As someone who believes raising our voices together helps us understand one another and creates real change, DeMore is conducting a plenary workshop called Seeing Each Other through Song at the 2023 Chorus America Conference. Before the plenary, she spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about the ways connection and healing can happen when people come together to sing.
Catherine Dehoney: Tell us about being a vocal activist. I just love that term.
Melanie DeMore: It came about during the time right after the 2016 election. I did a community sing at UC Berkeley. This was planned before the election, and I knew in my heart what the outcome was going to be. Everybody said, “Oh, yeah, we're gonna have a woman president.” I'm saying, “It's not gonna happen, so y'all are gonna need some medicine.” And so I was talking to one of my students, and he was so sad and so upset. And I said, “Listen, baby, you got to use the gifts that you've been given.” I said, “Me, I use my voice as a weapon of mass connection.” And that's when I thought “vocal activist.” That's how that came about.
CD: “Weapon of mass connection,” that is fantastic. I promise I'll never steal that without attribution. We definitely need it.
MD: I'd always been doing community sings and gatherings, and people ask me, “What do I have to do in order to be able to sing with you?” And I say, “Are ya breathin'? Good. That's the only qualification.” And we need that so much. In my talk, I'll be talking a lot about why we need to share each other's music and how important that really, really is, because of what's happening, because of this huge movement in choral music that we should only sing music in our own culture. Wrong. Poison.
CD: It's true. One of the other sessions at the Conference actually addresses this fear that White conductors have around programming music by African American composers and spirituals.
MD: We need to talk about this and to understand where this is actually coming from. So I'm talking about how we can do that and how we can connect to each other in that way. It is a major part of my work right now because I'm working with choirs all over the country in all different circumstances, and people are freaking out. It's one of those things where you think it's coming from one place, but really, it's fed by the opposite. It's like when people say,” I don't see color.” And I'm saying, “I know what you think you're saying, but what you're saying is that you don't see me. You think that you're actually in solidarity with me by saying you don't see color, but really, you're saying the opposite.” We have a lot of things like that in our in our culture where people think they're doing one thing, but really, the result of it has the opposite reaction.
The main crux is, you have to sing the songs from the point of view of not being White, or Black, or Latino, or whatever, but from being a human being. And how do you connect in those songs? With spirituals, you cannot sing about my ancestors' journey. But you can sing about your ancestors' journey. Unless you are a First Nations or Native American person, you are a descendant of immigrants, which means that your grandma and your great, or your great-great- great, made a really difficult journey in order for us to be able to sit here. So when you sing spirituals or whatever it is, what was the journey of your ancestors? You can sing about that because you're a human being. And these songs come from the desire to be seen as a real person. That's what the songs are about.
CD: What was your earliest experience of music? Was that family? Was that church?
MD: Family. My mom and dad—brilliant singers, brilliant vocalists. My mom was one of the first Black women offered a vocal scholarship to Juilliard. She did not take it because she didn't want anybody to tell her when, where, what, and how to sing. She just wanted to sing. I'm just like her. My degree is actually in flute, piano. and music history. There are people I went to college with who never heard me sing, and I'm mostly known as a singer now.
CD: Do you still play?
MD: Occasionally I'll pull out my flute. When I was in high school, I was president of the band. I played flute and piccolo and bass in the stage band. And one day, I was playing guitar for my friend and singing, and the choir director walked by: “Why aren't you in choir?” I said, “Look, I'm in the band.” She said, “No, why aren't you in choir?” That's when I started doing choir.
And my mom and dad did lots of theater. They started one of the first Black theater companies in Alaska in the 60s. I was exposed to all different kinds [of music]. They did German lieder; they did all that kind of stuff. They were in the Alaska Opera Chorus at the time—my mom, stone cold four-star card-carrying New Yorker, daddy from the hick town, small and deep in South Carolina—and they met singing. My dad was standing behind and my mother turned around and said to him, “You are singing too loud.” And my father said, “That was it. I knew it right then and there.”
So that was a huge influence to me. My mother died when I was 19, and actually, the first funeral I ever sang at was my mother's. I was 19 and I wrote a song for her, which connects to my work now of singing with and working with Threshold Choirs, which were founded by Kate Munger. There are almost 300 Threshold Choirs. I work with all of them, so I'm a member at large. And usually the first song they learn is "Sending You Light," which is a song I wrote.
CD: To this day, I have trouble singing at funerals, but it's such an amazing gift.
MD: To me, that's song as service right there. That's really, really important to me, and I think that that's how we should approach singing all the time, so that when somebody comes to a performance, they should leave feeling bigger than when they came in.
If you are intentionally putting that energy forth, people will feel that. But you have to be intentional about it. When you’re holding your music in front of you, if you don't think about that music you’re holding as being invisible, your energy stops right there, which means that people are getting a two-dimensional experience, missing the most important part. And you've been to those concerts: Everybody sounds good, there's not a note out of place, and you're like, “I don't care because I'm feeling nothing.” And maybe you've participated in those concerts as a singer, and the last thing you're really doing is singing with joy, because the rules have got you so confined. Your audience may not know what it is that's not happening, but they'll know something's not happening.
