Tonewall, an a cappella band of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, is using its platform to promote diversity and inclusion. Comprised of a dynamic mix of members from across spectrums of race, gender, and sexual-orientation, their mission is to "change hearts and souls through music."
According to the group, the world of a cappella is pretty homogenous. It is dominated by white, straight images and storylines--just take a look at Pitch Perfect and the sequel Pitch Perfect 2. Tonewall is revolutionary in shifting that narrative and is helping marginalized voices gain visibility and recognition in a space that has traditionally lacked them.
Christian Tanja, a 31-year-old Tonewaller from LA, has been the group's beatboxer since its founding one and a half years ago. When he isn't dropping tight, energetic rhythms; Tanja serves as co-chair of the Inclusion and Equity Committee within the greater NYC Gay Men's Chorus.
"Music takes a certain level of capital and access, so diversity [is important] to make sure the untold stories are voiced out," Tanja said in an interview with VICE Impact.
Growing up as a Filipino child of two immigrant parents, Tanja credits his musical taste to the church choir background he grew up in, as well as the fact that his family loved having a karaoke machine at home.
Like so many others, Tanja's intersectional experiences as a racial minority and a gay man is integral to the identity of the group. In reference to Tonewall's makeup, he mentioned that they exude diversity in different ways, which allows them to champion the stories they find important.
This last June, Tonewall's eleven members gathered in Battery Park to record a music video, for their cover of Betty Who's "Beautiful," which is featured above, to celebrate self-acceptance during LGBTQ Pride month.
Jo Lee, 29, sings falsetto and identifies as a non-binary, mixed person of color, Tonewall has been vital to the realization and celebration of their identity. They said, "Tonewall has really helped me pour the concrete in the foundations of who I want to be," and "has become a place where I'm able to express that safely." As Tonewall has helped Lee embrace their identity; they hope that the group's visibility will empower others regardless of where they fall on the gender or sexual orientation spectrum.
Larry Tantay, a 35-year-old Tonewaller sings the lead on the song. Reiterating the sentiment of inclusivity, they stressed the importance of marginalized people owning the processes that they're part of, pointing out that a lot of the people of color and non-binary folk take leadership roles in Tonewall's creative process such as song composition and choreography.
Within the LGBTQ community, trans and nonbinary people as well as people of color face higher rates of discrimination and violence. An organization like Tonewall, is a microcosm of change that should be adopted at a systemic level to empower the most vulnerable sectors of a marginalized community.
Tonewall was the featured performer at FDNY's first-ever Pride Event in 2016; sang on the main stage at Adelphi University's SingStrong event in February 2017, and performed for the City Council at this year's Pride observance sponsored by Rosie Mendez. Next, on their plate, the group is scheduled to compete in the NYC Regional Qualifier of the International Championship of A Cappella Open this August. The final round of that tournament is being held at New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall.