As a college student in 2007, Mike Masten spoke to his peers at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. In a week-long series of events, Masten, an International Relations major, described women their same ages being sold into sex slavery in unlikely places across Southern California and around the world. Nevin James was in that audience, and the words he heard that morning stuck with him. While James didn't get involved in the human trafficking cause right then, he recalls what he had heard at Pepperdine coming back to him when he was halfway around the world.
"I was walking in Amsterdam three years ago. I saw a woman in the window that I could buy if I wanted. She didn't look like she wanted to be there. That image really stuck with me." Together, the seed Masten had planted and that red-light district image inspired James, now 22 years old, to write and direct a passionate and inspired Death and Victory in Paris: A Social Justice Rock Opera.
James and his 12 member band performed the 9-song Rock Opera this month on Pepperdine's campus. James gathered together his musicians from campus and "around the music world" over the past couple years. The twelve performers debuted Death and Victory in Paris in Pittsburgh in June, before they moved onto New York, Richmond, Atlanta, and Louisville. He said he met and spoke with an audience member this summer who herself had been trafficked. She told him the show resonated with her and offered some healing.
Raised by a cardiologist and a former nurse in Pittsburgh's suburb of Upper St. Clair, James credits his musical inspiration to his parents exposing him to the classic male songwriters of their generation: Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Elton John with Bernie Taupin. If you watched Bravo's show Platinum Hit this summer, you may have seen James compete, as he was one of 6,000 musicians to audition but among the most talented who were chosen for the show. "But I wanted to not just release music, but use it to do something, to make a piece of art that people could react to and respond to, to move them" James explains.
James' creative vision takes the audience around the world in a visual and musical story that follows one young woman but rings true for millions of girls and women each year. Masten says that women who end up in sex trafficking were often offered a false job opportunity. "They may have been offered a career in modeling or even in a film," he says. Instead, they end up entrapped into a dark, exploitative, and violent world from which they cannot escape.
Since graduating in 2008, Masten co-founded Project-Exodus to free women who are enslaved by the sex-trade. He is training new surveillance teams to start their volunteer work in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, known as a pornography hotbed, and according to Masten, "loaded up with brothels." Project Exodus sends out 4 individuals to observe one location. They work undercover. Before starting operations in an area, they meet with local law enforcement agencies, and after they make a report, they work with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Having uncovered sex trafficking in areas you might expect it as well as in the cleanest, most affluent towns, Masten says, "No place is immune to it."
Masten sees a "revival and brand new movement" of youth activism. "Because of the internet age, we can see pictures immediately, whether they are Rwandan Genocide or the Congo" he says. "And there is a genuine righteous anger. Education and the internet have empowered the youth of our generation. We are tired of watching things happen without doing something about it."
When asked how and why today's young adults seem more aware and responsive to the issue of sex trafficking than their parents' cohort, James replied: "Our generation would much rather have the truth than have something packaged and pretty for us. It (human trafficking) might be hard to think about, but it's our job, to know and do something about it."
While James' parents are supportive of his artistry and cause, Masten says his parents "think I'm insane", and he knows what he is doing is dangerous work. With the Baby Boomer generation before them having fought for Civil Rights and Women's Rights, both Masten and James are examples that this generation of emerging young adults is passionate about their art, their faith, and connecting those parts of their lives to making the world a better place for the most vulnerable. Their form of social justice is both creative and entrepreneurial. James explains, "God says to take care of the widow and the orphan. God takes care of us, and we can help to take care of others."