CD: Something I really envy because it wasn't something I was taught very well growing up is having freedom to move to what you are singing. Can you talk about your idea of singing using your whole body?
MD: You’ve got to be conscious of what you're listening to and how does it feel in your body.
It can't be separated. I do occasional workshops with the San Francisco Bach Choir, you know, [artistic director] Magen Solomon. They’re not playing around. Those folks can sing. But every now and then Magen will have me come in and do a workshop with them to just get out of this little thing. And they were doing some kind of like Bach, Mozart, deep thing. And I said, “I want you to sit in a big pack, shoulder to shoulder, put that music down, close your eyes and sing this thing like you're an amoeba, as one organism. You're immersing yourself and understanding that the whole ain't nothing without each and every one of you.” We think about it in these neat little tiny rows, but really, it's like this mass, beautiful thing that happens. And I said, “Now when you're standing next to each other in your formation, I want you to go back to that amoeba place.” They sang it and they were all swaying, and it was just so deep.
CD: When you're working with a community group or in a prison or somewhere where you're not expecting there to be choral music experts, do you change your approach?
MD: Not very much, because it's kind of a natural thing for us to sing. I always ask people, do they remember their first song? And they'll start, “Well, I learned the first song...” And I say, “No, your first song happened the day that you were born. That first sound you made, you came into the world singing.” I love working with professional choirs, and I love just going and doing community sings. It's the whole idea of making a space where people feel compelled to join. It's like, “I don't know what's happening, but I got to be a part of this.” And I always have a part where the audience gets to sing, so they're like the fifth section, you know, SATB-audience. And I used to tell my students when I was conducting the Oakland Youth Chorus, “At the end of each concert, you're to go up to three people you don't know, and you thank them for coming to the concert.” “Ah, man, Melanie, really?” I say, “Yeah, because if they weren’t in the chair, who'd you be singing for? Just realize that you can't do what you love without them.”
CD: You started this conversation talking about what you did in 2016 in response to the results of the election. When you think about what working with people was like then compared to now, do you find it very different? This need for mass connection—a weapon of mass connection—feels very important right now.
MD: There's so much division right now. We have all these mass shootings and all this insanity, and what you have is people reacting because they think that other people don't see them. Everybody wants to belong to something, and if you feel pushed up to that place where you don't feel that, what will we do to get attention? Even if it's just insane?
CD: Have you been working with folks across political divides?
MD: I'm going to be part of the Witness program next year for VocalEssence, and they want me to re-do a thing I did a few years ago way up north in California. It had been after the murder of another Black person by the police, so they said you have to come, and we need you to do something that perhaps the groups of people have never done. So I got them to get a bunch of pounding sticks and I did two workshops.
The stick-pounding tradition comes from the Gullah South Sea Islands of the United States, which is Georgia, Florida, South Carolina. The folks enslaved there were stolen from around Sierra Leone, and as per usual, all drums and everything were taken away. But the quarters where the enslaved people lived were on stilts. They would take brooms or hoe handles and pound on the wooden floor, which would turn the whole place into a drum. At workshops, I talk a little bit about the origins of it, and then we just simply start counting, I get them moving their feet together. Then I teach them the basic rhythm: hand clapping, because that's something they're more familiar with, then patting the rhythm on their right leg, and then I transfer it to the sticks, four-foot dowels, you know, what I could get at the hardware store.
The second California workshop was about 87 people: about 30 youth of color and all the rest were police cadets and police chiefs. It was at a community college where the police academy was, and I'm in this gymnasium and there were all these kids, and when they came in they are literally confronted by all of these uniforms. And the equalizer was these sticks, because you have to learn how to do it. It does not work unless everybody is completely locked in. Your feet are doing one thing, and you're pounding, and all these things are happening, and you can't be going in the opposite direction as the other person. Everybody has to be in sync with each other. And what happens is that people start to listen in a different way and to understand that it cannot happen individually.
CD: That's important. That's so important.
MD: And soon they're talking and stuff and we're pounding, and you see the kids saying to the cops, “Why don't you try doing it this way?” because they're kids and they're less funny about it. And then I sat them down and I just... I don't know what came over me. But I said, “You know when I hear about another cop killing another innocent black man, it breaks my heart.” And then I said, “When I hear about a person just indiscriminately killing cops in Dallas, that breaks my heart.” I said, “What if we thought about each other as being somebody's baby? So when we think about that violence,” I said, “that cop that kills that kid is somebody's baby who's just killed somebody's baby.” And that's the opening of one of my pieces, “Somebody's Baby.” It goes, [sings] “Somebody's baby just killed someone else's baby leaving somebody's baby cryin'. When will it all end?” And so I'm saying this in this room with these people, and then I just stopped, and I just started pounding, and they all started pounding and then I could stop, and they'd all stop at the same time. And I didn't say anything, I just did this. And so pretty soon, we were just all one amoeba again.