies and so forth,” White said. “He didn’t just skim the surface. He studied the stories of victims and survivors, which is incredibly important. He understands it.”

But Forger and crew almost scrapped the project, owing to star-composer sticker shock. Sullivan said Childs asked $1,500 for each minute of finished music.

“We were crestfallen,” Sullivan said. The project seemed dead until Forger mentioned it to Roy Simon, husband of MSU President Lou Anna Simon. A few days later Roy Simon called Forger and told him he and his wife would put up the commission fee personally. The project was on again.

Big band on a tight leash

The composer had to hustle to earn his juicy commission.

Childs has written music for major institutions, but he said he has never faced a job this daunting.

“This was really difficult,” he said. “It occupied a lot of my brain. It’s one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever been confronted with.”

As autumn settled in, Childs plunged into research on the forms and faces of human trafficking. He was struck by the story of a 12-year-old California girl sold as a child laborer to repay her sister’s debt.

“I wasn’t literal with the story, but I used it as a main inspiration,” Childs said.

The music is continuous, but falls loosely into two parts evoking darkness and light.

“The first part deals with the anguish of being sold as a child laborer, being trapped.” Childs said. The lyrics allude to sex trafficking and “walking on the streets.”

A key lyric is often heard from sex trafficking victims: “He told me he loved me.”

“Often women are lured into the sex trade by a person who wins their trust,” Childs said. “They think this person loves them, and it turns out they are a middle man for a larger sex trafficking ring.”

Trafficking preys upon a variety of overlapping, vulnerable groups, including young women, poor people and runaways. Among them, White said, are LGBT people fleeing rejection at home or at school. People who are mentally ill or have been in the foster care system are also vulnerable.

“You’re looking at a population that has to survive, and people out there are going to say they care and promise all kinds of good things,” White said. “That’s the entry point: ‘I care.’ For labor, it’s ‘Want a job?’”

If the first part of “Do You Know My Name?” follows a vulnerable soul into darkness, the second is a paean to human resilience.

“I didn’t want it to be just completely hopeless,” Childs said. “Many of these women get saved and lead productive lives.”

Childs homed in on the simple question “Do You Know My Name?” as both the title of the work and the first verse of the lyric.

“Many of these victims felt like they were walking invisibly through life, not being noticed and suffering in silence,” he said.

It took weeks for Childs to sculpt a structure and write verses to flesh out the story. But when he sat down to write the finished score, he faced an even thornier task. The subject seemed to call for a sweeping, symphonic palette of sounds, but Whitaker wanted a piece for the MSU jazz program’s premier group, Jazz Orchestra I, essentially a big band. Violins, woodwinds, harps and other symphonic trappings were not available.

“When they first approached me with this, I thought, ‘Human trafficking? Big band? How do I make this work?’” Childs said. “That was the hardest part about this project.”

Big bands are like big dogs, stringing at the leash, raring to swing.

“I’m used to getting what I need, emotionally, out of a string quartet, a harp and things like that,” Childs said. “Unless you write very carefully for a big band, it defaults to a certain style with limited emotional choices.”

But he didn’t trim his sails for MSU’s jazz students.

“I never write down for playing ability,” he said. “It’s a great program. The students are great, the faculty is incredible and the band sounds great. I’m excited to try this out. Yes, I wrote music that’s kind of difficult. We’ll practice.”

Vocalist Alicia Olatuja, the only person to see the music before this week, said Childs did “a brilliant job at capturing the richness and colors of a large orchestral piece.”

The secret weapon was Childs’ own instrument, the piano.

“The piano is like an orchestra at your fingertips,” Olatuja said.

“The piano is the essential glue that holds it all together,” Childs added. “It’s not a concerto, but it definitely has a large role.”

Voice of the voiceless

In January 2013, Olatuja got nationwide attention for a vibrant solo turn that threw some red meat into the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir’s cheesy arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Watching the inauguration at home, Whitaker sat bolt upright.

“She blew me away,” he said. After accepting the offer from Whitaker to be Sunday’s soloist, Olatuja threw herself into the score and subject matter, having already worked on a similar project. In 2011, she appeared in “From the Fire,” an Edinburgh Festival Fringe production about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, when 146 young immigrant women died trying to escape a garment factory fire.

The girls weren’t slaves, but the tragedy alerted the nation to shocking labor conditions and helped galvanize a series of labor reforms.

