Battling injustice and indifference

How two Akronites use music and art to address social issues

words and photos by Floco Torres


Just because racism and social injustice in America are more prominent in conversation doesn’t mean our country is heading towards utopia any time soon. That’s why these two Knight Arts Challenge winners, Chris Coles and Jen Jones, want to do more than highlight the inequalities. They use their art to help you empathize with the oppressed, stigmatized and slain.

A musician and composer, Chris was awarded a $45,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant for his suite “Nine Lives,” which is cut into a four-part movement and is intended to dissect aspects of race, social injustice and societal indifference to victims. Chris was inspired to act after observing America’s reaction to white supremacist Dylann Roof murdering nine black Christians as they worshipped in a Charleston church in 2015.

Each movement, performed by 13 musicians, confronts a different facet of race. The first movement is about Jim Crow, reflected by composition influenced by gospel music and spirituals. The second movement gradually drifts into secular then urban contemporary as the third movement begins. The third addresses the aftermath of the Charleston Church Shooting, how low level news media coverage shifted the narrative from race to religion and politics, leaving half the country apathetic and the rest trying to make sense through despair. The final movement is set around hope, compassion and tolerance for our future in dealing with these types of tragedies.

Jen Jones is a visual artist who received $11,000 for “As a Community We Lift You,” to create a mural based on stories from Akron’s culturally diverse residents. She expects to paint it in the waiting room of the new jobs and family services building in East Akron. That’s in part because Jen depended on welfare for 11 years. While pregnant with her son, she experienced firsthand the negative stigma from society about seeking assistance.

Every image in the mural will come from a specific interview from the clientele and members from the surrounding communities. Along with the mural, these images will be printed as a book that you can look through outside of the building.

“We want you to know that we see you, and your story is important,” Jen says.

With the Knight Arts Challenge, winning is only half the battle because each winner is required to match the amount they receive from Knight. So on July 7, Chris and Jen are hosting a fundraiser at Bluff Blue Door Gallery during the Artwalk where they’ll discuss their individual plans and their collaborations together. Chris and accompanying musicians will also perform one of the movements from “Nine Lives.”

Both projects are expected to be finalized next year with Jen planning to complete her mural following a Spring 2019 class she’s teaching at Kent State with students who will help create the mural. Chris plans to debut the full movement in June 2019.

To learn more about Jen Jones’s project “As a Community We Lift You,” check out their fundraiser page here:

To learn more about Chris Coles’s project “Nine Lives,” check out their fundraiser page here:


Floco Torres is forever inspired by “Alabama,” the John Coltrane piece written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.