San Diego’s homeless choir advances to America’s Got Talent finals

Voices of Our City choir earned a Golden Buzzer on America's Got Talent on Tuesday night, advancing the San Diego group to final shows late in the season.
Voices of Our City choir earned a Golden Buzzer on America’s Got Talent on Tuesday night, advancing the San Diego group to final shows late in the season.
(Courtesy NBC.)

Voices of Our City was the final act on the two-hour season premiere, and is scheduled to return for live shows in August


The Golden Buzzer.

Fans of America’s Got Talent know it’s the rare moment when an act is so good, a judge will guarantee the performers advance to live shows late in the season, with no risk of being eliminated. Each judge can only do it once a season, so the buzzer is used sparingly.

In a surprise ending to Tuesday’s two-hour season premiere of AGT, San Diego’s Voices of Our City choir got the Golden Buzzer.

“When the buzzer hit, what a tremendous gift to all the choir members who had not been respected or honored in that way, ever,” said singer and guitarist Steph Johnson, who helped create a choir composed largely of homeless people in 2016.

Johnson said a friend had told her not to expect the Golden Buzzer because that would mean they would have fewer performances, and the show’s producers liked them and wanted them on a few times. The Golden Buzzer would automatically advance them to live shows August, when audience members vote on acts.

After the choir performed its original song about homelessness, however, judges and the audience knew something special had happened. Show creator and judge Simon Cowell, known for sometimes harsh comments to performers, was the first to stand and applaud. Judge Sofia Vergara said their song was special, Howie Mandel said they had left him and the audience blown away, and Heidi Klum said she felt moved.

Host Terry Crews could not contain his enthusiasm and interrupted Cowell.

“It’s time to make something happen,” he said. “What they did today has moved me to this point right now.”

Johnson said she wasn’t sure what was happening when Crews walked behind the panel, where the buzzer sits on a table.

“Is he going to hit buzzer?” she said she remembers thinking. “Is that’s what’s happening now?”

Golden confetti shot from canyons. The crowd roared, and tears flowed.

As emotional as the moment was, the song itself and the story behind it are just as powerful.

“Listen to the sounds of the sidewalk. Rolling on the pavement with the ones you meet. Smooth and steady, rolling easy down the street. Even though I’m not right back upon my feet, I’m helping myself stand up independently.

“I got to keep that hope for tomorrow with my dignity inside. What’s mine is yours to borrow, and we’re rolling, rolling, rolling.”

The lyrics were a collaborative effort of several songwriters in the choir, including Steven Reid.

“When we met him he was unsheltered, living on the street in a wheelchair,” Johnson said.

Reid had been injured in a car accident and had cancer. He was going downhill in March and couldn’t make it to the audition. After the choir’s March 7 performance, Johnson said they called him from the lobby.

“He responded,” she said. “He opened his eyes. He heard us. It was a very emotional phone call. We got on the buses and came home, and he passed away in early morning.”

Johnson said it seemed Reid, 64, held on just long enough to know they had performed the song.

“For the last two years of his life, he had a family, a choir,” she said. “He had housing. He went out with love.”

Another emotional part of the song was a spoke-word section performed by choir member Patricia Gaines.

“Hopeful eyes searching, restless arms reaching. Our battles going down with chaos all around. And the mother reassures herself everything will be all right as she steps in rhythm to the sounds of the sidewalk.”

“Those words that I wrote sent me back to my childhood,” Gaines said. “My mother was a lady of the streets. She was a very beautiful lady and dressed real good. She wore high heels a lot.”

Gaines said she and her brother would sit on the front steps of their San Diego home and watch as their mother walked away.

“She had a real prideful strut, a real strong kind of walk,” she said. “Before she left, to keep us from being scared, she always told us everything was going to be all right. Me watching her walk with her rhythm and telling us everything was going to be all right was what those words were about.”

Things would not be all right for Gaines, however. Beginning at 18, she was homeless off and on for much of her life as she dealt with addiction, broken relationships and low self-esteem. Now 62, she is housed and said her life is stable.

Gaines said she had stuffed down her dreams, emotions and feelings for years while homeless, and all those were laying dormant until she found a release in the choir.

“Because so many other people out there are exactly like me, I just want to be a light,” she said. “I want to be an inspiration, to tell them that they don’t have to be stuck. That the light is shining over here. It’s OK to come out of the darkness.”

When the Golden Buzzer was pushed, Gaines fell off the walker she was sitting on, causing some a moment of concern with the judges.

“That right there, all of that happening right there is years and years and years of prayer being answer,” she said about the moment.

Johnson said she has been flooded with interview requests, phone calls, well wishes and donations since the broadcast. Mayor Kevin Faulconer called to congratulate her and mentioned the choir in a Wednesday press conference.

“Voices of Our City Choir has been giving uplifting performances in San Diego for years, and now the entire country is taking notice,” he wrote in an email to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “We all have hidden talents, and it’s such a thrill to see them find strength through their voices. Despite all they’ve been through, they are showing the power of music can bring hope, happiness and healing into the lives of so many.”

Moments after the show, state Assemblyman and mayoral candidate Todd Gloria posted a congratulation on Facebook.

“San Diego is so proud of you,” he wrote. “I’m glad the entire country will now get to see your talent, be inspired to listen and to act on homelessness.”

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, vice chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, also was proud of the hometown heroes.

“The Voices of Our City Choir did an outstanding job of representing San Diego County and made us all very proud,” Fletcher wrote in an email. “The choir sang a wonderful song, and the message that was delivered to the country was that every human being, no matter their circumstances, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. We’re rooting for the choir members in life and for the next round of America’s Got Talent competition.”

While they didn’t get as much attention, there was another San Diego group performing on the show Tuesday night. The Old School Skaters were eliminated early in the show with four no votes.