In April 2016, vocalist Erin Guinup was inspired to create a refugee choir. She connected with Tacoma Community House and together, they organized a concert as part of the Welcome Week activities that took place that September. The concert was a success, and after working out some logistics, the Tacoma Refugee Choir held its first rehearsal in January 2017, just days before Trump’s inauguration.

During its first season, the group performed at some high-profile events, including a TEDx event in Seattle, Tacoma School District’s WE Day, and a community sing-a-long that took place at Lincoln High School. This past June, the group participated in the Families Belong Together rally that took place at the People’s Park in Hilltop on June 30, 2018. This year they’ll be performing at the Race and Pedagogy Conference at the University of Puget Sound in late September.

In October 2017, the choir released its first single, “Everyone Has a Song (We Sing),” featuring several prominent local artists: Grammy-winning singer Wanz; Grammy-nominated rapper Q Dot; and Vicci Martinez, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Nalini Krishnan, Jason Kertson, and Emily Randolph—all former contestants from the NBC series The Voice.

Tacoma Refugee Choir
“Music can’t change the world, but it can change a person, and a people can change the world,” says Erin Guinup, founder and conductor of the Tacoma Refugee Choir. Photo courtesy: Erin Guinup

Guinup is looking forward to their first major concert of the new season, which will be held on November 3 at the University of Puget Sound. “The theme is ‘your voice is your power,’ and the Mayor of Tacoma is actually going to be participating,” she says. “It’s going to be part sing-a-long and part concert, and we’ll talk about how the voice can make a difference in the community. If we have the courage to raise our voice in song, we have the courage to stand up to injustice.”

Sing-a-longs play an important role in the choir’s mission: “When we sing, we are connected to one another. Our hearts literally beat as one, and we all are joining together in a common message,” Guinup explains. “It’s hard not to love people when you sing together. When there’s an abundance of love, you can really accomplish anything.”

Singing in a circle
Singing in a circle allows everyone to listen to each other; there are no leaders. Photo courtesy: Erin Guinup

Beyond music-making, the choir serves as a network that helps to connect its members with resources as necessary. “Something miraculous happens when you feel like you’re accountable to other people and that you’re accepted and feel like you belong.” One member of the choir was unemployed for a period of time, and members of the choir helped him look for a job. “He said to me that he looked harder because he knew when he came in on Tuesday night that he knew there would be people checking in on him,” Guinup recalls. “He wanted to make us proud, and he made us very proud.”

Many of the songs that the choir performs are American pop songs or folk songs: occasionally, verses are translated into languages spoken by the choir members. Members are invited and encouraged to share songs from their countries of origins. Periodic songwriting workshops help the singers craft their own songs, which the choir then performs.

Tacoma Refugee Choir
Members of the choir pose for a photo during a break in rehearsal. Photo courtesy: Erin Guinup

One choir member had the chance to hear a poem that he wrote set to music and performed by the choir. “[He said it was] one of the highlights of his life. It meant so much to him to know that we had placed value on his experience,” Guinup beams.

Regular weekly rehearsals take place from 7:00 until 8:30 p.m. at the Lighthouse Activity Center, located at 5016 A Street in Tacoma. The choir welcomes immigrants, refugees, and caring members of the community to join, and no prior musical experience is necessary. Children are welcome, too, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. “We believe that everyone can sing, and that we become better simply by doing it” claims the choir’s website.

As part of National Welcoming Week, the choir is hosting an open rehearsal at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 18 at the Lighthouse Activity Center, which will include a potluck, and a speaker from the city’s Commission for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

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