When Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman took the inaugural podium on January 20, 2021, the world marveled at what it saw. An incredibly poised young African American woman, resplendent in yellow, capturing a moment in history with her majestic words and sealing it with her graceful delivery. And watching the inauguration on television, musician Lea Morris heard a song.
“Songs are everywhere, songs are always,” said Morris, who knew by the last line of Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” that “I wanted to echo her.” And in less than 24 hours she had done just that, writing a lilting earworm of a song called “Be the Light,” and recording it with a five-part arrangement.
“As for Amanda Gorman the person—the presence—I felt that whoever found her for that position was so spot on,” Morris explained. “The vision, the clarity; to be of that generation, on the cusp of their leadership role, she is a beacon. Hope, pure hope, in a bright yellow coat.”
In Gorman’s message of hope the singer-songwriter could see her own mantras of positivity: “That this country’s not done, it’s not broken; don’t give up, we’re getting there.” And she decided to “show up to the moment,” just as Amanda Gorman had done.
“It reminded me that this is what we all have to do,” said Morris. “Show up to the moment, say ‘yes’ to being inspired. At our best, that’s what we all can do for one another.”
Showing up to her songwriting moment was just the beginning. When Morris wrote and recorded her song, it struck a chord with Busy Graham, the founder and executive director of Carpe Diem Arts, the organization that helps people of all ages participate in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Graham suggested that Lea’s song should be sung by a choir—then got to work assembling a virtual choir of 52 singers and one ASL interpreter, a beautiful mix of voices from different generations and cultural backgrounds.
“Among the goals of the project was to offer families the opportunity to share in a memorable experience together,” explained Graham, who participated in the project along with her own husband and daughter. “Sisters, spouses, children, parents and grandparents, and groups of friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while.”
Munit Mesfin, an Ethiopian-American recording artist and director of Carpe Diem’s Jump Start with the Arts and Ukes on the Move projects, sang in the choir with her daughters. Watching Gorman on inauguration day, Mesfin said she was taken not just by how beautiful the young poet was, and how poised and confident, but also how clear she was.
“The message was right on time,” said Mesfin. “She was a bright presence delivering a powerful message in tumultuous times. My kids are young, but it was a really meaningful moment for them—a breath of fresh air.” Gorman’s youth and confidence made an impact on Mesfin’s children; she said that her eldest is studying “The Hill We Climb” in school, while her younger daughters clearly relished taking part in the virtual choir—great practice for the album they’re getting ready to record with their mother.
Family groupings are something the recording of “Be the Light” has in abundance, from the Mesfins to Morris’ sister, son, and daughter, to Graham’s family and beyond. Recording artist and teacher Lilo Gonzalez performed in the virtual choir with his wife and daughter.
“When Busy called we felt it was very important to do this,” the El Salvadoran immigrant said. “To me, it was very impressive that a young person wrote those deep lines about the light. Sometimes we see injustice and just think it’s normal—that’s the beauty of Amanda Gorman’s poem, telling us to ‘see the light and be the light.’ That is a very important message right now, very powerful.”
Gonzalez said that over the years he has relied on music to break through language and cultural barriers. In Amanda Gorman’s poetry he saw “The Hill We Climb” as a representation of the immigrant experience, with its literal and figurative obstacles to transcend.
“In my experience, I was leaving violence and killing,” he pointed out, explaining that in El Salvador he slept with his clothes and even shoes on, in case the death squads showed up in the night. “The first time I slept without worry was in Los Angeles,” he said.
Nora Atkhen, who came to the United States from France, had a much less visceral immigrant experience, but like Gonzalez she’s relied on music to make connections in her new home. Atkhen, her husband and young daughter got to know Graham through Carpe Diem’s Family Fun Nights in their Silver Spring neighborhood, building community over the years. This was an opportunity to extend that sense of community abroad, as the Atkhens invited friends in France and Canada to take part and add their harmonies (and French accents) to the virtual choir.
“The whole inauguration was very emotional,” said Atkhen. “I came here less than 10 years ago; I’m still learning the culture. From a European perspective, these things always look overdone—’only in America’—but it was emotional for me.”
Which is why she and her family decided to take up Graham’s challenge and join the choir. Dr Kathy Bullock, a D.C. native, musician, and professor emerita at Kentucky’s Berea College, got involved because Amanda Gorman’s presence and poetry had touched her heart.
“I was so gratified,” she said, recalling her emotions when she saw Gorman on the Capitol steps. “I was proud of this young woman, I was uplifted—just ecstatic.
“Lea wanted to do through music what Amanda had done through her speaking,” she added. “In artistry and creativity, one work inspires another, and I was excited about that.”
Also excited: Dr. Raymont Anderson, ASL interpreter and minister at the Center for Spiritual Living in Greater Baltimore. Known as Rev. Ray, Anderson’s vivid, stylistic ASL interpretation adds an extra layer of inclusiveness and artistry to the virtual choir.
He initially came to the D.C. area years ago to work with an all-Deaf performance company. Anderson said he first encountered Lea Morris at the National Cathedral, where she was performing.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh my goodness, this woman’s music is phenomenal!’” he recalled, adding that he quickly bought every CD she’d released. Years later they met in person, at a class in northern Virginia, and he explained the impact her music had had on his life.
“We shared a very heartfelt moment,” he said, “and we’ve been close since then.”
Anderson sees the “Be the Light” project as just one facet of what he’s been called to do; one way of spreading light.
“My job is education: Spiritual education,” he said. “I assist people in recognizing the truth about themselves so that they can live a happier, more harmonious, healthier life.”
Happy, healthy, and harmonious are words that could be applied to Amy Effler. The director of the St. Michaels Middle High School Choir, Effler survived a brain tumor nearly six years ago, battling back after having a seizure, undergoing surgery, and enduring physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Throw in remote learning during Covid, and hybrid education that started in February, and Effler appears to have climbed more than her share of hills.
“It’s been hard, and I miss my students, but I’m trying to make the best of it,” said Effler, who joined the “Be the Light” project so she could teach Lea Morris’s song to her SMMHS singers for a possible performance at the Avalon Theater in Easton, Maryland along with Morris, Anderson, Graham, and the rest of the “Be the Light” singers.
Effler said her students “definitely love the poem—and everyone can relate to it in one way or another. They’re super excited and enthusiastic about getting back in person and singing together.
“Honestly,” she added, “They’re ‘over’ virtual music. It’s not the same.”
And yet, in the moment, virtual music is what there is. When Morris looks at what she and Graham and their virtual choir have accomplished, she sees a reflection of the light Amanda Gorman first sent out on Inauguration Day.
“This is a person who shines,” Morris explained, “and what shines about her is that she is being herself, fully.
“She is filling the role she feels called to fill, and she reminds people to look inside themselves and recognize: ‘I’m awesome, too.’”
By Chris Slattery
Note: The “Be the Light” video recording was completed–as intended–in time to celebrate Amanda Gorman’s 23rd birthday, March 7, 2021.