After 'Americas Got Talent,' Detroit Youth Choir is Vegas-bound

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Anthony White was 12 when he saw the movie "Glory," and it changed the course of his life. But it wasn't the movie's historical significance that impacted him most. It was its music.

The 1989 film about the nation's first all African American regiment of soldiers who served during the Civil War, starring Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, featured the Boys Choir of Harlem. Listening to the soundtrack, White felt like he was in a dream. He needed to know more. He decided to call the choir himself, asking how they got started.

"They were like, 'Who is this little kid?'" remembers White.

Today, it's White and his Detroit Youth Choir sweeping up music lovers in a dream across the country and showing them what's possible.

After a star-turning run on NBC's "America's Got Talent" earlier this year that ended with the group finishing second, life has changed in some dramatic ways for this talented choir, which features young singers from across Metro Detroit who range in age from 8 to 18.

Once a group that only performed locally, the choir is now double its size since its "AGT" gig with 110 members, and requests to perform have come from across the country. Some members and White appeared on "The Kelly Clarkson Show" earlier this fall. The choir also is scheduled to perform on Tuesday for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in Lansing. And in November, they'll perform in the America's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Hob Nobble Gobble. 

But their biggest performances will come as part of "America's Got Talent Live" shows Nov. 7-10 at the Paris Theater at Paris Las Vegas. The choir — some of whom will have to fly to Vegas from college because they're away at school — will perform with the four other acts who finished in the top five. The shows will be headlined by winner Kodi Lee, a blind and autistic singer.

Destiny Matthews, 12 of Canton Township, is excited to head to Las Vegas. She still has to pinch herself to process that the group finished second on the show.

"Being there was just good enough," said Matthews. "We didn’t have to win."

Ryan Bowens, center, 15, of West Bloomfield Township, puts his arms up with his fellow dancers during choreography practice.

White said the choir is in such high demand these days that one of his main goals now is to not overwhelm his young performers with too many performances.

"I’m trying not to burn my kids out," he said. "Everyone you see wants to book us, but I don’t want really to do overkill."

But for a choir that just had seven members when White took the helm in 2001, it's come an incredibly long way. 

"It was my dream to have this many kids," said White, studying the group as it learned choreography during a recent practice.

Still, as much as things have changed, others haven't. The group still practices at least two days a week in the fellowship hall of the Rosedale Baptist Church on Detroit's west side, squeezed into a practice room. White would love to one day have his own building, but they don't have funds for one now. He hopes a building is donated to the group.

"It would be a lot to just purchase one," said White.

Detroit Youth Choir Anthony White, of Redford Township, talks to his students about their upcoming holiday performances.

A $1 million endowment given to the choir by several local foundations at its Detroit homecoming celebration earlier this fall would be used to pay for the choir's expenses -- staffing and travel among them -- but not a new building, said White. 

Scared but focused

In between singing and choreography rehearsals on a recent rainy weekday evening, more than 100 young singers jostle in the hallway outside one of the practice rooms at Rosedale Baptist Church, talking and laughing. Cars line the streets outside, as parents wait for their children to finish. Two abandoned houses across the street from the church show just how far they are from Los Angeles.

Briana Hammond, center, 8, of Detroit, dances with teammates during choreography practice.

In the midst of the chaos, White weaves through the crowd outside the practice room, trying to find a quiet place to talk. It's a challenge.

"They're going ... everywhere," said White, wearing a purple hoodie with the words "#dycperiod" on it.

They are — and there's a lot of work to be done. With more than 50 new members, White and his team have to teach the new singers their old songs and routines but also new numbers for a Dec. 14 holiday show at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn. It'll be a tribute to gospel legend, Hezekiah Walker.

Carley Foster, 13, of Detroit, gestures as she sings during practice.

But as crowded as the rehearsal room is — singers can't practice choreography in the same room because it's too small so they head to the gym — White, a graduate of Marygrove College who is on leave from teaching music in Oak Park schools, remembers when he had the opposite problem.

When he took the helm of the Detroit Youth Choir in 2001 — White previously worked as a vocal coach under the choir's original director Fleming Ivory — he had just seven members. Just 21 years old at the time, White renamed it from the Detroit Children's Choir to the Detroit Youth Choir and established it as a nonprofit.

But not everyone was sure about him. He said some questioned his abilities. 

"A lot of people lost hope in me," he said. "They said I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t make it. I wasn’t good enough to teach their children."

White was scared, he admits. But he ignored his critics.

"I ignored everybody," he said. "I kept with the hard work. I just kept focused."

DYC Artistic Director Anthony White talks to his students about their upcoming holiday performances.

A long way

Today, that focus has paid dividends. The choir's members come from all over Metro Detroit, including Canton Township, Fraser, Farmington, Southfield, Redford Township, even Clarkston.

Ja'Miracle Riley, 16, has been with the choir since she was 9. She performed on "America's Got Talent" and will go to Las Vegas. 

"She's come a long way," says White.

Riley agrees: "A very long way."

"It made me become a better person," says Riley. 

Riley, an 11th grader at the Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, says she's learned her place in the choir and says she "used to be all over the place." 

Now "I can sit down and actually pay attention," she said.

Briana Hammond, third from right, 8, of Detroit, sings during practice.

White likens what the choir does to how Motown used to operate in its heyday. He says they start with singing and then they push the kids "down the assembly line" to choreography. They also work with acting coaches.

"Now they all know how to put feeling in it," said White.

The power of the Detroit Youth Choir shines through head choreographer Ashia Lee. Once one of the group's singers, Lee says it was her grandmother who signed her up roughly 17 years ago after her cousins where in the group. 

Lee remembers when White, who knew she'd done both step and cheerleading in high school, tapped her to come up with some choreography.

"He said 'I see potential in you,'" remembers Lee. "I didn’t really see myself doing it. It was just something that he brought out of me over the years."

The choir helped her overcome her shyness.

"It’s brought a lot out of me," said Lee, who also works two other jobs. "I used to be very shy when I was younger. But it's brought out a lot in me with leadership."

Now a choreographer for 12 years, it was Lee and her co-choreographers and dance instructors — Carmelita Flemister, Natalie Craig and Shalayla Williams — who came up with all the original performances the choir did on "America's Got Talent."

Vocal coach British Burnett helps Giovanni DeBarge, 10, of Detroit, as they learn a new Motown medley.

"That was all new," said Lee.

And while she's seen the choir changed in size from seven members to 20, then 30, 50, and now 100, she says White always made the best of it. She said even when the group didn't have resources for uniforms, they all wore the same color instead.

"No matter the number of students, Mr. White put in the same time and effort into his group," said Lee. "He always had a vision that something great would become of his students and organization." 

Vegas, baby

As they prepare to head to Vegas, White said his team will perform some old numbers they performed on "AGT" along with some new songs, including a gospel number by Kirk Franklin and their version of Imagine Dragons' "Believer." They'll also perform a duet with Lee, this season's winner, singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

And, of course, there will be a little Motown thrown into the mix.

"We're going to do everything," said White.

After their Vegas run and Thanksgiving commitments, White is hoping to keep the rest of 2019 open. He said they may sing at the ball drop in New York on New Year's Eve, but he's still working out the details.

And White knows how fleeting fame can be. His beloved Boys Choir of Harlem disbanded in 2007 after the group was rocked by several controversies. White says some people have never even heard of the group.

He wants to take a different path with the Detroit Youth Choir.

"We don't want to be forgotten," he said.