Written by Erika Maldonado
Photos by Nelson Estrada & Mihail Matikov
What draws ninety students from different cultures, majors, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations to a stuffy classroom at San Francisco State University every Monday night? Some say it’s the safe, familial atmosphere. Others enjoy the idea of being a part of something greater than them. To others still, these meetings are a spiritual experience.
The SF State Gospel Choir, held in Room 146 of the Creative Arts Building, a one-unit course offered every regular semester, is more than just a class.
“It’s about singing from the heart with a strong emphasis on emotion,” says alto and veteran member Mariam Saaed. “Singing helps heal ourselves and others and sends a message of love, peace and forgiveness.”
Her involvement in the choir for the past five years helps her deal with depression and anger, helps her become more responsible and has helped establish some lasting friendships.
As she watched the choir expand from fifteen to roughly ninety members, and outgrow the small campus venues, she believes this is only the beginning for the choir. The choir now performs on bigger stages, like Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland and the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
“More classes feel like a burden, but you enjoy doing what you do in the choir,” says Derrick Harris, a tenor and four-year veteran. “It’s a great learning experience and something you feel good being a part of.”
With no financial support from the university, the gospel choir is a self-contained, student-run organization. When class isn’t in session, student leaders help keep the choir afloat by promoting the group through fundraising and organizing team-building retreats.
Choir director and founder Ja Ronn Thompson remembers feeling a calling to start a gospel choir during his freshman year at SF State. Seven years ago, the choir had fewer than ten members, and their first rehearsals were held in the school hallways and unused classrooms.
“Passion and no fear,” is the mantra Thompson leads the flourishing choir with.
“We don’t just sing. We sang,” says Thompson. “We show people love through music. That’s why it has such a multicultural appeal. We sound good, but we also want to spread a positive message.”
Auditions for the choir require a scale and harmony test, but no one is turned away from joining. Some graduates even return to continue to be a part of the community. Members are tested on the knowledge of songs and harmonies and must participate in two performances each semester.
“It is an inspirational class,” says Shay Silva, a recent graduate. “If you can’t sing, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re singing with passion and feeling, you feel the music and you’ll always want to come back for more.”