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Meet Travis Branam of Vocal Coalition

Today we’d like to introduce you to Travis Branam.

Travis, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’m an idealistic, classically-trained youth choir conductor who has always dreamed of bringing divided people together through music. In 2010, I made a New Year’s Resolution to go into Denver’s local, non-classical music scene with the intention of learning to care about local artists and their music at the same level I wanted others to care about me and my art. It was an exercise in empathy. My mantra was, “If we as humans and artists wish to be heard, we must first learn to listen.” I had no idea my naive resolution would change my life forever.

After six months of going to concerts in Denver bars and venues, I not only learned about incredible local artists and their original music, I learned some hard truths about why music tends to divide people instead of uniting them. I started to wonder if my dream of bringing people together through music was ridiculous; perhaps even impossible. I was about to give up the dream altogether until one day, driving down a highway in southwestern Colorado, listening to a song by a Denver band gave me an idea.

The song was called “The Good Old Days” and was about how important it is to savor every moment of life. As I was driving, I thought to myself: “You know what? KIDS should sing this song!” Then I thought, “What if instead of a youth choir that sings choir music, what if there was a youth choir in Denver that performed the music of the city with the artists who wrote the songs? Could THAT bring divided people together?”

As my brain started firing with excitement, I started driving too fast without realizing it and got pulled over by a cop and got a speeding ticket. But I was happy to pay the fine because in that moment, I received the inspiration I needed to create Vocal Coalition, a youth choir that empowers Colorado youth to conquer hate by leading a musical revolution for Love.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
To be honest, getting VOCO up and running was anything but smooth. Let’s face it: Hate is real. Division is real. Racism and systemic racism is real. And none of these things showed up on our doorstep yesterday. These things have been damaging lives and driving wedges between people and communities for centuries. Art is one of the ways we make sense of our place in that chaos, so trying to create a hope-inducing space through music that honors the dignity and stories of all people is a daunting and challenging endeavor. Here’s three things I’ve learned on my journey:

1. Mistakes and misunderstandings in this kind of vulnerable, cross-cultural work are bound to happen; I just need to accept responsibility for my actions when they do.

2. Always appreciate and respect how risky this kind of coming-together feels for people and communities who have been deeply hurt in their past by hate.

3. The human need to have one’s humanity acknowledged and the desire to have the opportunity to acknowledge the humanity of someone else can transcend the divergences in our stories if we let it.

Vocal Coalition – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
At Vocal Coalition (VOCO), we know today’s youth want to heal the hatred and division they see in their world. VOCO is a youth choir that empowers Colorado youth to conquer hate by leading a musical revolution for Love so divided people can unite in their shared humanity.

What sets VOCO apart from other youth choirs is that our singers aspire to do something pretty ambitious and audacious: conquer hate. Our singers perform the music of ANY style or genre- from classical to rock to hip-hop and more and they perform alongside the Colorado artists who wrote the songs they sing. This is highly unique, and it builds a radically inclusive environment with incredible cross-cultural mentorship that is sometimes hard to find in more traditional choirs. Finally, VOCO is about so much more than singing; it’s about realizing the dream of uniting divided people and empowering Colorado’s youth and artists to show us how it’s done.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Success for me in cosmic, sweeping terms would be 75,000 youth and community members gathered at Empower Field at Mile High linking arms and singing our VOCO Anthem “The Revival” together. That’s where I want to be someday soon.

But whether at Mile High or at any other venue, success for VOCO- at the risk of sounding like a broken record- is conquering hate and building up a new world rooted in Love. Inevitably in our work, there are moments of tension and frustration between young singers who haven’t yet had enough opportunities to get to know and understand each other across all that divides them. That’s normal, and that’s just one reason why this work is so important. But the hope is that by the end of their VOCO experience, our singers can see and understand that those moments of discomfort eventually led to them being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, acknowledge their humanity, and Love them for exactly who they are. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s the kind of radical compassion that can change the world, and that’s what we aspire to at VOCO.

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