In early 2013, I researched and invited two vocal groups based in Flint, Michigan to perform for the public and each other outdoors at Chevy-in-the-Hole, the now defunct Flint-Chevy auto production facility in downtown Flint.
The Flint Male Chorus is directly descended from the company-era Chevrolet-Flint Male Chorus of the Chevrolet Manufacturing Division that was originally located at the site, and the Flint City Wide Choir is an interdenominational group from more than 50 churches across Flint. Many of the performers worked at the car factory years ago or have family and friends who did. As of now, the site is open to the elements, a cemented lot with weeds framing the downtown Flint skyline. The title of the social performance, “Happy Valley,” is a past name of the Flint-Chevy site used while factories were in full production.
I asked each group in advance to choose songs from their repertoire in reaction to their memories and thoughts about the place. A few weeks before the event, directors from each vocal group visited each other’s rehearsals and, during the hour-long performance, the chorus and choir sang separately and then together. The event was emotionally moving for everyone involved. I videotaped the performance and a few months later produced a DVD and sent copies to more than seventy performance participants.
Made famous by Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, Flint, Michigan suffers from an outdated reputation, much like where I live in the Bronx. In reality, there is life and talent in Flint. “Happy Valley” brought everyone together to synthesize something new out of these legacies.
The social performance also demonstrated American forms of cultural and racial separation. Despite being in a similar field in a small city, the choir and chorus directors had not met each other before. The Flint City Wide Choir, rehearsing in Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, is largely black and sings to uplift the name of Jesus. The Flint Male Chorus focuses on secular musical numbers and American classics, and its members are all white. The title of the performance, “Happy Valley,” can be read as an institutional critique of the current state of things. Regardless, local television, newspapers and the mayor characterized the event as happy—a step forward and vision for the future.
“Happy Valley” was an advance event of the Free City Public Art Festival, organized by artist Laura Napier and produced by Flint Public Art Project in affiliation with Flint Institute of Arts with support from ArtPlace.