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Lift Every Voice And Sing

 August 11, 2022 at 10:00 PM PDT

S1: Welcome to the KPBS Summer Music Series. In this episode , we talk to Ken Anderson , the founder and director of San Diego's own Martin Luther King Jr community Choir , who talks about spreading the gospel around the world and funding scholarships for students and. Voices of our City Choir is made up of homeless musicians and singers. Executive Director Steph Johnson talks about competing on America's Got Talent and the transformative music they make. That's next. Welcome to the KPBS summer music series. San Diego's own Music Discovery podcast that features encore presentations of our best in-studio performances and interviews celebrating our diverse music scene and beyond. I'm your host , Kurt Conal. In hard times , music ensue. They're worried minds , and there's nothing quite like gospel music to uplift the spirit. We're going to hear some wonderful gospel music and learn the history of black American spirituals , the original American music that gave birth to so many genres we enjoy. Today , we'll be hearing music from San Diego's own Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir , who since 1996 has been spreading the gospel around the world and funding scholarships for students. Midday Edition's Jade Hindman spoke with founder and director of the choir , Ken Anderson. But first , we begin with their song. Rejoice and be glad.

UU: Oh , well , I'll be glad. That. Be.

S2: Joining me today is Ken Anderson , the founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir , San Diego and UCSD Gospel Choir director. Ken , welcome.

S3: Thank you. Had to be here.

S2: So you are the director and founder of the MLK Community Choir and a professor who teaches the history of black music.

S3: Opportunities of freedom. The songs. In the songs , you will find stories of the Jordan River , which is a code name for the Mississippi , the Ohio River , the Cincinnati Rivers , and leaders in the Bible. Even God and Jesus Moses are the leaders in the Bible code name for people like Harriet Tubman. These were leaders in the Bible were code names for the abolitionists and other workers. They were black , white , Hispanic , Asian , yes. Americans everywhere working together to help slaves get away to free states , to Canada. I even learned of some even escaping to Europe. And when they sang about going home or the Promised Land or Beulah Land , pretty much any good destination. This was a code name for freedom. So in these songs they were actually communicating through this system of communication. The Underground Railroad helped them to get away. Oh.

S4: Maybe I heard the voice of Jesus come on to me and rest. Lay down with me one day , Don. But then my woman was working for Jesus love. We agree on what has. I trust that I'm not going to say this way and.

S3: The Negro spiritual is also known as a code sign C.O.D. But not all of the songs were coded because when she was a child , she was sold away from her brothers and sisters. And that's why she sang. He's got my brothers and sisters in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands. And when a baby was born , a baby was taken from her , sold to another plantation. That's why she sang He's Got My Little Bitty Baby Yet is has got the whole world in his hands. Somehow or another , the slaves. They come to an understanding that the churches in the South were abusing the Bible in order to justify slavery. So they didn't reject God and they didn't reject the Bible. They just rejected their , you know , their masters , their owners , those who were pro slavery. So many of these songs , they were expressing faith in God. And some of the songs they're singing just encouraging one another. But when you get to songs like Steal Away and Swing Low , Sweet Chariot , there is a balm in Gilead. Let us break bread together on our knees and on and on. When you get to songs like this , they were actually communicating. This is when and where and how we're going to get away. Wow.

S2: Wow. And I think that's interesting because in the song that you mentioned , he's got the whole world in his hands. Many people , I think I think of that song as a song of rejoicing. And really , it's a song that that is talking about deep trauma.

S3: Deep trauma. And but but more to the point , encouragement in the midst of deep trauma. Is David singing songs like I'm So Glad That Trouble Don't Last Always or Lord , help me to hold out until my change comes , you know , and things like that. They're encouraging one another to hold on. Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on. And even in this song , I'm finding encouragement in the because , you know , they were living in a terrible time and they were basically livestock. They're basically property families broken up , beaten and made to work , forced labor. So that song was , you know , it's lifting them up or encouraging them. Hmm.

S2: Hmm.

S3: I was four years old when my mother taught me my first song. Jesus , keep me near the cross. She taught me the melody and I found the notes around the melody to make harmony with it , because I remembered what it sounded like in church. And that's when the family realized something was going on with me musically. And then when I was six , I began playing in church. It wasn't necessarily everything you wanted to hear from someone playing piano and the other camp , but from what ? I don't remember this , to tell you the truth , but this is what I'm told. And there are many people in the congregation , if not all , saying , Please get the kid off the piano. The pastor said , Leave him alone. He's the only one showing any interest. We'll keep singing , they'll keep playing. He'll catch on. So when I get to heaven , I will leave a Greek debt of gratitude. When I started playing in church when I was six. Children's choir came the children's choir director when I was about 15 or 16. By the time I was 17 or 18 , I became the head of the music program. And from there I've been directing and singing and playing. There you have it.

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S3: And Dr. Martin Luther King expressed this sentiment in one of his great speeches where he had a dream to see the different races together , singing the old Negro spirituals and the Martin Luther King Community Choir and UCSD Gospel Choir in particular. We live that dream. One of the practical impacts we have on the community is we provide scholarships for graduating high school seniors exclusively in the visual and performing arts.

