On Sunday, October 11, when the LGBTQ community and allies observe National Coming Out Day (NCOD) — an annual LGBT awareness day observed to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people “coming out of the closet” — it willl done with a context much different from when it was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1988. From a pandemic and ongoing protests demanding social justice to a critical election being decided by voters in just a few weeks, National Coming Out Day amplifies the current battle for equality and protections being fought by LGBTQ . Providing the soundtrack for these unprecedented times is the Queer Choir of K-Town fronted by songstress Ellary Allis. Members of the talented, diverse group met on the frontlines of protests earlier this year and is made up of Los Angeles-0based LGBTQIA+ activists, members of the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, members of the Los Angeles Eco-Village, and a veteran Freedom Rider of Freedom Summer, 1964. The Queer Choir of K-Town sings to honor the legacy of protest music as a form of resistance and a tool for Movement building.
Inspired by Harry Belafonte’s version of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, the Queer Choir of K-Town recorded the timeless track as an udpated Freedom Song for Los Angeles in 2020. The Queer Choir of K-Town featuing Ellary Allis’ “Michael Row The Boat Ashore” uses the container of the original song with lyrical changes that reflect the political landscape of today’s social justice Movements — they express solidarity with the controversial Defund Police efforts and in support of Black Trans Lives Matter. “MIchael Row The Boat Ashore” releases Friday, October 9, 2020 on iTunes, Spotify, and other digital music retailers, and is the first single from their self-titled debut EP releasing later this year. The music video — filmed socially-distanced in Los Angeles’ K-Town (Koreatown) — will be released for National Coming Out Day (Sunday, October 11).
VENTS had a quick chat with social justice warrior Ellary Allis who is the frontwoman for the Queer Choir of K-Town…
Tell us how the Queer Choir and yourself came together for this music collaboration.
ELLARY: The Queer Choir of K–Town came together in June, in the midst of the uprising across the country in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, (and countless others). On my way home from a protest, I was listening to Harry Belafonte’s Civil Rights version of the spiritual Michael Row The Boat Ashore. My father was a Freedom Rider with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the summer of 1964, so Mr. Belafonte’s verse about the Freedom Riders always really gets me. I went home and impulsively wrote my own LA politics/Defund The Police version of the song. I sang it for my friends, Becca and Jordan, fellow queers, members of the Los Angeles Eco-village and members of the Trans Chorus of LA. We came up with the idea to record an EP of Freedom Songs for 2020, and to film a music video. We ended up forming a choir to made up of LGBTQIA+ activist friends, some members of the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, and my dad, the 78 year old freedom rider.
Jordan, who is a musical genius, became our choirmaster/choir arranger, and Becca, who is a brilliant filmmaker, directed our music video.
VENTS: Why is this single so important considering all that is happening around the world?
ELLARY: Bernice Johnson Reagon, original member of the SNCC Freedom Singers and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, said, “Freedom Songs are documents created by a collective voice.” The Queer Choir of K-Town’s Michael Row The Boat Ashore is a Freedom Song for Los Angeles in 2020- a musical document of current political struggles in our city. One of our verses calls on LA City Council to Defund LAPD. Another verse calls out our District Attorney, Jackie Lacey who is up for re-election in November. She has refused, during her tenure, to prosecute police officers for the murder of civilians.
VENTS: Tell us the history of this single — the significance of Freedom Songs.
ELLARY: The late Rep John Lewis used to say, “without music, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” I was thinking a lot about the power of that music as a tool for movement building. There is something incredibly powerful of using the container of a song with legacy and history, and updating verses to reflect and document the realities of the present. The songs become links to the past and singing them feels like a way of calling upon the resiliency of our ancestors who fought for freedom and justice. Rewriting the lyrics of traditional songs to reflect current political realities is a a protest music tradition, in general. Many of the Union songs of the American Labor movement, as well as protest music from movements around the world have done this, and the music created that way has strengthened the movements they’ve been written for. I would like to contribute in some small way to keeping that tradition alive.
VENTS: The video is releasing for National Coming Out Day — how does this relate to the single?
ELLARY: The Queer Choir of K-Town is releasing Michael Row The Boat Ashore on National Coming Out Day to celebrate the Black Trans activists, past and present, whose leadership has shaped the movement for LGTBQIA-rights. It is also a reminder that the LGBTQIA+ Justice Movement needs to center Black Trans and gender-nonconforming folks, who face disproportionate levels of violence and discrimination. Fighting homophobia and transphobia needs to go hand in hand in fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness. This is our National Coming Out Day call for collective liberation.
VENTS: What’s next for the Queer Choir and yourself?
ELLARY: The Queer Choir of K-Town is recording an EP of Freedom Songs for 2020, to be released by the end of the year. The Queer Choir of K-Town figures we could all use some Freedom Songs right now.
“Michael Row The Boat Ashore”
Queer Choir of K-Town Featuring Ellary Allis