Portland-born composer Ryan Francis was only 7 years old when Mulugeta Seraw was killed by white supremacists, too young to have any personal memories of the murder that shook his hometown. But recently, the incident gained more weight and meaning for Francis when he saw a photo of Seraw, who was an Ethiopian immigrant. Francis' father was also an immigrant from Africa who lived in Portland in the '80s.
"I was just shocked immediately when I saw a photo of him because he looks just like our dad—same hair, same glasses, same mustache," says Francis. "It made his death feel kind of personal to me in a way, because I wondered if our dad had seen stuff about him in the news and how it made him feel. I think that he probably would have died if he were on the same block as Seraw."
In November 1988, Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat outside of his home at Southeast 31st Avenue and Pine Street by three white supremacist skinheads. Just two days before the 31st anniversary of the murder, Francis will debut Night Walk, a chamber music piece in honor of Seraw.
Night Walk's world premiere is part of Fear No Music's The F Word concert, which examines what forgiveness looks like around the world. The show is the second installment in Fear No Music's restorative justice-themed season, Justice (Just Us).
Francis, who previously lived and worked in New York City, has composed dozens of contemporary classical pieces, from orchestral to electronic. But composing Night Walk was a tough experience that made Francis want to quit numerous times. His sister Tracy also worked on the project.
"Sadly, our father passed away a few years ago, so we weren't able to ask our father what it was like living here then," says Tracy Francis. "The project gave us the opportunity to reflect on what his experience of being an immigrant in Portland during this time was like."
Ryan Francis' part of the project is the musical composition, a chamber piece scored for string quartet, piano and symphonic percussion that will be played by some of Fear No Music's core musicians. Tracy Francis' contribution is a film of the walk from the location of Seraw's murder to the Old Church, where the concert will be held. Around the time they began thinking about the project, both siblings became interested in the somewhat niche online trend of night walks—people filming and creating music playlists for the walks they take at night.
"It took a while for me to figure out how I wanted to approach it, thinking about this guy being killed late at night in Portland, but also this night-walk aesthetic," Ryan Francis says. "I wanted to turn that into a departure point and turn that aesthetic approach of shots of the city at night into being this evocative thing."
The walk takes about an hour, forcing the audience to really take in how the emotion of the composition ties into the sights portrayed in the film. "That's maybe the most confrontational part of it—what we really wanted the audience to do was connect their physical space of where they're sitting to where it happened, because it's not that far away," says Francis. "I think it's hard for a lot of people in Portland to emotionally and intellectually acknowledge the proximity of where they live to these violent episodes in the city."
But Portland's problems with race relations are a tale as old as Oregon, and looking back at Seraw's life isn't something our city can afford to avoid.
"His death carries so much meaning in this moment in our city," says Francis. "That's why, ultimately, this was a piece we resolved to make."
SEE IT: Fear No Music's The F Word: A Tribute to Mulugeta Seraw is at the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave., fearnomusic.org, on Monday, Nov. 11. 7:30 pm. $10-$25.