All together now- how choirs consolidate group identity
“Rainbow means everyone is welcome!”, Peter Sebastian tells me, his hands waving in the air in a welcoming gesture.
Peter, who identifies as a cis-gay man, is explaining the name behind Liverpool Rainbow Chorus, a choir which boasts around 30 members, predominantly from the LGBT+ community.
He continues: “It’s an inclusive choir with a particular leaning toward the LGBTQIA sector, but it’s for people who have inclusive attitudes as well.”
Liverpool Rainbow Chorus represents one of the many identity choirs that make up the choral scene, in which members themselves share certain identities, for instance ethnicity, sexuality, or political views.
Peter, 64, who teaches English as a foreign language, joined the choir after taking part in a Liverpool Rainbow Chorus workshop at an IDAHO (The International Day of Action Against Homophobia) Festival in 2015.
“During the workshop, we prepared the South Pacific song ‘There’s nothing like a dame’, so to sing that in an LGBT+ context was absolutely hilarious and just so affirming.”
With his reference to affirmation, Peter points to the appeal of identity choirs, they provide a chance for members to shout about who they are, and consolidate their group identity.
“A couple of years ago, I went to my first national LGBT choir festival, and 1200 people from a variety of LGBT+ choirs went, so there was a grave sense of identity and strength together.
“I did belong to a LGBT+ social group, but when you’re actually doing something, in this case, singing in a four-part choir, training, learning, it gives you a deeper sense of identity, and also a sense of purpose, because we’re preparing to perform in public.
“I am in a second choir now and when I go along there, I’m just Peter. I used to switch on and off by behaving myself, but now I don’t care, and that’s the contribution of the Liverpool Rainbow Chorus, that sense of just be who you are, we don’t have to switch off our identity.”
Although Peter explains that they predominantly sing for fun, such identity choirs also promote messages important to them. Liverpool Rainbow Chorus sing to celebrate the LGBT+ community and commemorate the past, for instance performing at Liverpool Pride and vigils for Michael Causer, the 18-year-old sadly murdered in a homophobic attack in 2008.
When I asked why choirs are a good way to celebrate and mark occasions, Peter replied: “It’s in the singing, like how a great part of football is singing; as human beings, it’s what we do.”
Peter says the political power of singing is best demonstrated when Pride revellers face the homophobic campaigners that stand in Derby Square every year.
“When the march gets there, the cheering and singing gets louder and louder, so rather than booing, we just sing and dance in front of them, saying we will not be swayed by your prejudice.
“If we had this conversation ten years ago, when the choir was founded, there would be more of making a statement, but generally, we’ve moved to just celebrating who we are, rather than a protest movement.”
One choir which is very much a protest movement is the Liverpool Socialist Singers, who all share the same political beliefs, and, as one member jokes, must own a red top.
Members, Liz, Stella, Miriam, and Frank, all cite their enjoyment of singing, and desire to campaign, as equal motivations for joining.
Liz, the latest recruit, explained: “I’d seen the choir before, but it was one particular anti-fascist demo, where I ended up standing with them, half singing, even though I didn’t know the songs, and I just thought ‘this is what I want to do, I want to protest, but what better way of protesting than singing at them, instead of just being angry’, so it was the combination of wanting to sing and wanting to be part of that movement.”
When asking about their backgrounds, I was surprised to find they did not know each other’s. Frank, who joined at the choir’s foundation in 2010, says this indicates how united as one the choir makes them.
“In the case of a political choir, the sum of the parts is greater than, and in a way different from, who we all are as individuals.
“Because we trust that we have a common passion about justice, and we use our time together at rehearsals to sing and plan, the other things don’t come up and the stories come out of the collective activities we do, rather than our individual histories.”
Explaining why singing particularly connects them, Stella said: “I look upon singing as something very special, because more or less everyone can talk, but not everybody sings, and when you’re with a group of people singing, and you realise how much better a sound it is for hearing these different voices, it’s quite an emotional experience.”
Nodding in agreement, Liz replied: “It gives us an outlet to express our feelings in a passionate way, and as Stella says, you’re sharing, it’s that listening to others and feeling part of something bigger than yourself. It’s uplifting, because you can feel as if you’re living in your own little bubble of happy socialism, but you get back into the outside world, and it’s not like that.”
Stella also described how being part of the choir encourages members to keep up the activism so integral to their socialist identity.
“If you’ve been on lots of demos and rallies, sometimes it can be hard to motivate yourself, but because I’m a choir member, and I’m asked in advance if I’m coming, once I’ve said yes, I’m committed to it, it gives you a focus.”
Now retired, Stella says the choir’s encouragement is similar to a trade union’s, explaining, “instead of being an individual joining other individuals on a rally, being part of the choir means you’re a group within a much bigger group.”
Performing as a choir also helps push the socialist agenda of the group, singing at demonstrations, rallies, and community events, or hosting their own concerts, in order to promote causes, and educate or persuade audiences.
Song choice is therefore pivotal, and their repertoire, some of which they write themselves, contains songs suitable for a variety of events, from anti-racism marches to fracking picket lines.
One of the choir’s songwriters, Miriam, says many of the community organisations they work with, continuously invite them back to demonstrations, which must show the choir makes a difference being there.
Explaining why singing is an effective way to celebrate causes and campaign for change, Miriam said: “It makes people listen. If you get out and you sing, people will think ‘what’s all that about?’, and they’ll stop and they’ll listen, and once they do, you’ve got a chance of getting your point across.”