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In a Year of Racial Unrest, the "Nine Lives Project" Shifts the Focus to Celebrating Black Life

Musicians who are part of the Nine Lives Project performed the piece at Akron's Musica in September, 2019. Chris Anderson (left), Tommy Lehman, Brad Wagner, Bobby Selvaggio and Chris Coles.
Musicians who are part of the Nine Lives Project performed the piece at Akron's Musica in September, 2019. Chris Anderson (left), Tommy Lehman, Brad Wagner, Bobby Selvaggio and Chris Coles.

It’s been five years since Northeast Ohio saxophonist Chris Coles first publicly workshopped what would become his multi-movement suite, “Nine Live Project,” in front of an audience at the Bop Stop. The piece originated as a tone poem, in which Coles put himself in the shoes of a churchgoer who witnessed the 2015 shootingthat claimed the lives of nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

In 2017, Coles was awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant for “Nine Lives Project” and received $45,000 to start conversations on racial inequality and immerse the audience in the story behind the original work. He raised another $40,000 to turn the poem into a 40-minute performance piece.

Coles spoke with WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz in 2019 about the origins of the project, which was intended to heighten awareness of ongoing racial injustice in America after the Charleston shooting.

More than a year later, Coles and a team of musicians and artists have completed the project and recorded its four movements. Coles said the work has taken on a new meaning in light of the racial unrest and increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Now, he said, his work celebrates the achievements and greatness of Black Americans, rather than solely mourning the nine Black lives lost.

Working with local artists to expand his musical storyline

Coles said learning of the Charleston shooting victims and the lives claimed by a white supremacist was a turning point in his life. He said it was the first large-scale, racially motivated event he witnessed in his lifetime. It sparked an immediate sense of historical significance.

“I thought we were past that. I just felt compelled to write something,” Coles said in 2019.

After initially debuting his piece at The Bop Stop, he gave a 15-minute performance at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada. Coles collaborated with other local artists to turn his “Nine Lives” workshopped piece into a four-movement suite.

Akron-area composer and bandleader Sam Blakeslee, animator Hannah Taddeo, a group of hip-hop dancers and emcee Jul Big Green have played integral roles in shaping each of the project’s movements. Northeast Ohio jazz musicians were called to perform, including pianist Theron Brown, trombonist Christopher Anderson, trumpeter Tommy Lehman, bassist Dave Morgan, Bobby Selvaggio on alto sax, Zaire Darden on drums and Emily Laycock on vocals. Coles plays tenor sax. Coles and his collaborators debuted the full project at the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival in 2019.

A discussion was held after the performance that invited the audience and players to offer suggestions on what the community can do to prevent violent, racially motivated incidents from happening in the area.

Turning a pivotal moment into movements

“The way we kind of set it up is that we have an opening section. We call it ‘400 Years (And I still Have Joy in My Soul),’” Coles said.

The opening is followed by “Nine Lives,” which features accompanying animation that calls attention to Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson, who were killed in the Charleston shooting.

“In Spite of You We Rise” is the third movement, which captures the project’s more celebratory tone.

“[This project] has changed me a lot. The last piece, we call it ‘New Birth,’ and the reason why is for that very reason,” Coles said. “I wrote it, so the way the music affects me is that now, these people, I’m connected to them. The goal is to try to live life in the way in which I honor them. And if I’m gonna live that way, we gotta change some stuff. The only way is forward. And I want to be a force for good.”

Changing the narrative about Black victims

TheNine Lives Project” performers officially recorded the entire composition over the weekend of Dec. 13, 2019. Now that the project is complete, Coles said he has been reflecting on how badly society handles the death of Black Americans.

“Quite often you look at, like, the shooting of George Floyd, and there’s people out with their camera phones, and you’re just watching this dude die. I don’t want to see that,” Coles said. “There’s far too little celebration of Black life. I don’t want to perpetuate what you see in the media of celebrating Black death and it just being like a commodity."

Coles said he wants to shift the conversation to talking about the beauty and greatness of Black Americans. He said he is proud to showcase his accomplishments, which include earning a master’s degree and being employed as a faculty member at Kent State University and the Aurora School of Music.

Coles has performed with orchestras locally and internationally and has played on albums with John Hollenbeck and Bluelight.

“To think about where I came from and think about where I am now, I wouldn’t call myself wildly successful—just able to live. That doesn’t happen for most people that look like me,” Coles said.

Coles said he wants to be a “disrupter.”

“It’s made me realize that in order to change what we think of as systemic racism, you have to go to the places that you’re not seen,” Coles said. “I don’t care about going to a place where I’m the only Black person because I know I can prove that I’m worthwhile to invest in, that I belong in that space.”

Recognizing the parallels between the original piece and the finished project

In this federal election year, when tensions are high and the political divide is noticeably deep, Coles reflected on the time leading up to the 2016 election when he first developed what would become the “Nine Lives Project.”

He said the Charleston shooting made him aware of how people responded to the tragedy—and those who were left out of the public conversation.

“Everyone heavily politicized it,” Coles said. “No one took the time to say that maybe what we should do is take these people with us when we make decisions, think about them. How would they want me to push the agenda forward?”

The project began as a poem that described the events of one racially motivated tragedy through the sounds of music. Coles’ hope for “Nine Lives Project” is that it will continue to place both the listeners and the performers in a shared space of reflection on issues of social justice, racial inequality and gun violence.

“And celebrate Black excellence,” Coles said.

Coles said performances of “Nine Lives Project” will begin streaming soon. Follow the project’s Facebook pagefor updates.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Dancers perform as part of Nine Lives Project. The nine chairs represent each victim of the 2015 Charleston church shooting.
Dancers perform as part of Nine Lives Project. The nine chairs represent each victim of the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

Brittany Nader joins Morning Edition host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.