“It took a terrible tragedy to create the uproar that led to things like working fire escapes,” Olatuja said. “I don’t want something horrible and huge to force people to face human trafficking. I’m hoping that pieces like these will make a difference.”

She was moved and impressed by Childs’ score.

“It’s quite a feat, capturing something so intense and terrible,” Olatuja said. “It’s very straightforward, very vulnerable.”

Olatuja sings in both sections of “Do You Know My Name?” In the first section, she gives voice to a person who is enslaved. In the second, she takes on the persona of a woman who has escaped.

“She has not allowed the terror of it to rob her of her humanity,” Olatuja said.

The College of Music has set aside tickets for about 100 people from the human trafficking network who work in law enforcement, social agencies, shelters and other services.

“Most of them are people who would never come to an MLK concert, or any kind of art presentation,” Sullivan said.

That’s a particular thrill for Olatuja. While she loves to sing pure jazz in the appreciative company of other musicians, the singer enjoyed the rush of reaching millions on Obama’s inauguration.

“That’s one of the greatest joys I’ve had as an artist,” she said. “I like to reach people who don’t necessarily go to a jazz concert or a big musical work.”

‘I see you’

With a cauldron of long-simmering civil rights issues coming to a boil, from racial profiling to Black Lives Matter to widening income inequality to poisoned water in beleaguered Flint, the choice of human trafficking as a subject might seem unusual for a 2016 Martin Luther King Day tribute.

Each year, Whitaker juggles artist availability, the politics of inclusion and the winds of social change to put together one of the community’s most eagerly awaited events.

“For us, it’s not necessarily looking at the hot-button issues, but looking at the opportunities we have to collaborate,” Whitaker said. When the stars aligned for “Do You Know My Name?,” Whitaker wanted to make it happen. He thinks King would have approved.

“Maybe it’s not as important to civil rights, like Black Lives Matter, but it’s about humanity,” Whitaker said. “The fact that someone would abuse somebody for money or the sex trade, or that the police would gun down a black man in the street, it’s the same thing to me. It’s a matter of humanity. King always talked about that.”

Besides, he said, MSU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day concerts are “ongoing,” with many more to come, and, unfortunately, America’s civil rights struggles won’t be over anytime soon.

In addition to Childs’ world premiere, a blend of spirituals, anthems and jazz will flesh out the rest of the program Sunday. To make the link between human trafficking and other ongoing civil rights issues explicit, trombonist Michael Dease will bring a new arrangement of the 1960s Civil Rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” The song was jazz pianist Billy Taylor’s most famous composition and is best known from vocalist Nina Simone’s recording.

“That was one of Martin Luther King’s favorite songs,” Whitaker said. “He would say, ‘Dr. Taylor, please play me that Baptist hymn.’”

Also scheduled for the 90-minute concerts are an arrangement by trumpeter Etienne Charles of “We Shall Overcome” and saxophonist Diego Rivera’s take on John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” a sorrowful meditation on the bombing of a black church in Birmingham in 1963.

King’s legacy takes many shapes. Next year, Whitaker plans to bring in a Vietnamese saxophonist and delve into King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.

Childs’ new piece is clearly about human trafficking, but he, too, is reaching for a meaning that transcends the subject matter at hand.

“I wanted to use human trafficking as kind of a springboard to make large statements,” Childs said. “I painted a picture from the point of view of someone who has been trafficked to make statements about the loss and renewing of dignity.”

To Olatuja, music is a deeply personal art form with a unique potential to work on people from the inside.

“It has such a deep impact on our culture because it has such a deep impact on the individual,” she said. “And the only way change can happen is on an individual level first, and then it becomes a collective experience.”

“Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ didn’t end racism, but it sure woke a lot of people up,” Sullivan said. “To this day, people find it a profound song. That’s the kind of power some pieces have.”

Working on “Do You Know My Name?” got Whitaker thinking about the Zulu greeting, “Sa wubona,” meaning “I see you.”

“That’s the problem with all of this,” Whitaker said. “The sex trade, labor trafficking for labor, black profiling — they don’t see the person as a human being. For me, it’s the issue of whether we choose to be humane or not and look at all people around the world as human beings.”

“Jazz: Spirituals, Prayers and Protest”

World Premiere of “Do You Know My Name?” by Billy Childs MSU Jazz Orchestra I, Professors of Jazz 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17 FREE — but tickets required Fairchild Auditorium 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing (517) 353- 5340, music. msu.edu

(Tickets are available for pick-up at the College of Music main office, Room 102, 333 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing)

Subscribe to Our Newsletter