Detroit Youth Choir's talent and determination shine in new Disney+ documentary
The Detroit Youth Choir is back in the spotlight in a new documentary series streaming on Disney+.
The group trains singers from the ages of 8 to 18. They first gained national attention on the TV show America’s Got Talent.
The new six-part documentary is called "Choir." DYC artistic director Anthony White joined Michigan Public Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about the new series.
Doug Tribou: You've been the director of the choir for about 25 years and had more than 1,500 kids. Could you just briefly describe the group's mission?
Anthony White: Well, the mission is to develop the creativeness in our young people through music education, dance and theatrical art. And for over 25 years, we've kind of expanded that vision. So, you know, you have young people that come from different backgrounds. You've got to know how to approach these young people the right way, you know. We have the most extraordinary group of kids that anyone would ever want to have in their organization.
"We have the most extraordinary group of kids that anyone would ever want to have in their organization."Detroit Youth Choir artistic director Anthony White
DT: One of the tensions in the documentary is the commitment it takes to be a DYC member. You have one singer, Azaria, who loves playing on her high school basketball team, and she's feeling the pressure to stop doing that so she can focus on the choir. Here's a quote from you from the first episode of the documentary talking about that mindset.
"One of the things that we tell our students is, DYC will still go on without you. If your agenda is not with our agenda, it's going to be an issue. You have to work to be a part of a recording choir. You have to work to be a part of a traveling choir."
DT: So, the vast majority of the kids are not going to become professional performers, and their other interests might also serve them well somehow in their adult life. How do you walk that line of what to demand of them?
AW: With some of our young people, you know, a lot of them come into the choir thinking that they're going to be stars right away. And you have somebody like Azaria. She's been with me since she was nine years old. But as she got older, she started, you know, having boyfriends and playing basketball.
DT: These things happen. [Laughs]
AW: Yeah. You know, things like that happen. You can't stop anyone from liking someone or something. But when those things kind of got in the way, that's where the the lines got real blurry. But we were able to overcome all of that. Because I came from a basketball background, so I understand what they're going through. [Laughs]
DT: One of the recurring themes in the documentary is the choir's ability to show kids what's possible for them. You and your staff talk about the importance of the members being able to see that their dreams aren't out of reach. But at one point, you also offer a tough reality check about your position. Here's another quote from the series.
"I wanted to save every child that came through the door, and I realized that you can't save everybody. But the ones that's here, I'm going to try to do my best for them."
DT: You talk about some of the kids coming in with different challenges, either because of their backgrounds or their home lives. How do you know when you can or can't step in to help a kid who needs more than just coaching on their performances?
"No matter how much I was a positive influence with him or kids like him, that I couldn't save him. But there's a vast majority of young people that I can actually save and help."DYC artistic director Anthony White on a former member who left the group and appeared headed for trouble.
AW: Well Doug, I remember that I had a young man. His name was Darius. He was a great performer. And I remember one day he came up to me and said, 'Mr. White, I'm about to quit DYC because I want to hang out and do bad things.' And I said, 'What?'
And I found out then and there that no matter how much I was a positive influence with him or kids like him, that I couldn't save him. But there's a vast majority of young people that I can actually save and help.
DT: Anthony, thanks a lot for your time.
AW: Thank you, Doug. I appreciate it man. This is wonderful. Thank you so much.
Up next for DYC is a trip to a choir festival in Nairobi, Kenya later this year. White told Michigan Public the group is raising funds to help offset the costs of the trip for the singers.
In 2023 for Black History Month, Michigan Public's Morning Edition partnered with a journalism class at Renaissance High School in Detroit for two feature stories. For that project a student, who was also a DYC singer, interviewed Anthony White about the choir's history and its rise to national success.
Editor's note: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.