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S2: And the choir has performed for different audiences around the world.

S3: It is really awesome. Taking it around the world , it's just like taking it around America. Very few people , even in the black church , know the history of the music. So I always give the history of the music. I always educate on the music before we begin. If it's during the months of January and February where we're observing Martin Luther King's birthday , our black history , I'll give a more comprehensive and some concerts , actually have me lecture for a few minutes on it so I can give them at least a history and understanding of where the music is coming from. This music comes from a very dark time of American history , just like any other country , America has embarrassing past as well. But the greatness of any country is to be able to recognize when you're wrong , repent and improve and grow. And then that's built into America , the ability to do that. And that's a wonderful thing. The same thing I do in America. I do. And the other seven countries we've been to , number eight was on the way and then the pandemic hit. We were going to Canada , but we've been , you know , Germany , Prague , Rome. We actually sang at the Vatican and we were at the mass of the late pope , his last Easter mass.

UU: Oh , that's nice. Oh , I had all the time with that. But boy.

S2: That was worship the Lord by Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir. San Diego. So.

S3: Gospel music speaks to every aspect of life , even even the time of life we're in now , because the music is born out of hard time. I mean , this is not the first time America's been in a hard time. There are times when America seems to be doing very well , but there's always a part of America that's not doing so well. And so the music speaks to every part of life , rather you rejoicing or you're sad , whether you're succeeding or you're failing and need to be encouraged to keep going. As long as you're alive , you still make it , you know , as long as you keep hope. It's very easy to lose hope because there's just a barrage of things that come at you. I mean , you watch an hour's broadcast , you might get some good news. Towards the end. They saved the kitten from a tree or a puppy out of a pipe. And then , you know , they kind of fake shuffle their papers while they smile and tell you to have a good night after they've just told you. The whole world is about to go under and people are stressed out. What's going on with the pandemic and what's going on with the government , what's going on overseas ? And we haven't had time to talk about what's going on in their own homes and in their own lives and relationships and in their own hearts and minds. And so there's a lot in this world to stress you out , but there's also a lot in this world to be thankful for and to rejoice over is to know if you can just keep going , if you can just hold out till you change comes.

S2: And I've been speaking with Ken Anderson , the founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr Community Choir , San Diego and UCSD Gospel Choir director Ken Anderson. Thank you so much for joining us.

S3: Oh , thank you so much for having me. This is a pleasure.

UU: She ? All right. Despite. Oh , my God. How can you say.

S1: Up next , more uplifting music from Voices of our city choir. And.

UU: And. Happy to. Oh.

S4: Oh.

UU: My God. But I have to be. But.

S1: Welcome back to the KPBS summer music series. Out of tragedy comes triumph and transformational music. That could be the motto of San Diego's Voices of our City Choir. Recently , the entire nation got to meet this group of homeless musicians and singers who first assembled in a small metal church back in 2016 as contestants on America's Got Talent. The group wowed the judges and made it all the way to the semi-finals. Midday Edition's Maureen CAVANAUGH spoke with the choir's executive director , Steph Johnson. But first , we begin with the voices of our city choir performing Sounds of the Sidewalk on America's Got Talent.

UU: And listen to the sound. From. So this. So I've. With no one to be seen. Instead.

S4: We will see down the street.

UU: No , I'm not. I'll be helping myself stand up here.

S4: I got to keep that hope.

S5: That was the voices of our city choir performing Sounds of the sidewalk on America's Got Talent , winning them a golden buzzer , sending them to the semifinals. Executive and creative director of the Voices of Our City Choir , Steph Johnson , joins us now. And Steph , welcome to Midday Edition. Thank you so much. Maureen , I'm so honored you have me on today. Congratulations on making the semi-finals for America's Got Talent. What was that like performing for a national audience ? I'd have to say it's the most beautiful , surreal experience we've ever had. You know , of course , we're all going through this pandemic. We are a choir that started on the streets of San Diego. We never even had the intention of performing live. It was just for us to come together and make music and be together. And the performing really has given our choir members so much confidence in them and created this family dynamic that we go and do these events and gigs together and shows that it just it's a it's an honor to get to share our love with an audience. So now that experience is being done on this huge stage on national television , and America calls in and they vote and they vote for us. It's hard for me to not get emotional because it's just it's so incredible. Oh , I can imagine. I mean , I think it chokes everybody up , just just listening to the choir. I'm wondering , though , how did you practice for this experience , especially considering we're in the middle of a pandemic ? The first audition we did , which garnered that golden buzzer that put us in the quarterfinals , that was one of the last performances that happened in Pasadena in front of a live audience. Right after that , we got all the quarantine homestay orders. Immediately we went into putting all of our music programs online , and then we realized a lot of our choir members lacked technology and Wi-Fi. So then it turned into , you know , acquiring 75 laptops and distributing the laptops and making sure people had access to Wi-Fi and and also had the training and had tech support. But we've learned so much during this whole time. And the choir members learned all their parts via Zoom. It was really incredible. Well , besides the pandemic , the choir also lost co-founder and choir director Nina Dearing in a tragic car accident. How is everyone coping with that loss ? It comes up all the time , actually. You know , the choirs grown. We now have about 250 members. Nina and I started the choir together in 2016. Some of those original choir members are still involved , but she was with the organization for the first two years and she for the people who met her and knew her. It has been a really tragic loss. And we like to think that she is this angel and this omnipresent force that's with us when we're doing these amazing things. Because I know it's beyond it's beyond her dreams. But she always held this really big vision for for the choir. So it's she's with us in all these big moments for sure. Now , voices of our city has already made a tremendous impact on the people who've heard the choir and in the lives of the unsheltered people here in San Diego. Can you give us an idea of how the group has changed lives through this , you know , year after year of this kind of commitment to each other ? We've helped over 60 people move up the street. A lot of our choir members have reconnected with family. A lot of choir members have chosen sobriety , given up smoking cigarettes , choosing a healthier path , a healthier lifestyle , gone back to work. And a lot of our choir members , including our case manager and two members of our staff , they were unsheltered when we started the choir and they became part of the choir and now have have jobs as not only in their , you know , in their position , but they're like peer advocates. So it's people who , with lived experience being there as a resource and connecting people to resources at their time , at their pace. We're a constant presence , even during the even during the pandemic. We still partner with Living Water Church downtown , and we've opened up a five day week folk food distribution , hot meal distribution , clothing. Also , we have a five day a week charging station , which is all run by choir members. It's just it's a gateway and it's a it's a it's a path and a connection without any judgment and only just love and a friendship , you know ? Let's hear another song. We're going to hear voices of our city choir performing , thinking about love. That was thinking about love performed by Voices of our City Choir. And I'm speaking with the executive and creative director of Voices of Our City Choir , Steph Johnson. What is the one thing that you would like people to see the next time they see someone on the streets of San Diego who is living unsheltered ? What should we look for besides the fact , oh , that's a homeless person ? Well , I wish that everybody knew when they see a person who's experiencing homelessness , that that person didn't they didn't do something to to deserve to be there. There's there's a series of events that happen sometimes that are completely out of our control. And homelessness could happen to anybody. And if if you're unable to feel that , if you're unable to see that , then I think it's important to strengthen your your own empathy and your own ability to put yourself in a person's shoes. And if a person as it as an example of , you know , what what's going on , if a person is unsheltered for just a week or two , they are already suffering severe post-traumatic stress. And when you're when you're in a when you're in a struggle to survive , you know , not just where can you use the restroom and where can you get water , but people are you know , you have to stay awake all night because people might steal your last belongings or they may attack you. Or if you're a woman , they may attack you physically , sexually , and you have nothing in no way to protect yourself. If any of us experienced what shelter person goes through every night , then I don't think homelessness would exist. I really don't. For members of the choir staff , what do you think has been the best part of this whole experience about being in the choir and getting this national recognition ? Well , it's it's meant that we're able to help more people. You know , we continue to serve about a thousand up to a thousand individuals a week where , you know , dreaming bigger and bigger. Maureen , we're like , maybe we can get a building. Maybe we can have our own housing. I think the biggest , greatest thing from this whole endeavor that Nina and I started is that people people feel better. People are getting better. And they it's it's led to housing. It's led to recovery. It's just now when you win America's Got Talent , what are you going to do with the prize money ? Well , I like the way you're thinking , Maureen. I , I think that we would keep putting it into the organization for sure. I think that there's a need for us here , and it continues to grow. And during COVID , we've found new ways to reach out to people. So we would just continue and put it put it back in into all of the programs that we offer. I've been speaking with the executive and creative director of the Voices of Our City Choir , Steph Johnson , who is a musician in her own right. And Steph , I want to thank you so much for speaking with us , and thank you for what you do. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

S4: Hopefully so , too. Restless. Arms reaching. Wow. Battles going down. With chaos all around , and the mother reassures herself everything will be all right as she steps in rhythm to the south. The.

S1: Thanks for listening to the KPBS Summer Music Series. To catch a new episode every two weeks , subscribe wherever you get podcasts and for performance videos and more great artists visit KPBS Jorge's Summer Music Series. John Decker is Interim Associate General Manager of content. Lisa Jane Morissette , operations manager. And Megan Burke , the senior producer. I'm Kurt CONAN.

UU: And you. Through the. Oh , my. Yes. Yes.

In hard times, music can soothe our worried minds, and there's nothing quite like gospel music to uplift the spirit. In this episode we'll hear music from San Diego’s own Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir, which since 1996 has been spreading the gospel around the world & funding scholarships for students.

And, San Diego’s Voices of our City Choir, is a group of homeless musicians and singers who first assembled in a small metal church back in 2016. Executive Director Steph Johnson talks about their experience performing on "America’s Got Talent" and making it all the way to the semi-finals.

Credits: Produced and hosted by Kurt Kohnen, Jade Hindmon, and Maureen Cavanaugh. Megan Burke is senior producer.