CYSO Symphony Orchestra violinist Shreya Dudeja attended the Chicago Vigil for Elijah McClain that took place earlier this month. She wrote about how we honor Elijah and other Black people who have been lost of police violence and racism, and the experience to gathering with other string players to mourn and honor their memories through music-making.
On July 11th, hundreds of stringed instrument players, including myself, performed together to honor and mourn the death of Elijah McClain. Elijah was a musician, just like many of us that gathered there that evening, who died in police custody. Though his death happened nearly a year ago, Elijah’s story has gained national attention this spring and summer as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum.
Elijah McClain is one of the many Black lives lost at the hands of police brutality. The details of his encounter with law enforcement can be found here. In Elijah’s 23 years in this world, he dedicated his life to making others feel loved. He was a massage therapist and played violin for stray cats because it made them “feel at peace.”
It felt surreal to come together with so many musicians to share our heartache. In the midst of this global pandemic, many of us had almost forgotten what it felt like to be completely surrounded by strong people who support each other. All 600+ musicians and 1,400 audience members in Oz Park shared the same repugnance towards the systemic racism that our Black siblings live through every day.
The vigil’s program could not have been more suitable. The crowd held back tears as musicians from all over Chicagoland performed Grief by William Grant Still, Amazing Grace, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Florence Price’s Adoration, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. We lifted each other up and held on to hope playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Lean on Me, We Shall Overcome, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. We bonded over our universal love for music through the classics Air on the G String and Canon in D. Through our art, we expressed the feelings we and so many others were experiencing, emotions that are almost inexplicable with words.
One of the vigil’s main organizers was Alexandra Newman, a CYSO alum. She explained that the vigil “sought to honor Elijah’s humanity through music, which can connect people through time and space in a unique and beautiful way.” She reflected that the event “accomplished its goal of remembering and honoring Elijah McClain as an individual who had his own hopes, dreams, and passions, including music.”
Most importantly, by coming together to honor Elijah’s memory with music, we made an impact. Violin vigils have been organized across the country. The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, WGN, TMZ, The Guardian, and a number of other news outlets have covered violin vigils in memory of Elijah McClain happening across the country. People are listening to our music, learning about Elijah, and—we hope—advocating for change.
As a high school senior, I am part of the generation that will be the future of this country. I was so proud to see my CYSO peers [a few of whom, including Shreya, are included in this New York Times video from the event] at the vigil using music to make a difference. Important conversations are finally taking place because of our music and all the impactful protests that have been going on in our country. Music can reach far and wide, and it is empowering to know that every note we played spoke a thousand words.