By Angela Johnson
G. Phillip Shoultz III of St. Louis Park, Minn. can picture the Wendy’s fast food restaurant in Atlanta, Ga. where an Atlanta police officer shot Rayshard Brooks following a struggle during an arrest. “I’ve been to that Wendy’s,” says Shoultz, who grew up in Georgia and attended the University of Georgia. Shoultz has lived in Minnesota for seven years and recently visited the Minneapolis memorial for George Floyd, who died after an excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds of having an officer kneel on his neck during an arrest. “It’s really hard to have these events hit so close to home where I can visualize both locations,” Shoultz says. Recent events spark something in Shoultz’s psyche, that as a black man, there is an awareness of the fact that “these acts keep happening and they should not.”
Shoultz is an associate conductor and director of learning and engagement for Minneapolis based VocalEssence, a premier choral music organization. He went to the George Floyd memorial to try to process recent events while he helped package and serve food alongside his choir members. But he wanted to do more. “As a black musician in a classical music scene mostly occupied by white people, I was searching for a vocational response to the recent resurgence of a systemic problem—violence against my people," Shoultz says.
This Sunday, June 21 at 4 p.m. CDT, Shoultz will host a VocalEssence event that encompasses the celebration of Juneteenth and Father’s Day. It will be a livestream sing-along and concert called Lifting Every Voice to Inspire Change and will include a lineup of guest song leaders and premiere performances by black musicians from across the United States. Song leaders include Melanie DeMore, Jason Max Ferdinand, Alysia Lee and more. Performers will include EXIGENCE, the Aeolians and Jovanta Patton.
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence
Shoultz says, “I created this event in partnership with black leaders in our community and leaders of our nation’s most prominent singing organizations as a way to honor black fathers and father figures, celebrate black families and stand in solidarity as we demand justice and an end to systemic racism. I want to see 10,000 people singing together this Father’s Day. As a father to two young children, I can think of no better way to spend the day.”
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence
Shoultz points out the importance of sharing music that comes from the black experience considering this particular year and the connection between Juneteenth and Father’s Day. “There is a narrative that black fathers are not present and are selfish,” says Shoultz. “I know that is not true in my experience. My dad was always and is still very present—I speak to my parents every single day—I want to change that narrative on a public stage and showcase black fathers doing great things.” Shoultz’s vision includes celebrating all versions of black families including those who may be outside of the cultural norm. The livestream event will include casual conversations about fathers and father figures. He says, “We’ll have kids appear at some point to show the black family in all its forms. Black families run the gamut and are all beautiful.”
Shoultz’s passion for change stems from a lifetime of experience in music. “I’ve lived a dual life as a musician,” says Shoultz. On Sunday mornings growing up, he learned black culture in a Baptist church. But during the week, he sang in a boy choir that focused on European-style music. The higher his achievement in choral music, the fewer people of color he encountered. And the music performed was almost exclusively from the European choral tradition. “The dominance of the classical music system places a higher importance on European males. Let’s just name that,” Shoultz says. “Even females are subjugated to a lower position. I’m growing increasingly tired of that. We should be better than just highlighting those voices, but also tell stories that compel us to think and act, like getting a well-balanced meal with voices from around the world who have something to say. That’s the change I’m working for.”
Shoultz knows these things can be a struggle to talk about but knowing violence against black people is happening in places so close to home makes it really personal. “We need to change systems and structures, so our black and brown brothers and sisters don’t have to look over their shoulders,” he says. “For years I worked at a church in Edina, when I was there at night—I’m well educated, dress a certain way and have a name that people don’t know I’m black until they see me—I have as much privilege as a black person can get, but even still, it’s disconcerting to know that if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, perception can lead to something happening due to my skin color.”
So, Shoultz has been thinking of how best to leverage the trust he’s built in non-black communities to speak honestly and be a bridge to culture and conversations. “It may be difficult,” he says, “but when approached in love, we can find ways to move forward and be that bridge.” Shoultz believes every person can experience great joy through singing. This Sunday’s VocalEssence livestream sing-along and concert can help start these conversations through music—from songs of celebration to songs dads might sing to their daughters to Motown favorites along with freedom songs that inspire social change. “The event will be a joy-filled, fast-paced sing-along following a warm invitation into my living room,” says Shoultz. Then you’ll hear performances from two amazing choirs and a brand-new rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Participants will also be led in song by some of Shoultz’s co-leaders and hear from Minneapolis’ own Jovanta Patten sing Rise that is a powerful and uplifting call to action.
A further call to action will include encouraging participants to donate to the African American Leadership Forum that serves as a hub organization to direct funds to local groups that are providing economic recovery, emotional well-being support and social structures reform. There will also be links to nationwide organizations that support black and brown causes so people can put their money where their voices are.
Want to see/do more? Check out the hashtag #liftmyvoicechallenge where you’ll see Shoultz has been doing a livestream every day for over 80 days singing from his home. “I think people can use the hashtag challenge and send a video to create a montage. Take one small step. I know that’s hard when we’re overwhelmed with possibilities … I understand how you can feel overwhelmed or inadequate. But you can write a letter to [your local representative], help people get registered to vote or go to a food shelf to help pack or deliver food.” Leverage your financial wealth. Discover what you can do to plug in and lift your voice.
Shoultz hopes the Lifting Every Voice to Inspire Change event will bring people together in a shared space to share an experience. “I hope to have people of all hues, faiths, perspectives and gender identities tune in and sing!”