By Sarah Fisher
“My thinking was this: ‘This is far-fetched to say the least, but if I don’t at least try, then nothing will happen.'”
Senior Nevin James recollects the moment he decided to stop dreaming about a project that had been brewing in his mind for awhile but to actually make it happen—to make himself sit down to write and compose a full-length, socially conscious rock opera called Death and Victory in Paris.
Inspired by the message of Mike Masten (’08), Pepperdine alumnus and founder of the anti-human trafficking nonprofit Project Exodus, at a Convocation event in March 2009, James felt “a lot of sympathy for people caught up in the nightmare of human trafficking.”
“It’s a terrible thing to be trapped,” he laments. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million people are in forced labor at any given time as a result of trafficking, and most are women between 18 and 24 years of age, as well as children. “I want to help rescue these young women and children from the horrendous people who have no respect for the lives or happiness of others.”
He imagined doing something radical—something to really call attention to the issues at hand— when it occurred to him to use his talent for writing and music to create a call for change disguised as entertainment.
Death and Victory tells the stories of three Californians impacted by human trafficking in Paris. “There is a young woman who is swept up into the sex trade, a young man who has turned his back on his faith and family, and a mother who wants her estranged son back,” James explains.
The Center for Faith and Learning awarded James a 2010–11 Service and Social Action Grant to stage his rock opera at Pepperdine and then take it on tour this past summer. The team, including fellow students of producing, music, and acting, visited venues across nine eastern states, volunteering in homeless shelters of each city on the tour to interact with and serve those without homes, some as a result of human trafficking.
The experience, including performances, downtime, and service to the homeless, was filmed for a documentary that James and his co- producer Alec Eagon are currently editing for their senior project with the help of mentor Craig Detweiler, director of Pepperdine’s Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture.
“Nevin is a refreshing combination of artist and activist. He’s interested in not just moving people, but moving them to action,” says Detweiler. “It’s also rare to find an original voice, especially when it’s coupled with powerful performance skills—Nevin is the complete singer- songwriter package.”
James, whose given name is Robert Shogry, started his college career with a very different focus, however. As a star golfer at his high school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, his music took more of a back seat and he was recruited for golf by Georgetown University. Having played the piano since the age of 7, he transferred to Pepperdine when the golfing didn’t go to plan and decided instead to “give music a shot,” he says.
As evidenced by the success of his first rock opera, he has gone beyond giving music “a shot.” Death and Victory enjoyed a two- night revival at Pepperdine in early October, featuring the majority of the original cast of talented Pepperdine students. James also appeared on the songwriting contest show Platinum Hit, which aired over the summer on Bravo and gave him a chance to showcase his own style of folk/rock songwriting that he taps into on his debut full-length album, Jealousy.
While music has taken priority of late, James is a creative writing major with an emphasis in film and he hopes that finalizing the edits of the Death and Victory tour documentary will help tie together these two creative paths and demonstrate where he can do the most good in the future.
“I’ll go wherever God sends me, be it music, film, or anywhere else,” he says. “This production is not only a call to action, but also a catharsis and an expression of truth. God tells us repeatedly in the word to champion the cause of the widow and orphan, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Click here to read about more recipients of awards from the Center for Faith and Learning.