Standing in front of Eau Claire’s CollECtive Choir members Monday evening at the Phoenix Park farmer’s market pavilion, the choir director reminded everyone of their ultimate goal before a June 28 Sounds Like Summer concert series appearance.
“Our goal is to be one voice, which of course I think is symbolic as well,” Mike Rambo told the group before leading them into the opening of his original song “For the Joy.”
Of course that is the goal of any choir, but for this particular group it means a little bit more. CollECtive Choir is a community gospel hip-hop choir open to anyone of all ages and singing abilities. Rambo said the group aims to “sing exuberant praise to Jesus” and share that love as well as bring people together.
Rambo also composes and arranges music for the choir.
“We’re not going to just focus on the art, we’re going to focus on the relationships and restoring community, but when you’re in Eau Claire, especially the downtown area, it really values original art,” Rambo said. “We certainly have that as a part of what we sing.”
The choir, which received nonprofit status in January, is set to release its first original CD. “Deep Love of Jesus” is a collection of eight songs recorded by the group and featuring musicians such as Tru Serva, a Minneapolis-based gospel rap artist, and local artists such as Eric Thompson, Adam Harder-Hussbaum, Jennifer Davis and others.
While Rambo’s goal is to make the choir more known in the community by producing more original music in the future, he doesn’t have expectations of fame and fortune. He thinks what they have to offer is worth so much more.
The choir formed as a vision of Rambo and his friend Phil Jennings in 2015. Jennings has since passed away, and Rambo wanted to see his idea followed through.
From its first rehearsal in 2015 that saw just three people, Rambo said the group has grown to around 20 to 25 active members, with many others who pop in throughout the year.
The idea for gospel hip-hop, perhaps a unique stylistic choice for a city in northwestern Wisconsin, was born because Rambo said he thought it would appeal to a wide audience.
“I’ve found gospel to be very palatable to the general public simply because it is fun and it’s dancy,” Rambo said. “Even if you’re not from a church background, you get it, you know when to clap along. They are simple songs where it’s easy to invite participation even if you’ve never heard it before.”
Fun, yes, but not always easy. Rambo said rehearsals can be difficult, but he’s proud of how far the group has come since its inception.
“It’s a very demanding style,” he said. “We’re not awesome at it, but we’re getting better and it’s fun, and I’m learning a lot.”
Gloria Godchoux recalls hearing about the choir in 2015 through an ad in Volume One that she thinks said something along the lines of “if you like to sing, come and sing with the gospel hip-hop choir.”
“That was very intriguing to me, the gospel with the hip-hop,” Godchoux recalled.
Three years later, she is president of the choir’s board of directors and the music still moves her. Even if she doesn’t feel like coming to practice, she said she’s always glad to be there because it fills her with such joy.
Godchoux said hearing a couple of the new album’s recordings is still mind-boggling.
“It’s kind of crazy that we actually have an album,” she said.
Most of the music on the album are Rambo’s originals, though the song “Holy, Holy, Holy” is an arrangement of a church hymn that Rambo said they “gospelified.”
Rambo, an Eau Claire native who has been in several bands, has never directed a choir before this. He reached out to local musicians and friends, such as Matt Mattoon, the sound engineer for the project, for help.
“Deep Love of Jesus” will officially be released during the choir’s Sounds Like Summer performance from 6 to 8 p.m. June 28 in Phoenix Park.
However, Rambo said they will have copies of the CD available at performances before then, including one June 2 at Ecclesia’s North Riverfront Community Party at North River Fronts Park.
He is excited to lay the groundwork for what could be a pivotal organization in Eau Claire, and he hopes that’s what CollECtive Choir audiences see this summer.
“It’s really powerful as a medium to show Eau Claire different people sharing a platform together,” Rambo said. “The choir itself is the art, even though we do also aspire to be good.”
While Godchoux loves the music, she quickly learned the choir was about more than singing. By practicing in a public space — in the summers at Phoenix Park and the rest of the year at the Lighthouse Youth Center — she said they attract members of the community from all walks of life. It has led to an openness and trust between people of many backgrounds.
“The choir is a good representation that people of different faiths, colors, ages, can come together and be unified through music,” Godchoux said. “It is a good representation of what unity looks like.”
Since it began, Rambo said 15 different churches of various faiths have been represented. They’ve practiced with homeless people, youth at the Lighthouse, people of African American, Hmong and Hispanic descent and a wide array of socioeconomic backgrounds.
More than music, the choir is a place for community. And that’s whatShane Curren, who joined the choir as another creative outlet about a year ago, found.
“It’s not just a good group of friends or a place for me to sing, but I’m contributing to my community by being a part of this,” Curren said.
Rather than inviting people to come to them, as Rambo thinks is a problem with a lot of church models, the choir has adopted a “we’ll come to you” mentality.
This summer he said they are planning a block party tour by partnering with organizations in different neighborhoods to hold a potluck-style meal while the choir performs.
“In general I feel like the trend is to get more isolated, more separate, and we want to reinforce community in the Chippewa Valley,” he said.
He thinks the style of music they perform also allows for a wide range of connections, especially among those who might not consider joining a choir.
“We’ve just noticed hip-hop crosses all the boundaries. Most of the youth resonate with that style,” Rambo said. “I’ve noticed some of the Hmong kids or the Hispanic kids (at the Lighthouse), if there seems to be outside the grand culture of Eau Claire people that aren’t European American, all identify with this. It’s been a unifying language and that’s part of the reason I combine it with gospel.”
Through the choir, Rambo also is tugging at conversations he doesn’t often see happening in Eau Claire: those on race and cultural differences.
With 92.3 percent of Eau Claire’s population being white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data, it can be easy not to talk about those things. But Rambo said as the community continues to grow, those are conversations its members need to have.
“I believe Eau Claire has been slow to enter the conversation — it doesn’t perceive (race) is a problem or an issue,” Rambo said. “We (the choir) want to be a part of not only the conversation, but we want to be part of the solution.”
Using that “we’ll come to you” mentality, he thinks the choir can serve as one of hopefully more entry points.
“As we see an insurgence of African Americans and other subcultures coming to this city, we can be a wonderful welcoming mat,” Rambo said. “We can say ‘I know this isn’t necessarily home yet, but we’re going to take a step toward you’ instead of saying ‘act like us, try to fit in and don’t rock the boat.’”
Tru Serva, whose real name is Marcus Montana, remembers the first time he heard about the choir while working with 513Free, an Eau Claire music and outreach program. He remembers thinking a gospel hip-hop choir in Eau Claire sounded “odd.”
“Looking at Eau Claire you would think it’s all white people, for lack of a better term, and it’s weird to think gospel and hip-hop comes out of that,” Montana said. “Not that either discriminates, but it’s higher on the radar of minorities. If you want to make assumptions, you’d think country or folk music in Eau Claire.”
Spending several years in the area, he now knows that is not the case. And after performing several times with the choir at the last two Eau Claire Jazz festivals and other community events, he said the choir and city have been welcoming to the music.
That is why he thinks the choir is a great asset to the community. For those who may not only be unfamiliar with the style of music but also another culture, creating a safe space to start those conversations is important.
“Music is the one thing that brings people together despite differences,” Montana said. “The choir allows people to get past a lot of biases or assumptions we have in our country right now, whether that’s racism or having prejudices against different age groups or economic backgrounds.”
Montana looks forward to performing with the choir during its June 28 performance because he “always gets a lot of love” from the choir and the audience it draws.
As the choir gains more attention, Rambo hopes to use the Sounds Like Summer performance to draw a wider crowd. He believes the choir still has a lot of room to grow and hopes to get its name out in the community.
“I hope there are even more churches involved (in the future),” Rambo said. “We certainly hope to grow in size and impact when we go places, and in skill.”
Godchoux said the impact piece is the most important thing for her. That’s what she feels when she’s immersed in a choir rehearsal, and what she hopes others can see too.
“My hope is that we would not only grow in numbers, but that people would be able to see the choir as being instrumental in bringing people together,” Godchoux said. “If I had a dream for the choir it would be that we would continue to be a light in the community — (to see) it is possible to have relationships with one another in a very positive way.”
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