Rehearsing Democracy with a Choir Online in “We Are the Ones (Vote)”

A composer shares sonic imagination and strength with choral music for the U.S. General Election on November 3, 2020.

“We Are the Ones (Vote)” Music Video

With the upcoming U.S. Congressional and Presidential Election on November 3, 2020, I collaborate with writer Aaron Jafferis, music director and audio/video editor Stephanie Tubiolo, and rappers and singers from around the United States on “We Are the Ones (Vote).” The music provides a tribute to youth affected by violence who are not able to vote, yet their lives are affected. It is also a call to action for those who are able to participate.

Soloists (left to right) Salwa Abdussabur, Brianna Chance, Laynee Daniels, and Tahj Galberth

Lyrics and Music

This a cappella choral work includes four soloists, beatboxer, and choir. It starts with the question: “Who? Who will keep us safe?” and continues with perspectives from four youth. Each describes their experiences with the aftermath of gun violence in the United States. For example, one soloist says: “I’ve been trying to learn how to stop this from happening to anyone else,” while the choir accompanies with “Who? Who will keep us safe?”

Excerpt from the start of the musical score composed by Byron Au Yong with lyrics by Aaron Jafferis

After adults sing: “We are the ones who will keep you safe.” One of the youth disagrees: “You haven’t kept us safe… We need new ideas, a new song.” This realization becomes “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” This phrase closes June Jordan’s “Poem for South African Women,” presented at The United Nations in August 1978.¹ Jordan was Jafferis’ writing mentor.

This phrase has also been spoken by civil rights leaders that range from Hopi Elders to Lisa Sullivan (1961–2011).² It has also been musicalized by Sweet Honey In The Rock on their album Twenty-Five. In February 2008, Senator Barack Obama, before he was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, said in a speech to supporters:

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for…
We are the change that we seek.
We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine.
Yes, they can.” ³

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” became a campaign slogan throughout his presidency. There are also variations on this phrase, such as “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for” from Chinese American philosopher and Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015).⁴

In the choral work “We Are the Ones (Vote),” the phrase: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” becomes a mantra for the youth, then everyone in the choir. The phrase expands throughout the music with overlapping melodic and rhythmic variations. While voices sing with the same rhythmic pattern in four-part harmony for the ending (mm. 123–125), “waiting for” is scored as a half cadence. Holding the final chord on the unresolved dominant (V) creates a harmonic suspension that can only be completed through action, in this case by casting a vote.

Excerpt from the end of the musical score

Rehearsing Democracy

According to the CDC COVID Data Tracker as of November 1, 2020, there have been over 9 million cases of COVID-19, with more than 230,000 deaths in the United States.⁵ The number of cases and deaths continues to rise. Group singing spreads the coronavirus similar to many events where individuals are in close proximity with their mouths uncovered.⁶

For inclusion and safety, singers participated in “We Are the Ones (Vote)” remotely. They were provided lyrics, sheet music, and video tutorials, along with Zoom video conference rehearsals with the music director if needed. Singers were encouraged to participate in whatever way suited their abilities and interests. For example, they could record a vocal line from start to finish, send in fragments of themselves singing or speaking a few measures, play the rhythms from the music on any part of their body, and/or improvise with the choral temp track provided by music director Tubiolo.

Choir music was written in treble clef to be sung in any octave, so individuals could choose parts that resonated with them. Sung parts for Solo 2, 3, and 4 could be sung or rapped by any soloist. Performers recorded themselves and sent their videos to be edited into the virtual choir music video. In an email sent to me last week, Tubiolo writes:

“I really think your model of interweaving notated components, rote-learnable melodies, and opportunities for improvisation could be the key to a more inclusive choral world. So many musical traditions are born out of and embrace interactions between notation-dependent and notation-independent musicians; your model enables these interactions to flourish within the U.S. choral soundscape.”

Including a variety of ways individuals from many backgrounds can participate contributes to a democratic choral repertoire. According to “The Chorus Impact Study: Singing for a Lifetime,” 54 million Americans sing in choruses.⁸ “We Are the Ones (Vote)” brings together singers of all ages from around the United States in an ad hoc virtual choir to respond to gun violence and the election. Before everyone comes together to sing the ending section that interweaves voices singing “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” in multiple ways, the soloists ask: “Will I be next?” as victims of violence. The turning point rapped by the soloists includes: “Something has to happen / Something’s broken here / In Parkland / In Chicago / hearts crack open here” shifts the realization to “We need new leaders.”

Leadership from young people in the March For Our Lives movement, including Emma Gonzalez’s February 17, 2018 speech in Ft. Lauderdale, informed Jafferis as he wrote the rap. The soloists and choir transform the music as they rap: “We will all be next!”

With less than a day until the U.S. general election, I hope the music video “We Are the Ones (Vote)” and the methods to create and rehearse this choral work provide a musical analogue to democracy. What would make this experience more effective is to figure out ways the content of the music can be discussed in informal ways. Choirs foster community. How can we connect without meeting in person? Hopefully the music video will bring about connections and conversations. Let us find ways we can listen to each other, then use our voices to contribute and take action.

Closing image from “We Are the Ones (Vote)”

Thanks

Thank you to the Choir (in alphabetical order): Alexander Ruiseco, Alexandra Amati, Angeline Vuong, Brian DuSell, Cassiane Mavromatis, Elaine Kolb, Elisabeth Kennedy, Gabriela Diaz, Harriett Alfred, Hunter Wilson, Hyeyung Sol Yoon, Jaminda Blackmon, Jennifer Heikkila Diaz, Kao Kue, Kimberly Stoner, Magdalena Diaz, Paul Davies, Romina Levin Duran, and Wali Muhammad; to the Soloists (in order of appearance): Laynee Daniels, Tahj Galberth, Salwa Abdussabur, Brianna Chance, and Mikayla Brown, to Beatboxer Anton Kot; and Music Director/Audio and Video Editor Stephanie Tubiolo, and Writer Aaron Jafferis. “We Are the Ones” is from a music theater forum about coming of age in an age of guns called The Ones, a.k.a (Be)longing, a.k.a Trigger, developed with communities and schools in Blacksburg VA, Miami FL, New Haven CT, and New York NY, produced by Tommy Kriegsmann at ArKtype.

The Ones is a project of ArKtype, commissioned and co-produced by the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The project was developed with the support of MDC Live Arts, Westminster Choir College, Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA, The Flea Theater, Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo Arts Center, Millay Artist Colony, Music Theatre of Connecticut, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Weston Playhouse, New Studio at NYU, and a CT Artist Fellowship Grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Thanks to Creative Capital for funding support and to Tommy Kriegsmann at ArKtype and Ronee Penoi at Octopus Theatricals for consulting support on “We Are the Ones (Vote).”

[1] Jordan, June. Directed by Desire: The Complete Poems of June Jordan. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

[2] Novak, Bruce. “What If Education Is Not a Race?” Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society 41 (2010): 38–47.

[3] Obama, Barack. “Barack Obama’s Feb. 5 Speech.” The New York Times, 2008.

[4] Ahuja, Kiran. “100 Years of Action: Celebrating Grace Lee Boggs.” National Archives and Records Administration, June 30, 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2015/06/30/100-years-action-celebrating-grace-lee-boggs.

[5] “CDC COVID Data Tracker.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/.

[6] Hamner, L., P. Dubbel, I. Capron, et al. “High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice …” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 14, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6919e6.

[7] Personal email correspondence with author, October, 26, 2020.

[8] Grunwald Associates LLC and Chorus America. “The Chorus Impact Study: Singing for a Lifetime.” Chorus America, 2019.

composer and educator who writes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world

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