Updated: Apr 2
In a world and a society that likes to stick labels on people, categorise them and put everyone into boxes, on this episode of ONEOFTHE8 it was an absolute joy to talk with the founder and an ambassador of an organisation who seek to do the complete opposite.
With their mission to ‘enable marginalised people to make friends, build their confidence and skills and find their place in society’, The Choir With No Name (more on that name later) welcomes people of all ages, of all ethnicities, and from all areas of a city. They welcome diverse groups of people, with different experiences of life, everyone an individual, yet all with one thing in common - homelessness.
‘The Homeless - I’m going to put in inverted commas because it’s one of our pet hates as a phrase, like this homogenous mass of the same sort of people.’
For all those who are homeless any sense of community and belonging can be sadly missing, and for our guests Maria, CEO and Founder, and Sal, Liverpool choir member and TCWNN ambassador, the vision is that ‘all people in our society will have a group of good friends with whom they can sing their hearts out’.
Having previously worked for a homeless service provider in London, musician and choir director Marie founded The Choir With No Name some 13 years ago when she was ‘looking for a new challenge’. As a member of a gospel choir herself, Marie had first-hand experience of how people singing together created community and belonging, and with an offer of free rehearsal space, a friend who played piano, and people offering to come along and cook dinner, there was ‘no excuse not to do it’.
So what about that name? The first recruitment posters featured the headline ‘choir with no name, yet’ and six weeks into rehearsals Marie decided it was time to put the name to the vote. The winner? You guessed it ‘The Choir With No Name’, something that resonated with the anonymity felt by homeless people.
‘Didn’t want to name the choir myself, because it felt like that was something the people in the choir should have ownership of.’
From a first rehearsal in London that was ‘a bit of a sing-song’ with just four choir members and followed by Spaghetti Bolognese for tea, what was a grass roots voluntary project has now gone from strength to strength.
Birmingham was next for Marie, partly because she ‘had a really good friend who lived there and could go and stay there, it didn’t cost me anything’. With the help of an amazing chair of trustees, Marie soon learned how the model could be successfully replicated and The Choir With No Name now has choirs in four cities – London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Brighton, with a fifth about to be set up in Cardiff (and we hope more to follow after that).
Each of the choirs has two members of staff plus a really strong team of volunteers, and as well as being good musicians the Choir Directors must also be able to bring that most important sense of community.
From that first sing-song with four, rehearsals now have 200 to 250 people turning up across the four cities every week. Commitment and numbers continue to grow and a digital inclusion project has even seen rehearsals continue during the Covid pandemic.
Sal, choir member and The Choir With No Name ambassador got involved 2 or 3 years ago after hearing about the choir during a mental health festival she attended. After seeing Liverpool Choir Director, Mersey Wylie, perform there Sal asked how she could join.
‘I just went along and gave it a go, and I’ve just loved it ever since really.’
For Sal, as for all the other members of the choirs, it’s not only about the singing, it’s also about everyone sitting down together to share a meal afterwards. In London they work with an organisation called ‘City Harvest’ who put surplus food to good use, in Birmingham they’re lucky enough to have a chef, and in each location they’re never short of enthusiastic volunteers to cook dinner, with upwards of 70 people sitting down together to eat.
‘After every rehearsal we sit down and share a meal together, it’s a really amazing way to get to know people, to develop community and friendship – and it does feel like a family to me, the choir.’
Once up and running word spread quickly about the incredible work of Marie and the team, and the BBC even came calling just four weeks after The Choir With No Name first set up. This led to being featured on the ‘Secret Millionaire’ (and a £5k donation) and since then the choir has partnered with Crisis and supported Coldplay on stage (yes, the Coldplay). More recently members of the Birmingham choir could be seen taking part in a Red Nose Day challenge with Alex Scott for Comic Relief.
‘What you get if you come to one of our gigs is that kind of joy and incredible bravery – (people who have) been through tough times and got quite a lot of balls to be there, owning the stage. The sense of community also, you get this incredible support you can see from choir members to other choir members.’
Each year all four choirs are brought together to perform some very special Christmas gigs, and in 2019 they all joined forces again to record their version of ‘This Is Me’, released to coincide with World Homeless Day.
In Sal’s own words she would never have imagined being in a recording studio and it was ‘just such a great experience’. The recording session also provided the perfect platform for every member of the choir to challenge perceptions and to say ‘this is me, I’m not who you think I might be’.
‘We’re not just this homogenous group of ‘the homeless’, we’re all individuals, we’ve all got different lives and different reasons for being in the choir’
The Choir With No Name are bringing homeless people together to sing, and they are bringing individuals together - to create community, belonging and family. Rather than labelling people, this is a group that focuses upon people’s aspirations, on what they love, and on what they love doing. Asked about the highlights she has experienced so far, founder Marie’s answer speaks volumes.
‘Highlights are always moments in rehearsals, really transformative moments for individuals, getting to know people better and recognising what value the choir is having in their personal journey – it just feels like a real privilege at times’
The final word goes to Sal.
‘Home isn’t just about the houses we live in, it is also about the family and the community that it feels like the choir is - that’s something felt by other members of the choir.’
You can also watch the ‘This Is Me’ music video here.