Teen singers find their voice in ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement

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Oakland School for the Arts’ singing group Vocal Rush has been a powerhouse on the national a cappella circuit since its founding four years ago. The high school ensemble, which started out as an after-school club, quickly grew into a serious ensemble, winning three International Championships of High School A Cappella (ICHSA), including the title this spring.

Vocal Rush has a decidedly Oakland sound and style, incorporating beat-boxing, vocal percussion, stepping, and other dance routines into their energetic repertoire of pop and jazz songs. But the 11 high school students of the 2014-2015 group wanted to make a special point in this year’s ICHSA competition in New York. So they dedicated their effort to Black Lives Matter, a national movement founded in 2013 to challenge police killings and other disparities African Americans face.

“Being an African American girl and living in Oakland, California, I have to be very aware of who I am and cautious of who I am,” said Barbara DeVeaux-Griffith, Vocal Rush member. “Black Lives Matter really brings that back into focus.”

In the video above, we see powerful performances by Vocal Rush from “Lost in the World” by Kanye West to Mumford and Sons’ “Awake My Soul” captured at one of the group’s last concerts of 2015 at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland back in May.

As Vocal Rush began crafting its competition last fall, the ensemble’s attention was also keenly focused on the world outside the classrooms of their campus — Oakland’s Fox Theater. The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the death of Eric Garner last year in New York had ignited street protests throughout the Bay Area. The group also responded to Oakland’s own painful history of police shootings of African Americans, including the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009 by a BART officer.

“The students said we need to talk about this,” said Lisa Forkish, founder and director of Vocal Rush and Oakland School for the Arts vocal music teacher. “We’ve had conversations about identity, being a young person, and what is our role in the world at large and especially as an artist.”

Vocal Rush’s rise in the a cappella world has been steered by Forkish, who previously worked as the music director for the University of Oregon’s award-winning a cappella group Divisi. That group inspired journalist Mickey Rapkin’s best-selling book, Pitch Perfect, made into a movie in 2012 with the same title, and the sequel released this spring.

“Never underestimate a group of teenagers,” said Forkish. “Some of these kids have a lot more courage than a lot of adults I know.”

Video produced and edited by Kelly Whalen. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation. 

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