By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist
Voices of our City Choir is made up of people who have experienced homelessness in the San Diego, California area. Co-founded by activist, guitarist and singer, Steph Johnson, an emotional rendition of their original song won them the “Golden Buzzer” Award on the popular “America’s Got Talent” television show. They performed a song that the choir wrote titled, “Listen to the Sounds of the Sidewalk”. I have to say that their emotional delivery brought this journalist to tears as I sat in front of my computer. I can’t imagine how moved the people in that ‘live’ audience must have been.
See below: SAN DIEGO CHOIR ON “AMERICA’S GOT TALENT” WINS A GOLD BUZZER AWARD
I had the pleasure of speaking with Steph Johnson recently and this is what she shared with me about how this amazing choir was formed.
“We’re really particular about the way we refer to our unsheltered choir members, because we want to make sure they’re recognized as individuals. Consequently, we refer to them as our Unsheltered Neighbors or people experiencing homelessness.
“About four years ago I got involved with my Unsheltered Neighbors that literally lived across the street from me, right in downtown San Diego. The city had allowed the removal of about 10,000 SRO’s (those affordable housing units) basically to sell the property and make way for condo’s and the gentrification we’ve seen up and down the West Coast. 10,000 people were without a home. They only created housing for about 1500 people, so thousands were facing homelessness overnight. I could see there was no real solution. There was a lack of communication between the county and the city of San Diego. There was a lack of understanding between my sheltered neighbors and my unsheltered neighbors. Did you know, people are being put in jail for being homeless? Once you’ve experienced that level of poverty and the criminalization of that situation, where once you start getting tickets for being poor, and you have no money to get out of that situation, it is quite literally impossible to move out of homelessness. So, I just felt a calling. I have a way of connecting with people and I love people. I wanted to lift up my brothers and sisters that were being so hated upon for basically being in their socio-economic situation,” Steph Johnson explained the situation she witnessed in her community.
To reiterate, she loves music and people. That became the common denominator Steph Johnson used to change people’s lives, one note at a time. As a vocalist, a guitar player and a recording artist, Steph Johnson was comfortable performing and communicating emotionally from stages to her admiring audiences. She used that same gift to communicate with her unsheltered neighbors. Steph Johnson took her love of people to the streets, using Music as a common language. She entered people’s tents, exploring community’s underneath bridges, talking to her unsheltered neighbors and interacting with them.
“Of course, at first they wanted to know who I was and what I wanted?” Steph shared with me.
“They’d say well, who are you with? I told them my name was Steph and I played music. Many were like, oh I play music too, or I sing. I remember I met this woman on the street and when I told her I was into music and I sang, she said well Google my name. I sang in this choir in Chicago. I said OK. I’ll look you up. Well, I looked her up and sure enough, she had been singing in this choir in Chicago. Wow! Here I was doing outreach and meeting these creative types of people. Sometimes I was by myself. Sometimes I took a friend. I’m an advocate and an activist at heart. Music and art created a connection between me and their community.
“Around that same time, I met a gentleman that invited me to sit in his tent. He was telling me about his plight. He smiled at me and said, it doesn’t matter what we say or feel. We have no voice. Right then, I realized how they felt; voiceless! I think it was that very next day when I met this reverend; Rev. Chris Nasis. After a conversation we had, he offered us his church to use, “The Living Water Church of the Nazarene.” They’re located in San Diego’s East Village. He said, yeah, you can come in and do anything you want to do using our church. So, I blurted out, well I want to start a choir. And it was so funny, because I didn’t know that I wanted to start a choir until that very moment. It just spilled out of me. It was like a message from the divine. I remember thinking, ok, so you’re going to start a choir?
“At this point, I reached out to a friend, Nina Deering, to ask her if she wanted to help me start a choir for people who were experiencing homelessness? She said yes. She’s no longer with us, but she was definitely a part of our beginning. We quickly grew from one or two people, to sixty people, and then it was a hundred people. Now we have 250 people in The Voices of our City Choir.”
I can still hear the awe in Steph Johnson’s voice as she shared her incredible success story with me. Her selfless work establishing that choir gave hope to many who were hopeless. It created a vehicle for people to vent their pent-up emotions into an artistic, musical expression. At last, their voices could be heard.
“In 2019, we did a concert with the San Diego Symphony and it was epic. It was just beautiful. We partnered with the Master Chorale on stage at the Symphony by the Bay and we sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was really, really touching. Martha Gilmer, the CEO of the symphony, told me, (after we did three shows that weekend) that we should collaborate in a big way. We could do something really cool, together. That’s the response this choir inspires in people.”
“We’re a non-profit but we’re also a social entrepreneurship and we employ people. We generate money from our concerts and with that money, I was able to hire a management team that has helped over sixty people get off the street,” Steph told me.
In 2020, State Assemblyman, Todd Rex Gloria, of district 78 in San Diego, named Steph Johnson as a Woman of the Year. I asked her about that recent award.
“The plan was to go to the State Capital to be honored, and then the pandemic hit. So, we couldn’t go to the California State Capital. There was going to be a ceremony. They were going to fly me up there and have a luncheon with all these other women recognized from across the State for basically making their community better,” she explained.
