This June Symphony Hall plays host to more than 100 performers from across the region as it celebrates the city’s vibrant music and spoken word scene, as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival. We caught up with Shereece Storrod, Artistic Director of B:Music’s Associate Artists Black Voices, to find out more about the showpiece Beyond the Bricks of Brum concert.
Tell me about your involvement in Beyond the Bricks of Brum? Black Voices is an all-female a cappella quintet based here in the city. We’re associate artists of B:Music, and last year I was invited to be on the creative team for Beyond the Bricks of Brum and came up with the concept of the show, along with the other creators, Casey Bailey, Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
What’s the concept behind the show? Really, it’s B:Music’s contribution to the cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games. It’s a celebration of artists, music and the arts in Birmingham. They wanted it to be a collaboration between spoken word and music artists from the city. We were all tasked with finding other creatives to join the project, that we felt maybe needed a spotlight shone on them, or maybe needed more recognition for the great work that they are doing with music or spoken word. We invited Agaama, John Bernard, TrueMendous, and MC Sanity; in fact Sanity was in the creative process as well.
Is there a message of diversity behind the concept? It’s definitely about diversity. It’s also about merging the new with the traditional and what comes from that, For example, the BBC Symphony Orchestra being able to broaden its reach in terms of audience. Birmingham is the most diverse city in the UK so it good that B:Music’s offering to the cultural programme shows that.
How did things start for Black Voices? The group was formed back in 1987 by Carol Pemberton. Many of the women started off as backing vocalists for bands from the West Midlands and around the UK. They’d get frustrated when they got to rehearsal, being drowned out by the band, but always enjoyed it when they were rehearsing on their own. They thought there would be something special in having just the voices – without the band – and it just grew from there. They got their first gig for the Black Dance Development Trust, which needed some entertainment for its awards evening. The organisers said to Carol, “You and your friends sing. Why don’t you come and share a song with us?”. They shared one song, because that was all they had prepared, and people came up and said “How do we book you?”. They realised they needed to do something about that demand, so they did, and became Black Voices.
Tell us about some of the really big names you’ve had chance to perform with? We’ve opened for Take 6, Ray Charles, Nina Simone. We’ve worked with Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Wynton Marsalis – lots of amazing people over the years. I think we’re most proud when we get to do things like Community Spirit though. That’s our outreach programme with B:Music, working with local choirs in the West Midlands. We really enjoy the opportunity to provide outlets for performers who are less seen, enabling them to do their thing in prestigious venues. And where’s more prestigious than Symphony Hall?
You’ve performed for presidents too? Yes, for presidents in a few African countries over the years with the British Council, but also for the wives of G8 presidents when Bill Clinton was here in Birmingham. We’ve also performed for the Queen, the late Princess Diana; I think most of the Royal Family to be fair!
What do you hope will be the main message that comes from your music? For Black Voices, our by-line is Music With A Message. We’re always hoping that whatever we are performing is sending a message of positivity, of love, of humanity. We support equality for women; in fact we’re really passionate about basic rights for everyone. I guess a message from Beyond the Bricks of Brum is that it’s this culmination of young and old from Birmingham, celebrating the art that we create as performers, in spoken word and music, and how they complement each other. The show is bits of our own work combined with bits of new work, and it’s come together really well to create something new that none of us could envisage in the beginning.
What do you think is the most iconic or favourite song that you’ll perform on the night? For Black Voices the favourite will be I Shall Be Released. A lot has happened over the past couple of years and that song expresses a real celebratory moment of freedom and positivity.
You’re Associate Artists for Town Hall and Symphony Hall. What does that relationship mean to you? It’s a relationship that we’re trying to develop even further. Community Spirit is the biggest project that we do with them. Beyond the Bricks at Brum came along and that looks at how we could work with other artists. It’s important that people get to see an orchestra that they wouldn’t normally get the chance to. This event is a way of meeting two different briefs – bringing different people into the halls and allowing them to experience an orchestra live. For some people they might be doing that for the first time ever in their lives.
Tell us about the Gospel Course that Black Voices runs? We’ve been going to the Dartington Summer Music School and Festival for more than 30 years, and the Gospel Course that runs every summer is one of the most popular events there. It’s a little bit more than Gospel though. It’s really about singing from the heart; and as well as Gospel, there’s learning spirituals and about the history behind them, along with the participation in the singing. The week is like a journey, like a history lesson on black music forms.
What would you say has been your most memorable performance? Actually, I’ve got two. One very high profile one – that would be the opening for Take 6 and the late great Hugh Masekela at Symphony Hall. That was amazing, a wonderful experience. I was humbled by their generosity and the love they showed us. Then, on a much smaller but equally humbling scale, we did some work in a prison. It was predominantly black males, and for that one afternoon when Black Voices was with them, for some of them it was their best day in that prison. That was really moving.
Who is your favourite artist and what’s your favourite feel-good song? Well, I’m a little bit biased because Laura Mvula is my cousin! I love a bit of Green Garden and I love it when I’m in TKMaxx or somewhere and it comes on. It just makes me feel happy.
You’re from Birmingham. What do you love about our city? I’ve spent a lot of time in London over the years. The friendliness of Birmingham is something I always notice, and it’s why I always love coming back home. Music people always think you are going to move to London, but it’s never been the place for me. Birmingham has always felt like home. People are so welcoming, the diversity of the people, and I think it’s a wonderful place. If you know the right people you can do so many things in Birmingham. When I say “know the right people”, I don’t mean those in “high places”. I mean in terms of them being interesting and different. There’s so much to do and if you just tap into the right circles you’ll find it. That’s whether it’s music, going to see art, theatre, anything. I feel like there’s always a buzz around Birmingham.
You mentioned Birmingham being the most diverse city in the country. Do you think we have maintained better racial harmony here over and above anywhere else, or do we still have a lot of work to do? I think the world has still got a lot of work to do. I definitely think Birmingham has kind of led the way when it comes to cultural diversity and harmony, but I think we’ve still all got a long way to go. For setting a good example though, I think Birmingham is definitely up there.
What are the future plans for Black Voices? We’ve got lots of activity around the Commonwealth Games – the opening ceremony for a start! There’s lots of stuff happening at our home studios in Handsworth too. We’ve plans to engage the local community – young people in particular – to get involved with the building and have access to it. That’s whether it’s recording or whether it’s training and skills. We really want the future of sound engineers, recording studio engineers to be secure, so it’s something we are heavily investing in.