By Margaret Huang

Rebecca Dharmapalan will be a soloist at the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) Vocal Department’s annual concert, “Soundtrack,” a night of Hollywood hits at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Friday, May 2. Tickets are still available on, search for “OSA Soundtrack.”

The opening chant to the song, “Jai Ho,” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire begins to punctuate the air in the halls of Oakland School for the Arts. Rehearsals have begun for the Vocal Music department’s upcoming concert, “Soundtrack,” which will take place in the Fox Theater next to OSA on May 2.  Rebecca Dharmapalan, whose short documentary “International Boulevard,” took the top prize at the Girls Impact the World Festival 2013, suddenly appears as if on cue at the far end of the hallway and sprints through the door to the front of the classroom risers filled with her classmates dancing and singing in unison just in time to begin her solo.

The 18-year-old OSA student has been receiving widespread attention for a documentary film that she co-created with Zoë Simone Yi, an OSA digital media student. The 5-minute film, International Boulevard, named after the street located only a mile and half away from OSA, put a spotlight on the fact that forty percent of the nation’s sex trafficking takes place in Oakland.

Her activism extends beyond the film with her appointment as an Oakland Youth Commissioner, and helping to create the first task force for the prevention of CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children).  It would be easy to assume that Rebecca is an OSA film student, but she is not.  She is actually a member of OSA’s highly-regarded Vocal Department, who has entered numerous international vocal competitions in jazz, opera and Broadway, performing five times at Carnegie Hall.

Performing as a singer since the age of four, when she first appeared in her grandfather’s church, singing Christmas carols, Rebecca began with Piedmont Girls Choirs in kindergarten and progressed to San Francisco Girls Choirs in middle school. She then took private voice lessons to hone her operatic training. She speaks with authority when she highlights the fact that OSA’s Vocal Department has a very distinct and signature conducting style, where the directors often step aside during a performance and allows a choir to conduct itself.

As a member of OSA’s Chamber Choir, Rebecca explains that her choir stands in a circle while each member reviews a rehearsal or performance. “As artists, we are really nitpicky about notes and how we sound.” The Vocal Department faculty maintains extremely high artistic standards, but Rebecca appreciates how this type of conducting style places the emphasis squarely on the students and empowers them as artists.

Her department chair, Cava Menzies, supported her desire to explore her interests with film and worked with her demanding schedule to allow room for her pursue it. Given that her current course load includes 3 AP and one Honors course and she maintains above a 4.0 GPA, Rebecca is clearly a student with the capability to manage extra responsibility.

Once a student at exclusive private schools such as Head Royce, Rebecca is very clear that her choice to attend OSA put her in a position to explore Oakland and be exposed to the world around her. She rides buses throughout Oakland to get herself to many of her community service meetings and activities. While her parents were initially concerned about her desire to work with exploited youth and young women, she believes that once they saw her work and the publicity it attracted they came to understand its importance to her and understand that people were actually listening.

Having a family and teachers who care deeply about her and her artistic voice, Rebecca believes fuels her desire to become an activist and an advocate for the women who haven’t had the privilege of being cared for like she has.  Having received acceptances to attend several colleges in the UC system already, Rebecca is likely to remain in California and hopes to continue the advocacy work she began with the city of Oakland.

The OSA School of Vocal Music burst on to the national scene in 2012 when their high school a cappella group, Vocal Rush, won the International Championship of High School A Cappella (ICHSA) on their first year out on a West Coast wild card invitation. They won the ICHSA again in 2013 and are the current champions. They were also the only high school team to become finalists in the NBC Series, The Sing-off, which aired on national television this past December.

OSA’s School for Vocal Music is the home to slightly over 100 students between the grades of 6 – 12.  The department is home to young regional artists from all over the Bay Area and established itself as contributing force to the arts renaissance taking shape in the center of Oakland.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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