The Thrive Choir: Harmonies of Liberation

Oakland’s Thrive Choir, a collective of passionate activist musicians, has created a groundbreaking model of what a fully engaged vocal ensemble rooted in community can do to inspire and galvanize its audiences. Bioneers’ Polina Smith interviewed three leading members of the choir, Austin Willacy, Kyle Lemle and Joyous Dawn, to explore their history, motivation and process.

Polina Smith: Hi Friends, would you start by telling us about the origins of the Thrive Choir?

Kyle: Almost 5 years ago now, a community dedicated to personal, systemic transformation called Thrive East Bay started to form in Oakland. The basic idea was that this community would provide a church-like, solid base that would help people come together across traditions, cultures and ages in a sacred space to form a “beloved community” that was not limited to any specific dogmas. Elders in our community, who have long been in the front lines of our movements, told us that central to any spiritual community there has to be uplifting music! And so I got to talking to Joshua Gorman in the beginning of this journey with Thrive, and I was invited to start a choir that would perform monthly in the community in Oakland.

For the first year or so we were a smaller choir and we performed once a month. We started writing songs and the choir began to form a real identity. We produced a whole bunch of original music, and we grew our membership. Then folks started asking us to perform all over the Bay Area and Northern California. There was apparently a real thirst for social justice-themed music, and people sensed the beauty of who we are as a group. All of our diverse members were just hitting it, really striking a chord with audiences, so we ended up being asked to perform at festivals and conferences, including Bioneers, the IONS Conference, etc. I think that at some venues that can get very cerebral and intellectual, we could provide a way for folks to also feel the messages at a soul level.

We’ve also performed a lot at direct actions and rallies in support of black lives and climate justice and immigration reform, and increasingly now as well we’re being invited to some venues because people just like our music, so we’re performing at music festivals such as Lightning in a Bottle. So, that’s our origin story. And this year we’re coming out without first EP of recorded music.

Polina: What about the Street Choir? How did that start?

Kyle: It was a pretty immediate response after Trump got elected. That changed the culture of resistance in America. People began to mobilize a lot faster and in larger numbers than what I’d seen during the Obama years, and we at Thrive felt that we wanted to make our music part of resistance movements here in the Bay Area, so we started training song leaders, folks from the choir and anyone from our broader community who was interested in offering music in the streets.

We bought a battery-powered speaker, attached it to a luggage roller and started wheeling it around to protests. We created a songbook compiled of some originals and some beautiful protest songs from the past two decades. It’s been really special. It has inspired a lot of people to share their voices. I think there are a lot of musicians and singers out there who might not always be comfortable showing up violently or in anger but are happy to channel their gifts in ways that are supportive to everyone else around them.

Polina: How have you adapted to the pandemic?

Joyous Bey: Pre pandemic we were still singing monthly at the base community of Thrive East Bay, and as Kyle mentioned we had been performing at some festivals and we were getting requests to share our music in more and more different spaces. Obviously we can’t do any of those live performances now. In a way, the pause has helped us solidify our business side, get our stuff together, launch our EP to the world and just get a bit more organized. We’ve been singing together almost for 5 years now, but we need to get our act together as an actual professional music group. In this moment we are still working on that, and we can focus a bit more on that aspect of things because we can’t sing together as a choir in person. We’re about to launch a crowd-fund campaign to support our EP getting out into the world. On the choir side, we’re continuing to have our check ins and having rehearsals on Zoom and having deep-dive opportunities to share because a big part of what makes this group so special is the amount of heart we put into what we share with each other.

Now our events are completely online, and we’ve also been hosting a weekly artist series. Actually, it’s not just artists. It’s a series called Medicine for These Times, and it features speakers from within our community who have a lot wisdom to share about how to tap into sources of resilience by offering such things as guided meditations or musical performances. Actually, all 3 of us have been featured on that series. It involves artists performing on video and offering their medicine into the world, into the virtual world in this case. We’ve also been doing virtual song circles. It’s been a real learning curve trying to figure out how to keep contributing under these conditions, and I’ve actually been surprised that strong connections can still be established, even when I’m not physically present with the artist or the community.

Kyle: Since we have some amazing songwriters in the group, one of the things we’ve been doing more of since we can’t sing together is songwriting together. Everyone in the group is now officially a songwriter, so now we almost entirely perform original music other than a couple songs here and there. So the lockdown has in that way stimulated our creativity and originality.

Polina: Who are some of the people and some of the traditions you have been influenced and inspired by?

Kyle: One person Thrive East Bay was definitely inspired by is the revered activist, philosopher, Buddhist teacher and whole systems thinker, Joanna Macy. On the musical side, artists who sing about and exemplify in their lives the themes of radical love and transformation, such as Sweet Honey in the Rock, Stevie Wonder and Melanie DeMore have influenced us. In general, those artists who feature harmony as a guiding force in their music and who gracefully sing of justice inspire us.

Joyous: Yeah, as far as the choir goes, Melanie DeMore, a really important vocal activist and songwriter in social justice movements, is someone we’ve had the privilege of working with, and she has guided us at different moments and different spaces. She has supported us in a number of ways and helped us improve our sound and has also taught us some really beautiful songs.

Polina: Do you think art and artists have a special role to play in this very challenging time?

Austin: As a result of the quarantine, it feels like everything is slower; people have had to slow down, and a lot of suffering, both economic and social, has resulted from those slowdowns, but one of the things that has also shifted is the way people are able to connect with art and music. I feel that maybe messages and inspiration from music and other forms of art can reach people on a deeper level because there’s not such a frantic pace of life. So the slowdown has been a big problem in many ways, but it may also have created more fertile soil for people to actually receive what artists are expressing.

Joyous: Creating music in groups and singing with other people have always been powerfully healing practices, and that’s as important now as ever, or more so, even if we have to do it online. And art can play different roles. One thing it can offer is a kind of chronicle of what’s happening right now, but it can share it in a way that’s not just intellectual (which is also important of course). It can convey the feeling of the current moment in a form that’s charged with creative spirit and that can reach people in a different, more direct way.

Kyle: I think the mission of our work with Thrive Choir is to help illuminate the joy and pain of what it means to be a human in a time of great transformation. And we’re at a time of great transformation right now with the uprisings across the U.S. (and around the world) in response to George Floyd’s murder. Artists and musicians have often been called to carry forward prophetic messages and speak to the possibilities of change and healing. They cannot just provide messages that are complacent and reinforce what’s already here, especially in times of great transformation and struggle. And right now I think artists can also help us look beyond the present to a world that’s more loving, that reveres the sacred in every human being and doesn’t try to go back to normal, but looks instead toward what positive futures might be possible on the other side of collapse. I think it’s up to artists to begin to paint those pictures and those songs that can give us a little guidepost towards a world of more harmony, a world that’s built to support everyone.

Polina: How might music help us to dismantle systems of oppression?

Austin: Music is a great example of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. If you take a chord progression or a melody by itself, or even if you combine a melody and a chord progression, that’s one level of engagement. But if you combine those things with words, and in the case of the Thrive Choir we get a chance to also add harmony, there’s some third space that is being created. And it’s not like reading an article or reading some statistics to somebody. Music can find the chink in people’s armor and bypass the self-protective analytical mind to directly reach the heart and soul.

With live performance, particularly performance with a bunch of people singing, because human being have tons and tons of mirror neurons, people who are listening are also on some level experiencing the act of singing, and they’re getting to on some level embody the messages that are being sung, which in the case of the Choir are messages about creating just and sustainable ways to live for all beings, about getting in touch with spirit, about stepping up and standing up for things that really matter, about re-connecting with the earth, so I think that kind of music can really help change people.

Polina: What are your visions and hopes for the future of the Thrive Choir?

Kyle: Knowing that folks are really looking for music that speaks to the tragedies and beauty of this time and that really delivers a positive message of unity, of radical love, of harmony, we’d like to share our music beyond our northern California community. Our album that we’re releasing this year will help us to do that. We’re very committed to our work in our Oakland and East Bay communities, and that won’t change, but we also want to explore who else would benefit from hearing our music, so that’s a big vision for us this year, to share our music digitally so folks can hear it everywhere.

Polina: Do you have any messages for young artists?

Austin: NASA hired a professor named George Land to put together a creativity test in the 60’s.  Some of their teams were getting stuck in their thinking about viable ways to get their ships and astronauts safely back to Earth and recognized they needed people who think outside of the box to help them get unstuck- the rest is history.

In his tests, he found that in an adult population, 25 and older, only 2% of us exhibit a genius level of creativity. He was curious about what would happen if he put together an age appropriate creativity test for 1600 5-year olds. He discovered that 98% of 5-year olds exhibited genius level creativity. At age ten, 30% of these same kids were at genius level creativity. By the time they were fifteen, 12%, and by the time they were 25, there were only 2%.

So, I would say: please, please, please do not let anyone socialize your creativity out of you. It is the most important thing you can offer in this life.

Kyle: I had a vision of a social justice gospel inspired choir, maybe when I was 13 years old, but I always thought it was too cheesy, that it wouldn’t work, that folks wouldn’t want to come together across different traditions. I thought that singing songs about trees and love would be just, cheesy, so I guess my message is that you need to believe in your dreams. Write the songs that are meant to be coming through you, and if it sounds cheesy to you, just keep working until it sounds epic. Trust that the messages that want to come forward need to, and don’t let perfectionism get the best of you. You will never know who will benefit from what you have to say.

Polina: Thank you so much to speaking with me today and for all the incredible work you do!

Learn More about Thrive Choir here.

Learn more about their upcoming album and crowdfunding campaign here.

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