Monique DeBose on Improv Singing and her "Rally Call"

by Corey O'Flanagan

Singer, songwriter and playwright Monique DeBose explains how improv singing works and talks about "Rally Call," her song about liberation.

From her time improvising at UC Berkeley, to traveling the world performing and finding her voice as a songwriter, Monique DeBose has an incredible story to share. A polymath with degrees in Spiritual Psychology and Mathematics, she earned acclaim for her one-woman show Mulatto Math: Summing Up the Race Equation in America and is a prominent speaker who has done TED Talks.

DeBose has made her mark in music with songs that carry the weight of struggle and experience. Her 2018 song "Damaged Goods" looks at how our perceived faults are part of our humanity; her 2020 track "Rally Call" summons the disenfranchised to stand up and fight, because every voice matters. She discusses both of these songs in this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, and also explains how improv singing gave her an artistic foundation.

Speaking with DeBose, it's clear why she gets invited to TED Talks: Her energy can fill up a room and leave you wanting more.


Back to the roots

I had your regular childhood in sunny Los Angeles. My parents used to love R&B and old Motown music, so I was always exposed to that kind of stuff. I remember my dad used to rock out to Marvin Gaye on the weekend, and I would just roller skate around the backyard listening to The O'Jays and the E.T. soundtrack.

For a lot of my life, I have been a walking contradiction. As a kid, I was extremely shy and the singing was very deep-rooted within me. When I told everyone I wanted to sing everybody was really surprised and I think unsure about how it was going to go. I went to college at UC Berkeley and in my sophomore year I joined an improvisational singing group. That was actually the first time I sang in public.

Not being professionally trained from a young age, it was difficult to gauge how good you were. I would say that my talent is natural, but at the time I would listen to myself and believe that because I didn't sound like Whitney Houston, I didn't sound like a singer. Luckily, I then discovered the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and was pleasantly surprised to hear the diverse sounds and voices within music. I honed in on what I had with the help of a voice teacher and countless practice. Even now in my 40s I'm still working and practicing on my craft.


Improv

While I attended Berkeley, I stumbled across an amazing singer named Joey Blake, who worked with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra. It was with him that I began to learn about improvisation and circle singing, and then moved on to studying with a master teacher, Rhiannon.

Improv singing is really amazing because you create music on the spot and build pieces either alone or with others, and unless you hit record, that music may be gone forever. It's about really being in the moment and owning all the parts of yourself within that moment. It's an exercise that builds such a unique bond with all of the artists, building trust with yourself, and with one another.

Our culture tends to label everything and likes to put things in a box, and I think something like improv music, where the direction is unknown, can help hone your attention span into just concentrating on one thing with all that you have. It's a rejuvenating break from everyday habits.


Getting started

After graduation, I spent a year working for a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia. I knew that this was not my destiny, so I joined a jazz band and became a performer.

After this, the international work/travel relationship began, and I did residencies all over the world. I started in India and spent most of that time around Asia, but I also performed in the Netherlands.

I was always requested to play jazz, but of course once I had arrived in most places I was frequently asked to sing the big pop numbers from the likes of Celine Dion.


"Damaged Goods" and the meaning behind the music

I write for myself. Whether that be to inspire, document or encourage, I'm pulling from my life experiences and from the genres that I love. I do a combination of writing lyrics and melody and then adding chords, to taking the other route of going through an instrumentalist who just makes everything so beautiful and organized.

With my song "Damaged Goods," I wanted to really convey the message that we as humans do not exist as perfect, and that it is our imperfections that make us good. A "White Collar Prison" is in reference to women who feel they're presenting on the outside an inaccurate depiction of who they are on the inside. Somebody who has privilege in their world, but still feels trapped by that privilege.

I wrote a body of music with some really close friends of mine. We sat down for a couple of months and thought about what we really wanted to say. Thus, "Damaged Goods" was born. The tone of the song was really empathizing with the character throughout their journey in the song, but as I like to inspire and encourage with my writing, at the end of the song I throw in a wink to say, hey I know this is tough right now, but we all have to walk our path in order to grow.


Her song "Rally Call," and messaging through art

I wrote "Rally Call," because I was tired of feeling like my voice didn't matter and that I was having to erase myself in order for white America to feel comfortable. The phenomenon that seems to occur in our culture is that black people have this unspoken place and I'm just tired of living in that phenomenon.

The lyrics, "get rid of those papers," are in reference to when black people were unable to walk around without getting questioned about where they were going, and having to provide their papers. I'm just trying to express how the mindset of negative racial bias needs to be cut off, for everybody. It's not helping anyone, no matter a person's color. I want my music to be a medicine, to help educate, and to help heal.

Paul Robeson was a great American singer who said, "Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization's radical voice."

September 30, 2020
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