Oakland Gay Men's Chorus celebrates Black history

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday April 4, 2023
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Oakland Gay Men's Chorus
Oakland Gay Men's Chorus

For nearly 25 years, the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus has brought choral music to East Bay stages. According to Melvin Terry, a singing member of the chorus, not all members of the chorus are gay, nor are they all men. Though the majority of the chorus membership is comprised of gay men, there are a few women, as well as trans members and even a few straight guys.

Oakland Gay Men's Chorus member Melvin Terry  

"We are a little bit of everyone, and we all get along," Terry said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Anyone who can sing in tenor or bass range, irrespective of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or race is welcomed and embraced."

The chorus is also a place where Black history is celebrated and honored. On April 15 and 16 they will perform "True Colors," their Spring concert. The concert will include a performance of the song "My Heart Be Brave," which the chorus describes as "an important contribution to music in the Black tradition."

Composer Marques L.A. Garrett  

The song was composed in 2022 by Marques L.A. Garrett. Garrett, who is African American, was born in Virginia in 1984 and is a choral conductor in addition to his work as a composer (https://www.mlagmusic.com/). He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Music in Choral Activities at the University of Lincoln, Nebraska. Garrett has also given the OGMC a setting of "Sonnet," a poem that was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1893.

"When composers use a pre-existing poem or text as an inspiration to write music, they often call that a setting," Terry explained. "For example, one might say that Garrett set the poem to music, meaning he composed original music that a choir can sing to Johnson's poetry."

Johnson (1871-1938) was also African American. He was a writer, a civil rights activist, a diplomat, a lawyer and a professor. He served as CEO of the NAACP from 1920-1930. He and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson composed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem.

According to Terry, "Sonnet" is so named because it's in the style of a Shakespearian sonnet.

"To me it's really about talking to yourself at a deep level, your heart, encouraging it to stay strong and continue with the struggle for justice," he said. "Be brave despite fear, anxiety and obstacles and you will get through the storm and see the light. Dr. Garrett's timely composition of 'My Heart Be Brave,' based on 'Sonnet,' allows us to deliver the message in a lyrical, passionate and soul stirring way."

Terry added that it's important to honor Black history, which he says is American history.

"The many positive contributions of African Americans have often been overlooked," he said. "These contributions as well as the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing negative effects of discrimination need to be illuminated to appreciate their significance in shaping the current state of the African American people in America today and help us to move forward in making this a just country for all."

Terry feels that this is especially important in current times, when there are multiple attempts to roll back rights for Queer, Black and Brown people and women.

"Illuminating composers and artists such as Dr. Garrett and James Weldon Johnson is one of the ways we as performers can contribute to the effort," Terry said.

The "True Colors" concert will also include the famous same-named Cyndi Lauper song and Jonathan Larsen's "Seasons of Love" from "Rent." The chorus also hopes to offer strength and encouragement to those in the community who are struggling with bullying, depression and mental health. These issues will be highlighted by Jake Runestad's "Please Stay" and "You Are Enough" from Aron Accurso's "A Mental Health Suite."

The OGMC will be joined by the New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus, a mixed-voice choral ensemble for singers who identity as transgender, intersex or gender-queer.

"Two of our singing members of OGMC are also singing members of NVBA, which has made this a meaningful and natural collaboration," said Terry. "With so much anti-trans rhetoric and hate across parts of the country, it seems especially urgent to support and lift up the voices if our siblings in the TIGQ community."

Oakland Gay Men's Chorus, April 15, 7:30pm, Montclair Presbyterian Church, 5701 Thornhill Drive, Oakland. April 16, 4:30pm, First Presbyterian Church of Oakland, 2619 Broadway, Oakland, $15-60. www.oaklandgmc.org

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