By Ken Stone
Four years ago, after their first public concert, singers on the original 17-member Voices of Our City Choir were ticketed for sleeping on the street. One went to jail.
On Tuesday night, the choir of mostly under-the-poverty-line San Diegans will perform on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Chosen for the 15th season premiere, in fact.
Choir founder Steph Johnson, a jazz singer-guitarist, says AGT producers saw the group online and contacted her.
But she was leery.
“I had some reservations about a reality TV show, right?” she said. “What we do with the choir is so real — we’re literally trying to save lives every day. I didn’t want to fluff it up or lose our authenticity.”
She also was coming off one of her own recurring health crises, a bronchitis episode that saw her in and out of bed for six months. She appealed for a low-pressure setting at November’s San Diego Convention Center auditions.
- Dec. 4, 2016: Choir of Homeless in Joyful Debut: ‘What a Wonderful World’
- Nov. 11, 2019: Audition for ‘America’s Got Talent’? Hundreds in San Diego Have a Hook
“They were like nothing but awesome,” she said in a phone interview last week. They told her they’d make it super easy, and said: “If it comes down to it, and you just really can’t do it, you guys can pull out at any time.”
It wasn’t until May 19, however, that she learned via email that the choir — about 50 members including four professional instrumentalists — would be on the season premiere.
Johnson, 39, wasn’t quite clear on the concept, however.
“I had no idea the next time we met was going to be in front of the celebrity judges” — creator Simon Cowell, comedian Howie Mandel, model Heidi Klum and newcomer judge Sofía Vergara, the actor, producer and model — with Terry Crews (briefly a Chargers linebacker) as host.
She recalls asking: What round is this? How many rounds till we sing for the judges?
“And they were like,’Uh, you’re singing for the judges in March.’ We actually got one of the last live studio audiences before the pandemic hit.” That was March 4.
Story continues below
But given the lockdown, this season won’t end with live shows at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Online previews suggest the judges will watch acts via livestream — including, potentially, performing pigs called Pork Chop Revue, Malik DOPE Drummer, and Archie Williams, a talented singer who was exonerated after 37 years in prison.
Compelling stories, all.
“Collectively, we make better choices for ourselves, me included,” Johnson told Times of San Diego.
In 2016, Johnson began doing outreach herself — shaken by an overnight “epidemic” of people living on the street. The downtown resident (just outside of Golden Hill) morphed into executive director of a nonprofit that “helps each other move forward.”
She now has six employees overseeing several music and advocacy programs, with a weekly rehearsal choir (now via Zoom) that has grown to 250. One effort distributes 7,000 pounds of food a week. And: “We continue to do outreach.”
Columnist Karla Peterson of The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a front-page story before their holiday concert in 2016.
“I never had the intention that this would be a performing group, like out in public,” Johnson said. “It was so bare bones”
But 350 came to that first show in December.
She recalls “something really raw and vulnerable and beautiful about that evening,” where she introduced the choir as a group of her friends.
“They sang their first song and the whole audience stood up and clapped and cried and celebrated them,” she said. “The choir was kind of freaked out at first. Like ‘Wow, what’s going on here?'”
From that point, it was like the “Blues Brothers,” she said: “I’m on a mission from God.”
With her bass-playing husband Rob Thorsen, Johnson still makes her own music. Her fifth studio album — recorded last October in Los Angeles — comes out soon.
But she’s looking forward to seeing, for the first time, AGT’s introductory package on her group.
“Our mission is to change the experience of homelessness and also change the perception,” she said. “To see it through the lens of ‘This can happen to anybody.’ … We want people to see them as human beings and to hear their stories.”
Johnson says the AGT audience was “super moved. … I think everybody was surprised.”
Tuesday night’s performance is an original work and features choir matriarch Patricia — “very wise. She’s been through a lot in her life. Just an old soul and very deep with her words.”
Also performing is Sean DiMarius, 40, a transgender male who joined the choir almost two years ago, after leaving an Alpha Project tent. A tenor, he also writes his own music. (He attended the Milwaukee High School of the Arts for four years but says he didn’t graduate due to circumstances beyond his control.)
DiMarius, recognized by his red hair, is part of the Alpha Projects’s Rapid Rehousing program, which gives him a place to sleep but may force him out in June.
“What contributed to my situation is there’s no affordable housing here,” he said. “I am on a fixed income. And those kind of places are hard to come by.”
As Johnson tells it, if someone gets income or Social Security or can work, Rapid prorates rent the first months, “but then every month goes up. The system doesn’t really work for everybody.”
DiMarius said last week he got paperwork that he’d be paying 50% as of June — $1,395 for a room with a bathroom.
“That is, in essence, is setting somebody up for failure,” Johnson said. “Sean can’t afford it.”
Under such conditions, program beneficiaries know “you’re always on this borrowed time. And you can never put your roots down and do the rooting that is needed to heal and recover, move forward, work on a resume, get a job.”
But DiMarius brightens when asked to recall the AGT experience.
“Big breath — it was amazing,” he said in a phone interview. “It was definitely something I would never have gotten to on my own. … So I’m grateful that there’s a choir that accepts (me) and let me come in and be part of this big moment.”
Johnson isn’t comfortable being asked whether her group — like most other AGT contestants — are “in it to win it.”
She said it’s hard to imagine a prize gig in Las Vegas, “when we’re all isolated at our houses.”
Johnson doubts she’d take the $1 million grand prize (never before awarded to a choir) in its annuity form — $25,000 a year for 40 years. Instead, she’d take a lump sum. If it were $300,000 it would nearly cover her program’s costs for a year.
“It would just go into the organization, keep making sure that … it’s disbursed among everybody,” she said.
Pressed on her choir’s ambitions, she said: “Oh sure, we’re there to win. But we’ve already won. Getting to that moment and getting to be on the show and to have 15 million people see us — that’s winning. We won.”
DiMarius agrees, and pinpoints a lasting memory.
“I got to meet Terry Crews!” he said. “I got to meet Terry Crews!”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: