Lisa Forkish opened her eyes as the members of Vocal Rush, an Oakland high school a cappella group, sang the last dissonant chord of a song called “Colors,” which is about dealing with racial issues in the United States. The students were standing in a circle facing one another with their eyes closed. Forkish, the group’s founder and director, wanted them to listen closely to the music without visual distractions; she wanted them to feel its emotional impact. Their voices resonated throughout the sun-filled room, a haunting and unsettling sound.
“You know how you get goose bumps? But you know how sometimes you get them all the way to your head and they go to your scalp?” asked Forkish after a moment of silence. She cupped her hands on her cheeks as she grinned from ear to ear. “I got scalp goose bumps. This is what I love about this group.”
Founded in 2011 at the Oakland School of the Arts, the group is made up of high school students at the charter school. They have won the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) three times, including this year in April. In 2013, they placed third on NBC’s The Sing-Off, a televised a cappella competition between some of the best musical ensembles in the country. With the level of success they’ve garnered, the group has decided to use their art as a form of activism: “aca-activism,” that is.
At the end of their ICHSA set this year, after performing a cover of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”—a piece about finding the courage to speak your mind—the singers turned around to reveal the words “#BLACKLIVESMATTER” spelled out on the back of their outfits. Three of the singers stood at the front of the stage with their hands raised, a nod to “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a slogan and gesture affiliated with protests sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The incident took place in Ferguson, Missouri in August, 2014.
Since then, the a cappella group has continued to blur the line between art and activism. At many of their shows, they have been performing a cover of “All Good People” by Delta Rae, a response song to the racially-charged Charleston, South Carolina shootings in June, when Dylann Storm Roof, a white supremacist, shot and killed nine African Americans who were attending a church Bible study. The chorus of the song goes: “Come on and raise your voice above the raging seas, we can’t hold our breath forever, when our brothers cannot breathe.”
Sarah Isen, a 16 year old in the group, said that the first time they performed the song was in front of a mostly African American crowd. That was the moment she realized their music was more than just entertainment. “We were all just crying on stage. That was a really profound moment for me.” said Isen.
“We’re singing songs about racial issues and we have a lot of students of color at our school,” said Mikaela Swanson, a 16-year-old member of Vocal Rush. “We’re using our art to make statements. As young people, I think that’s a really important thing to be doing.”
Forkish allows the students to express their feelings about the racial climate in the U.S. not only through performing, but also through songwriting. As an accomplished songwriter and arranger, Forkish helps her students assemble pieces that they feel convey their messages.
Imani Wilson, who is 16, wrote “Colors” for the group to perform at upcoming shows. The song is a mash-up of “Colors of the Wind” by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and some of Wilson’s original music and lyrics. Forkish arranged the mash-up. Wilson wrote the song to express how she feels about being biracial in the United States. “It’s a song about not being ignorant of what’s going on in society and being aware you can make a difference. That’s how I express my hardships of being of color and also being white,” said Wilson. “You have to realize that you’re not the only color. There’s so many colors.”
The lyrics go: “Splintered in every way/divergent but the same/one breath per cry we sang/and hope that things would change.”
The group also hopes to represent Oakland in a positive way. “In the news and the media, Oakland is seen as a bad place. Just to have a group of young people performing almost every single weekend, doing big things, shines a light on Oakland,” said William Southall, a 17-year-old veteran of Vocal Rush.
Forkish says that she admires her students for using their craft for a cause, and she believes that artists have the power to make a change for the better through music. “I feel really grateful to work with students who are so courageous and open and have so much love to give,” said Forkish. “That gives me a lot of hope for the future and the world of art.”
Vocal Rush’s next performance will be at Oakland School for the Arts School of Vocal Music Presents: “Light & Gold” on December 12 at 7 p.m at First Congregational Church.