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Voices of Our City returns to AGT for live rounds Tuesday

San Diego's Voice of Our City Choir, composed largely of homeless people, will perform Tuesday on America's Got Talent.
San Diego’s Voice of Our City Choir, composed largely of homeless people, will perform Tuesday on America’s Got Talent’s season 15 premiere.
(Courtesy Trae Patton/NBC)

The choir of homeless and formerly homeless people hasn’t been able to rehearse in person

The long wait for Voice of Our City’s return to “America’s Got Talent” is almost over, with the San Diego choir scheduled to take the stage as part of the show’s quarterfinals on Tuesday night.

“I’m not too nervous,” said Jehlad Hickson, 25, one of about 40 choir members who will be performing. Many of the members are homeless or have experienced homelessness. “I really just want to do it right. I’m actually anxious because I can’t wait to do it. This is probably the biggest moment in my musical career.”

Times have changed since the world saw the choir perform four months ago on the show’s season premiere, which climaxed with the choir giving a performance so moving that it was awarded the “golden buzzer,” automatically advancing it past weeks of elimination rounds.

That performance had been taped in front of a live audience a few months before the coronavirus shut down theaters across the country. On Tuesday, judges will sit before a large, indoorr screen to watch acts perform in vacant Universal Studio sets.

Acts are eliminated by audience call-in votes on Wednesdays as the show advances toward its series finale Sept. 23, when the winner will receive $1 million.

The choir members were able to coast through the past few months without fear of elimination, but they face perhaps the biggest challenge any act has had on the show. Other performers have been able to regularly rehearse over the past several weeks, but the 40-some members of the choir haven’t even been in the same room with one another since March because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s been a challenge, because singing in person is amazing, and singing toward your laptop is a different experience,” said Steph Johnson, the singer and guitarist who co-founded the choir in 2016.

In any other year, the choir would have regularly met to rehearse at Living Water Church of the Nazarene in downtown San Diego. Instead, Johnson and other leaders in the organization have created an intricate, somewhat tedious method that begins with arranging and recording four-part harmony with Andy Riggs and Mandi Miller, and then teaching singers their individual parts, one at a time, over Zoom.

But the singers are used to overcoming adversity. The choir was formed by Johnson and Nina Deering, who was killed in a car crash in June, as a way of bringing dignity, joy and help to homeless people in San Diego. The choir has evolved into a nonprofit with a paid staff, insurance bills, feeding programs and other expenses.

Johnson said ticket sales from live performance used to cover most of the costs, and the choir faced a financial crisis this year as all shows were canceled.

But then came the “America’s Got Talent” performance. New fans from around the world were moved by what they saw. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors declared a Voices of Our City Day. Donations and grants flowed in.

“It brought in support from around the world, which was insane,” Johnson said. “We got emails from Japan, Paris, all across the U.S., and a lot of people were saying how much we needed to see the story and see the choir.”

Their appearance aired when protests were erupting across the country, and Johnson said she heard their performance had an effect on viewers dealing with the anxiety they felt at the time.

“We got messages from families who said they were watching it and it brought them peace,” she said. “With everything being so different and so challenging, I love that the choir has become like a family, and a place to come for healing, But it totally blew my mind that it became hope for millions.”

The choir received $100,000 in donations and grants after their performance. They were able to buy 75 laptop computers for choir members, and Johnson said one plan is to build a small studio where they can offer music programs to choir members in a COVID-19 safe environment.
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Their appearance on “America’s Got Talent” hasn’t made them celebrities who are recognized whenever stepping outside, but Hickson said he now is treated as a star in his extended family in cities across the country.

“They look at me as a whole different person,” he said. “I went to see my family in Cleveland and they said: ‘You’re the man now. You’re the biggest one in the family.’”

Hickson does admit that getting the golden buzzer was a pretty big deal. He said he wasn’t sure what was happening when show emcee Terry Crews interrupted judge Simon Cowell, walked to the panel and slammed his palm against the large buzzer, shooting shiny confetti out of cannons. Adding to the chaos, vocal soloist Patricia Gaines was overwhelmed and fell off her walker and onto the stage.

“I heard the biggest bang ever,” Hickson said. “At first I was scared, and I saw Patricia fall and I was really scared. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And I saw gold coming down, and I was like crying. I remember hugging our keyboard player, Ed Kornhauser, who’s a great friend of mine. I couldn’t believe what has happened.”

While the excitement of that moment is unforgettable, Hickson and Johnson said the more significant accomplishment of their appearance was the awareness they raised for their mission and the plight of homeless people.

“I was homeless as a child,” Hickson said, recalling a time when he and his mother lived in a car. He moved from city to city over the years and was never homeless in San Diego, but did couch surf.

“I was very shocked at how many people in San Diego were homeless,” he said. “The choir gave me a cool connection with what I experienced in the past.”

Hickson said he has worked as a registered behavioral technician, has degrees in criminology and psychology, and is earning a master’s degree in macroeconomics.

He also sings with his band, Jehlad and Moonshine Soul, and had booked a tour from Tijuana to Vancouver, British Columbia, before the pandemic hit.

Johnson and other choir members arrived in Los Angeles last week and have been quarantined in a hotel near Universal Studios. They are tested for the coronavirus every few days, and some time before Tuesday’s performance, the singers plan to finally be in a room together, standing 10 feet apart, to rehearse before what will be their biggest performance.

She and Hickson are hopeful, and a little confident, it won’t be their last appearance on the show.

gary.warth@sduniontribune.com


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