Even though the State Capital trip was cancelled, she was awarded Woman of the Year, without the fanfare. I found Steph Johnson to be a humble woman. She shared with me how honored she was to be in the company of other nurturing women; women who are working to make this world a better place.
Continuously, her choir has brought attention to the plight of our unsheltered neighbors. So much so, that PBS recently created a documentary about the Voices of our City Choir, coordinating with film maker, Susan Polis Schutz and titled, “The homeless Chorus Speaks,”. The documentary can be viewed on www.youtube.com.
It’s been a rewarding journey for Steph and her unsheltered neighbors, since forming the choir in 2016. At first, she was simply trying to find a solution to a troubling problem in her community. Four years later, she has accomplished far more than she ever dreamed possible.
“We started the choir as a grassroots organization in 2016. By the beginning of 2017, we had started a shelter. A friend of mine opened up her home and took in fourteen choir members. It was kind of an open floor plan. Actually, more like an open warehouse where she would host live-music concerts. So, we got cots and dividers and we started helping these fourteen choir members settle in. Then we started making the film and all the while, we were trying to advocate at City Council with our elected officials. We tried to help those choir members who were being ticketed. We were advocating to get our unsheltered neighbors medical and legal support and also, to try to get them housing. In the beginning, I was their case manager and initially, I was standing in lines with them. We went through the motions together. That started with a few of us. Now, it’s grown into a small team. But thanks to the America’s Got Talent exposure, we’re getting donations. People know about us. That helps with grants, housing and we have a lot of goals ahead. That’s really exciting!”
Meantime, Southern California activist, Steph Johnson, has been in the studio working on her own jazz album. I had the pleasure of reviewing it. Like everything else this energetic little lady does, her recording project reflects high quality and clearly displays the artistic side of this advocate for change. See my review below:
STEPH JOHNSON – “SO IN LOVE”
Steph Johnson, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Rob Thorsen, bass; Chris Lawrence, trumpet; Richard Sellers, drummer.
Guitarist and choir director, Steph Johnson, surprised me when she sang “Lazy Afternoon”. Her voice floated into my listening room, warm and lovely, plush with emotion and she has her own unique tone. When she told me she had an album out, I thought it would be an instrumental recording, featuring her guitar talents. Surprise! The lady can sing. The trumpet of Chris Lawrence compliments her vocals and he offers a warm and inspired solo on this lovely “Lazy Afternoon” song. They’ve arranged it in a very smooth-jazz way that works, putting just a little funk into the mix to keep the old standard young and vibrant. Ms. Johnson is definitely a jazz singer, with her unique tone and adlib qualities on the fade of the song clearly showing her improvisation skill. I receive mustard-yellow, paper bags full of CDs who claim to be vocal jazz artists, like a badge of honor, but who are cabaret singers or pop vocalists or just pretty girls with sing-in-the-shower kind of voices. Steph Johnson happily breaks that mold. She’s the real deal.
This vocalist has chosen some of my favorite songs for her repertoire. Opening with the verse, she sings a song I used to love to hear Little Jimmy Scott sing; “I Wish I Knew.” He recorded it as a ballad, but Steph has another arrangement that’s fresh and she swings the tune. The sign of a true jazz singer is someone who can ‘swing’ and Steph Johnson swings effortlessly. For a while, she and the bass player, Rob Thorsen, perform as a duo. The arrangement is very effective. There is a tasty guitar solo by Anthony Wilson on the fade of the song.
Speaking of guitar, Wilson uses his expert guitar licks to open “Here’s to Life.” With just voice and guitar at the top of the tune, Steph showcases those poignant lyrics that are so wonderfully written. Then enters the band and the blues. “So, here’s to life,” she sings. “And all the joy it brings. Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.” Steph sells the song with Rob Thorsen’s bass walking richly beneath her meaningful lyrics. I believe Steph Johnson when she sings with that little husky undertone to her vocals that’s so compelling and natural. She has a full, rich range, with sweetness in her head register and fullness in her alto voice. You can really enjoy her range on “I Fall in Love too Easily” accompanied by Josh Nelson’s sensitive piano. The “So In Love” tune blossoms as a Latin arrangement. Sometimes I hear shades of Diana Krall in Steph Johnson’s vocals and at another point I hear phrasing that reminds me of Dianne Reeves. That being said, Ms. Johnson maintains her own style and grace. She tackles Betty Carter’s original tune, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul”and puts her own spin on it. I wish she hadn’t ventured so far from the original melody in places, and this reviewer wasn’t crazy about the arrangement, but Steph shows strength in her freedom and individuality. Steph Johnson has released 4 albums. Her most recent recording (until this one) titled, “Music is Art,” was released in 2016 and produced by two-time Grammy Award winning producer, Kamau Kenyatta. That recording celebrates a unique blend of her jazz stylings with obvious, soulful, R&B roots. She also composed much of the music. With her recent release of “So In Love,” Steph continues her spiral upward towards bright, musical horizons. This may be her best recording to date.