Josephine Lee: I’d like to teach the world to sing

Chicago choir leader Josephine Lee was in Cork recently for Summer Sing, writes Ellie O’Byrne

“MUSIC is the key; if every child and every person sang, we’d have a more peaceful, harmonious, and just world.”

Josephine Lee, born to Korean- American immigrant parents, is the charismatic driving force behind the Chicago Children’s Choir. Under the directorship of this recent visitor to Cork, the choir, founded at the height of the US Civil Rights movement, has brought its message of equality and peace beyond the deprived communities it first served and onto the global stage.

Walking into her first classroom in 1998 as a 22-year-old music graduate to teach in Englewood, a notoriously violent neighbourhood in West Chicago, ignited in Lee the passion that became her life’s work.

“I had all black students. When I walked in and introduced myself the kids said, ‘Miss Lee, You look like Pocahontas.’ A Disney movie was their point of reference for me being different. I taught them a Gospel song and there was this instant connection. I was mind-blown that they didn’t have musical education as a main course. I was drawn in by their energy, their raw talent, and their desire to learn.”

The choir was founded in Hyde Park, Barack Obama’s home neighbourhood, in 1956 by a Unitarian minister. “We have a social mission that despite divides of racial, social, economic, sexual orientation, or whatever it may be, that this is a creative safe space for these kids to come together and learn about music and global citizenship,” says Lee.

The choir now reaches 4,400 8-18-year-olds in every zip code in Chicago; often, Lee says, their in-school programme is the only musical education children are getting: “If every child had that musical education, we’d be obsolete, but unfortunately the need is pretty great. When there are funding cuts, arts education is always the first to go. We fill that void; the children pay no fee.”

A three-tier structure sees children who show promise entering one of the organisation’s after-school choirs, and the international Voice of Chicago Ensemble, what Lee describes as the “all-stars, the crème de la crème ” of 12-18-year-old singers, travels the world and collaborates with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It has performed for the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Beyoncé, and others.

Most recently, the Voice of Chicago Ensemble performed in Cuba, which Lee says was profoundly moving. “We brought in 60 of my top kids, young Americans, into this country where the US has had embargoes for over 40 years,” she says.

Lee is seeking new opportunities to promote peace through the work of the choir. “North and South Korea are the places I’m going to target next because my father was from North Korea and my mother was from South Korea,” she says. “From the moment I started to make music, I was told, ‘You’re going to use music to create, to help reunite’.”

Lee has been visiting Cork to participate in the fourth annual Summer Sing Festival, on the invitation of “kindred spirit” Sonya Keogh, who directs the youth choral festival.

Summer Sing’s inclusive ethos and goal of reaching out to marginalised groups is very much a part of the vision shared by Keogh and Lee.

This year’s Summer Sing saw 230 children take part in a week-long celebration of song, with performances, walking flash mobs, and a closing concert in City Hall. Half the participating children are involved in the festival through DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools, the asylum-seeking communities in Cork’s Direct Provision Centres, and COPE Foundation’s inclusive arts branch, SUISHA, to deliver a truly inclusive festival celebrating the joy of singing.

This year the festival also included a ‘Sing and Sign’ event with members of Cork Deaf Association. “Deaf and vision impaired pianist Orla O’Sullivan joined us and the audience were encouraged to sign along,” says Keogh.

Keogh and Lee met at an international choral event in Singapore. “As soon as I met her, I thought, I absolutely love this woman,” says Keogh. “It doesn’t surprise me that she has touched the lives of so many people.”


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