‘It’s more than religion’: ‘One Voice’ showcases Oakland gospel choir

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At the showing of “One Voice” at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland on Wednesday, the venue took on the feeling of a hallowed hall. Under golden facades, as the crowd frequently cheered, stood and clapped, what could have been a par-for-the-course showing became an interactive back-and-forth event. It takes a special kind of documentary to elicit this sort of reaction, and “One Voice,” which traces the work of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, was just that.

Founded in 1986 from a gospel workshop led by now-artistic director Terrance Kelly, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir is one of the only of its kind. As a gospel choir without a congregation, the group is unique and outlines its mission as “inspiring joy and unity among all people through black gospel and spiritual music traditions.” Today, the music collective is dozens strong, with singers coming from a diverse range of religions and cultural backgrounds. As one choir member notes in the film, “No one looks like us, and no one sounds like us.”

The documentary, directed by Oakland-based filmmaker Spencer Wilkinson, puts the choir members at the forefront, following four members of the group as they rehearse and reflect on how participating in the choir has shaped their life. The subjects hail from a variety of backgrounds, with regard to both their faiths and experiences with gospel music, but all come together under the auspices of the choir and Kelly’s musical direction. The choir is framed as a place of spiritual respite for its members, a safe space for anyone from any background and an ambassador of gospel music for the broader community for whom they perform.

As “One Voice” illustrates, the choir’s mission is largely nondoctrinal, focusing more on the ability to inform, not instruct, listeners on the messages communicated through gospel music. Its songs are rooted in Christian tradition, with references to Jesus and other biblical figures; yet the group focuses on universality and offers the artistic form to a broader range of audiences and vocalists. The group has performed at events such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, bringing its particular style of music to places where it may not have previously been heard. In the film, one member of the choir explains that with the group, “It’s more than religion.” This simple statement is a testament to the ability of the choir’s music to transcend explicit religious practices and be appreciated as an expressive form of art by all.

As much as the choir focuses on its universal ability to reach a wide range of audiences, the film also addresses the historical context surrounding gospel music. Artistic director Terrance Kelly, in discussing his leadership of the group, emphasizes the importance of emphasizing the Black experience that is the foundation of gospel music. Though the choir is multiracial and multiethnic, the group still sings spirituals that were created by enslaved Black Americans as a means of expression. Furthermore, the film addresses activists’ use of gospel music during the Civil Rights Movement.

Members of the choir also reflect on the broader implications of living and performing in the Bay Area, notably in the context of increasing gentrification of Oakland. These changes have been intrinsically connected to the gospel scene — in a series of deeply upsetting cases, a number of historically Black Oakland gospel churches have been hit with fines in recent years for music designated as “too loud.” This intersection of institutional racism, gentrification and artistic expression is critical to understanding the wider context of gospel music — particularly in Oakland, which is considered a major hub for the development and practice of the art form.

The screening ended with a Q&A and a performance by a portion of the choir — the full group wouldn’t have fit on the theater’s stage. As the final notes sounded out, the power of the singers’ message rang as clearly as it did throughout the film, an expression of spirituality and the universality of appreciating this form of art.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].