Note: throughout this article, Mulugeta Seraw is referred to by his personal name, “Mulugeta,” instead of the patronymic “Seraw.”
On November 12, 1988, three racist skinhead gang members descended on 28 year old Mulugeta Seraw as friends dropped him off at his Southeast Portland apartment after dinner. The trio, who’d recently attacked other minority Portlanders, beat Mulugeta to death with a baseball bat. The Portland State University graduate student, who came to Oregon from Ethiopia to go to college, left behind an eight-year-old son.
A Portland jury sent Mulugeta’s killers, who were part of an organized Northwest white supremacist movement, to prison. A jury also imposed a civil judgment against a California white supremacist for inciting Mulugeta’s killing.
Kenji Bunch was a Southwest Portland high school student when Mulugeta was murdered. “It really stuck with me,” he remembered. “It was really jarring for a kid living in this sheltered suburban life and realizing these issues were present in my hometown.”
Bunch left Portland to study music and build a distinguished career as a composer in New York. When he returned six years ago, an article about the 25th anniversary of Mulugeta’s death brought it all back.
Like many Portlanders at the time, Bunch didn’t realize that the city had become a capital of the violent white racist skinhead movement until Mulugeta’s murder, although it was only the latest in a string of violent racist attacks.
“It’s fair to say it was traumatic for the city,” Bunch said. “Denial was a large part of that sense of shock. I remember a lot of pearl clutching — ‘how could something like that happen here, when we’re so enlightened and peaceful?’ There was a sense that this happened in a vacuum rather than being systemic, something in place for generations.”
After last year’s citywide commemorations of the 30th anniversary of Mulugeta’s death, Bunch decided to commission a new work for Fear No Music, the Portland new music ensemble he directs. His goal: “to commemorate the event, to honor Mulugeta Seraw, and more broadly to encourage community wide healing, to bring people together by remembering,” he said.
To write the music, Bunch chose another Portland native who was here when anti-immigrant racists killed Mulugeta. FearNoMusic will premiere Ryan Francis’s Nightwalk for string quartet, piano, and timpani with film Monday, two days before the 31st anniversary of Mulugeta’s murder. Although it was inspired by a thirty-year-old tragedy, Monday’s performance sadly has a contemporary relevance, as the white supremacist violence that sparked Mulugeta’s murder has re-emerged in Portland and beyond.
Francis, who was in elementary school when racists murdered Mulugeta, isn’t old enough to recall much about the tragedy and the uproar that surrounded. When he saw a photo of Mulugeta for the first time this year, Francis didn’t see a martyr or victim. “The first thing that struck me when I saw a photo was how much he looked like my father, who passed away a few years ago,” Francis remembered. The resemblance to the Egyptian immigrant who moved to Portland in the late 1970s made Francis realize “how different my father’s experience living in Portland must have been than what he presented to me,” he said. “[Mulugeta’s story] became personal to me. It gave me a way in” to composing the piece.
Realizing that “this piece needed more than music,” Francis asked his sister, Tracy Cameron Francis, artistic director of the Portland performance arts producer Boom Arts and Festival Director for the Cascade African Film Festival, to create a film to accompany his sounds. They decided to film a walk from Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street, across the Hawthorne Bridge, to downtown Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall.
“We thought it would be really meaningful to have the walk start from where he was killed to where the audience was sitting,” Francis said, making the connection between there and then, here and now. “That gave me a narrative structure from which I could derive musical content.”
Francis describes his elegiac half hour “fragmented processional” as “spare fragments of sound and musical ideas that continuously float to the surface and float away. I’m not looking for a specific reaction, but giving the audience a contemplative space to have their own individual experiences, and sharing a communal response through this piece of music we’re all listening to.”
Those experiences can differ dramatically, Francis said, from his own perspective as a white male. “Walking at night evokes many emotions for people,” he said. “In part [Mulugeta] was vulnerable because he was out at night in that part of town. If you’re privileged enough to walk alone at night in Portland and feel comfortable like I do, maybe your perspective will shift. I want the audience to grapple with the different perceptions of the first-person view of the walk portrayed on the film, and for the music to support and enrich their feelings about what they are seeing.”
Transforming hate into art & forgiveness
The concert takes a more upbeat turn with respected British composer David Bruce’s Gumboots for clarinet and string quartet. The piece “was born out of the brutal labour conditions in South Africa under Apartheid, in which black miners where chained together and wore Gumboots (wellington boots) while they worked in the flooded gold mines, because it was cheaper for the owners to supply the boots than to drain the floodwater from the mine,” Bruce has written. “Apparently slapping the boots and chains was used by the workers as a form of communication which was otherwise banned in the mine, and this later developed into a form of dance. This for me is a striking example of how something beautiful and life-enhancing can come out of something far more negative. Of course this paradox has a far simpler explanation–the resilience of the human spirit.”
Fear No Music has also arranged for The Old Church to exhibit “The F Word: Stories of Forgiveness.” Part of the U.K.-based Forgiveness Project, founded in 2004 by journalist Marina Cantacuzinohe, the exhibition collects images and personal narratives about the healing power of forgiveness from South Africa, America, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and England.
The Northwest’s long history of violent racism, and its recent resurgence in 2017’s Max line killings by an avowed white supremacist and in violent public demonstrations by white supremacist groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys, makes Monday’s concert more than just a historical commemoration.
”People have a tendency to think that the outpouring of hate we’re experiencing today is new,” said Rabbi Debra Kolodny, program director of Portland United Against Hate, which is co-sponsoring the event. “But the sad truth is that Oregon’s history of hate goes back to its founding over 150 years ago, and the gruesome murder of Mulugeta Seraw illustrates the longitudinal nature of racism in Oregon. When we gather together to remember and to mourn these kinds of tragedies, we build community and resilience.”
That’s the kind of healing that both Francis and Bunch hope the performance and exhibit can encourage. “I wanted this tragedy to be a departure point for thinking more generally about our community and this city we all live in together,” Francis said.
Bunch hopes the concert, and FearNoMusic’s season-long effort to connect contemporary classical music to healing and restorative justice, will go even further. “An important part of the work of peace and restorative justice is not to look for people to blame or to make judgments as much as to try to find ways to move forward together. You create the opportunity for discussion and awareness and beyond that, it’s what people will make of it. At least we can keep it in the conversation, remind people that this happened and it happened here, and not that long ago.
“I don’t want this event to be polarizing,” Bunch continued. “It’s just appealing to our shared humanity, not as a divisive thing but as a way to unite people. We all experience grief, we all make mistakes, whoever we are, we all have family and loved ones, and this is an opportunity to meditate on that shared experience. Music is a universal way of expressing those emotions. Creating new music around this subject might encourage people who might not come together in the same space otherwise to do that and recognize we have more commonalities than differences.”
Concert: The F Word: A Memorial to Mulugeta Seraw
7:30 pm Monday, November 11. The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave. $10-$25, fearnomusic.org or 971-220-6366
Exhibit: The f word
Open to the public for self-guided tours:
November 6-8, 12-16, and 19-22 | 11am -3pm
Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!