By Margaret Huang, co-chair of the parent APT Public Relations Committee for Oakland School of the Arts, Vocal Music Department

This past weekend, Vocal Rush, an a cappella group from Oakland School for the Arts, won by a wide margin their third International Championship of High School A Cappella title in four years. Vocal Rush competed with 12 other groups in the finals representing the best of high school a cappella at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City. 

Vocal Rush ICHSA Finals Photo April 17 2015

The 11 members of Vocal Rush 2014-15 (left to right, back to front): Jada Banks Mace, Jazmine Datcher, Sarah Isen, William David Southall, Merlin Veltman, Barbara Deveaux-Griffith, McKenna Lindell-Wright, Ari Nikbakht, Britani Washington, Nelly Ake and Roman Mebrahtu

Representing Oakland and its emerging art scene, the 11 high school members of Vocal Rush signature showcased the urban artistry and swagger that has put this group at the pinnacle of all that is ‘aca’ – popular slang for ‘a cappella.’ Vocal Rush brought home the 2015 championship by more than 100 points, scoring more points than the winning group in the collegiate competition. McKenna Lindell-Wright, an OSA senior from Alameda, was recognized for her soulful performance as the competition’s Outstanding Soloist. 

Their competition set was “Upside Down” by Paloma Faith, “Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons and “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. Vocal Rush sang about being true to oneself and living through love. The final message of “Brave,” as interpreted by Vocal Rush, revolved around taking a stand for what matters and was vividly punctuated at the end with the eight members turning to display “#blacklivesmatter” spelled out across their backs and the three lead soloists — Britani Washington, Nelly Ake, and Roman Mebrahtu — kneeling with their hands up in the air.

OSA’s ascent to becoming a powerhouse in a cappella began with the 2011 arrival of Lisa Forkish, OSA vocal music assistant chair. Previously, Forkish was the music director for the University of Oregon’s award-winning a cappella group Divisi. Her group lost in the final round of a memorable 2005 ICCA finals competition, and their loss was so controversial in a cappella circles that it instigated a total review and overhaul of the competitive adjudication system. Divisi’s story ultimately inspired Mickey Rapkin’s best-selling book, “Pitch Perfect.” 

Forkish formed Vocal Rush in the midst of a surge in a cappella’s popularity that began earlier in 2009 when the hugely successful series, “Glee,” launched an overnight following. That same year, NBC began producing the a cappella reality TV competition, “The Sing-Off.” Interest exploded in 2012 when Rapkin’s “Pitch Perfect” was made into a movie with the same title that grossed over $65 million. The franchise’s popularity continues with the widely anticipated sequel, “Pitch Perfect 2,” opening in May. 

A modest charter school, OSA was founded by Governor Jerry Brown as part of his vision for reviving downtown of Oakland.  From scrappy beginnings in parking lot portables and limited performance space in a tent, the school has bootstrapped itself into a major artistic force both in the surging Uptown Oakland arts scene and nationally. 

Broad interest in Vocal Rush began in the very first year they were formed. That year, the original group placed fourth in the West Coast regional competition of the 2012 ICHSA. Not expecting to move on in the competition, the young men in the group went on to make other commitments with their schedules. 

Unexpectedly, the organizers of the competition extended a wild card invitation to Vocal Rush. The available members managed to win their first championship in a dramatic underdog fashion with all their male members absent and a hastily revised singing arrangement to adjust for all-female voices. This win from an unknown group from Oakland sparked comments in the aca world that Vocal Rush was the real “Glee.”

After winning a second championship in 2013, Vocal Rush skipped the 2014 ICHSA, choosing instead to participate as the only high school team on Season 4 of NBC’s “Sing-Off.” The high schoolers outlasted two collegiate groups in several rounds of eliminations to ultimately place third behind two groups of professional singers. Their level of performance garnered critical acclaim from the judges who pointed to Vocal Rush as evidence of why an arts education is critical. 

Indeed, the pursuit of an arts education has taken these students to opportunities beyond competitions. Vocal Rush has performed on stage at the Oakland Fox Theater with Pentatonix, a Grammy award-winning a cappella group that won Season 3 of “Sing-Off.” They have also performed for President Obama and Governor Jerry Brown. 

This third championship, won by a team that is primarily new members, proved the staying power of OSA’s Vocal Music program and the deep pool of vocal talent in the Bay Area. Oakland can look forward to Vocal Rush continuing to take a cappella beyond its current popular conventions. With Forkish at the helm, Vocal Rush will continue to reflect Oakland in the diversity of its members and add its unique musical voice to the social concerns facing its community.

The members of Vocal Rush next perform with the entire OSA vocal department on May 8th at the Oakland Fox Theater. Backed by an equally talented 15-piece student band from the OSA instrumental music department, the 120 vocalists in the Caravan show will showcase modern music from groundbreaking artists in South Korea, Lebanon, the U.K. and other distant places. 

Tickets are available (from $10 – $50) by searching “OSA Caravan”at Ticketmaster.com. The show starts at 7 p.m. 

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