Toronto Children’s Concert Choir (TC3) rehearsing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone at the St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. Choir director Raquel Bell leads the group on February 16, 2019. (RSJ/Nour Al-Saied)

By Nour Al-Saied

The afternoon starts with rehearsal at the church stage. The choir, consisting of 20 members, stands in front of the stained-glass windows, a bright light from the sun illuminating their skin. Their eyes are glued to the music director Raquel Bell’s hands as she moves them up and down. At her queue, they begin to sing the song “Glory” by John Legend and Common.

Their voices melt together and unite as one powerful force, which vibrates the walls and shakes the floor. Raquel mouths the lyrics to one of the boys at the front row who seems to have forgotten the words as he plays with the loose string on his sweater. She directs 16-year-old solo singer Janoia Edwards with her index finger to come up closer and begin her solo while the choir harmonizes behind her. Janoia pushes her chest up front as she takes a deep breath and releases with the word “Glory.” She rounds her lips close to the microphone and sings “Oh” with a buttery-smooth run at the end, hitting every descending note so effortlessly like water trickling down a set of stairs.

Toronto Children’s Concert Choir (TC3) was created in 2001 and is part of a non-profit organization called The HopeWorks Connection. It is a choir composed of African-Canadian youth ages 7 to 18 who come together to sing and dance for audiences across the GTA. The purpose of the organization is to help youth focus on their academics, participate in a diverse group, and appreciate their cultural backgrounds.

Elijah Major and Benjamin Udeh dressed in their uniforms and getting ready to hit the stage on February 16, 2019. (RSJ/Nour Al-Saied)

“Keep your chin up and make sure you guys are in sync,” Raquel shouts over the music, snapping at the older boys who are laughing at the back. “Left, right, left, right.”

Some of the younger girls accidentally go right to left, but eventually get the hang of it. The pianist sits in the far left, pounding the keys.

Reverend Denise Gillard is the founder and executive artistic director of the organization. Her goal is to inspire and encourage youth in the Etobicoke neighborhood to realize their full potential, whether it’s in school or in the performing arts.

Alongside Rev. Denise is musical conductor Raquel Bell and urban dance instructor Caprice Duncan. Raquel, 34, has been with TC3 for six years and was mentored by Rev. Denise. Caprice, 32, started as a singer in the group and eventually became a staff member.

Tonight is a big night for TC3. It is their annual social justice concert Our Voice: The Sound of Freedom! at the St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Etobicoke. The show features songs that recognize the black community and emphasize the importance of equality.

Assistant choir director Zachary A. Jones-Hurst guides the group during the performance of “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” by Mahalia Jackson on February 16, 2019. (RSJ/Nour Al-Saied)

The organization not only focuses on the youth’s performance on stage, but their performance in school. They have two tutorial programs, “Music and Math” and “Literacy in Motion”, which help students who are struggling with writing, reading, math and science.

The balance between academics and personal hobbies is important to TC3. “We recognize that not everybody can get an A for whatever reasons, but you always do your best. If you’re not trying and you’re not doing your best, then you need to take a break and focus on your assignments,” Caprice says.

Janoia was struggling with her classes last year and Caprice told her that she’ll have to sing as an ensemble, meaning no solo for her. However, with the special help of staff, Janoia was able to get her marks back up and keep her solo.

Listen to Raquel Bell talk about TC3’s purpose and how unique the program is to her.

The choir finishes rehearsing and heads downstairs to the kitchen where volunteers are serving noodle stir-fry. The boisterous children sit and eat at the long tables, their laughs echoing throughout the entire building.

Jayden Dill and Elijah Major, both 15, auditioned for TC3 three years ago and say that the audition process was easy for them. They filled out an application form, selected a song and presented it to the staff. Now, the boys sing and tour regularly with the group.  

Although TC3 is mostly known in the GTA, their voices are not just limited to Canada. They have toured many different countries and showcased their talents in cities like Halifax, London, Nashville and Nassau. They fund these trips through donations and ticketed events, like tonight’s.

Elijah says his favorite location was Detroit, but Jayden shakes his head and says New York City was the best. “New York City was home away from home,” he says.

It’s 5:40, 20 minutes before the show, and the nerves have set in. The girls go to the dressing room, changing into their outfits behind closed doors. The boys go to the washroom and change as well. When the group comes out, they are wearing black mid-sleeve shirts with colourful print on the shoulder and neckline, along with black dress pants and black shiny shoes.  

Before going on stage, Caprice leads a pre-show ritual. She tells the kids to say out loud, “I love me, there is nobody better than me and if there is, they are in TC3.” She says they should be aware of their potential and they should love themselves and one another.

Upstairs, Rev. Denise welcomes people into the church. There is a large turnout as tickets are selling fast and benches are filling up quickly. It’s $20 for an adult ticket, $15 for seniors and students, and $5 for children. Rev. Denise introduces the choir and says that all songs tonight are by black artists (Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin and more), in celebration of black history month.

The show begins with African drumming. Janoia, Jayden and the other drummers slap their hands back and forth on the centre of the djembe drums, creating a low vibration. They go so fast the audience can’t even see their hands move.

After the choir has performed a few songs, the dance group leaps onto the platform barefoot. They perform a mixture of hip-hop and African choreography as the audience claps along to the beat of the music.

Elijah Major raps while the audience claps along to the beat of the song “Glory” on February 16, 2019. (RSJ/Nour Al-Saied)

The second last song is “Glory”. Janoia shocks the crowd with her impeccably strong voice and Elijah leaves everyone stunned as he grabs the mic, walks down the path between the benches and effortlessly raps Common’s part of the song. The perimeter of his face starts to sweat as he focuses on the words, making sure he doesn’t stutter. When the song is over, the audience gives them a standing ovation.

Lastly, they finish the show with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Aliyah, one of the solo singers, is accompanied on stage by Caprice. Unexpectedly, they switch up one of the lines in the song and sing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of TC3,” causing smiles to form in the crowd.

When the show is over, the youth and staff return downstairs where they are packing their bags and congratulating one another on an unforgettable accomplishment.

TC3 getting ready to perform at the Our Voice: The Sound of Freedom! concert. They are led by choir director Raquel Bell on February 16, 2019. (RSJ/Nour Al-Saied)

“TC3 is more than just a choir,” Raquel says. “It’s an opportunity to grow your leadership skills and strive for greatness for the youth. When they’re successful, you’re successful.”

“We want them to know that they can be victorious, in both academics and music,” she says. “We help them see that they are somebody. Yes, there are challenges, but there is never hopelessness. We know they can do it.”

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