Nina Leilani and Steph Johnson (third and fourth from left, respectively) lead the homeless in Voices of Our City Choir.
Soul-jazz vocalist Steph Johnson is involved in activism relating to the homeless in San Diego, culminating in the formation of the Voices of Our City Choir, a group she co-leads with Nina Leilani that blends working musicians with people struggling to survive on the streets. Johnson explains her motivations: “The biggest issue is that these folks aren’t treated humanely at all,” says the singer. “They are being arrested and put in jail instead of being helped. I meet people who are literally dying of cancer, and they have to struggle to get an appointment for a bed somewhere. It’s so hard, and then they get ticketed. It’s unbelievable.”
Nina Leilani: "She broke my heart with the numbers of people being affected and the total negligence of the city."
Johnson gave a presentation on the homeless for a symposium Leilani attended.
“She broke my heart with the numbers of people being affected and the total negligence of the city,” said Leilani. “There were so many of us that knew something needed to be done — even if we didn’t know how to do it, we were going to try.”
Johnson, Leilani, and 35 other musicians showed up at city hall to make their case.
“We all looked at the council and pleaded for something to be done, but I could tell that they didn’t give a fuck — they were rolling their eyes. I realized then I could continue to waste my time there or I could create something musical that would appeal to the people I met on the street, many of who were musicians and singer-songwriters.”
Johnson floated the idea of a homeless choir to Leilani.
“Nina was, like, ‘Hell, yes, let’s do it.’ She’s an incredible choir director — I couldn’t do all the stuff she does. This has become a real choir. We created a place where people could come two times a week and hang out and make music.”
She says she feels a special power coming from the group.
“We have this mix of professional singers and people with music in their background with everyday people and that blend is magical. Taylor guitars even donated an instrument! Now we’re up to 25 people and that number grows every week. We partnered with pastor Chris Nafis of the Living Water Church. He is totally legit — he really cares about these people — and there’s a feeling of hope in the area because of that.”
1955 Julian Avenue, San Diego
Leilani has been assembling relevant material for the group, which also features bassist Rob Thorsen and drummer Leah Bowden.
“We’re looking for stuff that’s transcendent,” says Leilani. “And to build on these mantras of love. We watch people walking down the street after rehearsals still singing, and that’s inspiring”
The debut performance of the Voices of Our City Choir takes place on December 4 at Bread & Salt (1955 Julian Avenue) at 7 p.m. when they share the stage with the Steph Johnson Band.