The five finalist groups of the Songs for Democracy student competition performed for the University of Michigan campus community in the Hill Auditorium Saturday night. The groups had previously been selected by a panel of judges after they applied to the competition, and were chosen based on their concepts, lyrical impact and how the music amplified the message of the song in early December.
The event was emceed by Detroit-based actor and musician Mike Ellison and was hosted by the Democracy & Debate — a pro-democracy initiative operated by various departments across campus — and the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Catherine Carver, the lead of the Democracy & Debate program, opened the concert with a discussion about why it was created in the first place. Carver said the competition was launched to highlight the nexus between political activism and music, and to give students a platform to participate in both.
“Tonight you’re going to hear five original songs written by University of Michigan students to inspire us to use (our) power to work to make our society more just, more inclusive and stronger, to inspire us to create a future to sing about,” Carver said.
Angela Harrelson, the aunt of George Floyd, also spoke at the event as part of her visit to campus. The day before the concert, Harrelson spoke to students at the Rackham auditorium about the book she published to honor the legacy of Floyd and their family. Before the concert started, Harrelson spoke about the importance and the challenge that comes with being an advocate for social justice.
“When I think about this fight for justice … it’s not an easy thing,” Harrelson said. “It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding.”
Following performances by the finalists, the winning group performed, “Our Fighting isn’t Done,” An original song written, composed and performed by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Cortez Hill, junior Caleb Middleton, sophomore Oluchi Nwaokorie, senior Andrew Otchere and junior Aidan B. Jones. The group received $3,000 in prizes, and an opportunity to professionally record their song and produce a music video for it.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Otchere described the personal impact that the performance in Hill Auditorium had on him. He said winning the whole competition made him proud of his group’s success in finding a creative approach to activism.
“This performance meant a lot,” Otchere said. “I am someone who is always trying to find new ways to combine my art with my activism and it is such a beautiful experience to see so many people here and be able to share a song that not only has a beautiful melody, but has an even more beautiful message.”
Hill, the lyricist of the group,, told The Daily he hopes the message of the song is relatable and inspiring to anyone who hears it.
“We were just really thinking about words that are really inspirational towards people everywhere,” Hill said. “I feel like we all have this common idea of wanting to make an impact. However, we really just need to get up and do it. So I really wrote these words in order to really speak to the individual (and) really inspire them.”
Middleton,the composer, attributed the inspiration for the group’s song to John Legend’s “Glory,” because of its influence on his generation as a song commenting on the modern civil rights movement, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The overall vibe of the music, the inspiration, was ‘Glory’ by John Legend,” Middleton said. “I feel like for all of us, like in our generation, that was such a pivotal song, especially during the Black Lives Matter movement, so that was the integration between the verses, the groove, and then also the rap that was done.”
The other four song groups received $1,500 for making it to the finals, and will also have an opportunity to professionally record their song and produce a music video.
To conclude an evening of education and art, attendees stood up from their seats to join Ellison, and other Black musicians, including D-Love, Chi Amen-Ra and Dr. RAS Mikey Courtney, in song and dance. The auditorium was filled with the sound of students, faculty and community members cheering, clapping and dancing.
When Middleton was asked to describe the night in one word, he said it was “exciting.”
“The energy was high,” Middleton said. “Everybody was having a good time and then especially on the finale on stage. It was just a great experience.”
Daily News Reporter Sirianna Blanck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.