Homeless choir finds a voice on 'AGT': 'Somebody wants to hear from me — and I'll be singing loud!'

The America’s Got Talent Season 15 premiere got off to an emotional start Tuesday, with the episode cold-opening with a patriotic post-Memorial Day salute to COVID-19 responders set to “America the Beautiful” — along with an explanation that this season’s auditions took place at the Pasadena Convention Center just 17 days before stay-at-home orders were issued in Los Angeles. (Like similar TV talent shows American Idol and The Voice, AGT will now attempt to work within social-distancing restrictions once its competitive episodes commence in the summer.)

The two-hour premiere memorably featured one tear-jerking audition, which had already gone viral after being posted to AGT’s YouTube channel over the weekend, of Archie Williams, a man who was exonerated after spending 37 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. But it was another stirring performance, by Voices of Our City Choir, that earned the first Golden Buzzer of the season.

With the goal of reconnecting San Diego's homeless community “with hope and possibility through the healing power of music,” the Voices of Our City Choir organization has helped more than 50 homeless people get off the street since it was co-founded by musicians Steph Johnson and Nina Leilani four years ago. “You guys represent so many people who are under-represented or not represented,” marveled AGT host Terry Crews during a backstage interview with the massive choir. “You are going to encourage and inspire so many people today.”

As VoOCC members of all backgrounds waited to audition, its eldest singer, a stately and stoic woman named Patricia who revealed that she’d been homeless off and on since age 18, said, “I’ve had a lot of bad experiences out there. Beat up. Robbed. But who is going to listen to me?” As it turned out, many people want to listen to Patricia, as evidenced by the elated crowd reaction to Voices of Our City Choir’s AGT audition. Said, Patricia with a smile. “I thank God for Voices of Our City Choir. Somebody wants to hear from me — and I’ll be singing loud!”

Voices of Our City Choir's leader Steph Johnson and featured singer Patricia. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)
Voices of Our City Choir's leader Steph Johnson and featured singer Patricia. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBC)

In fact, when Voices of Our City Choir performed their funky, ‘70s-style gospel jam “Listen to Sound of the Sidewalk” — an original they’d composed in one of VOCC’s songwriting workshops — Patricia was the star of the show with her wise-woman spoken word/rap vignette. “My favorite part was the talking; I never heard that happen in a choir before. The tone of your voice, it’s just sensational!” head judge Simon Cowell told her.

All four judges gave the Voices of Our City Choir a standing ovation and praised them for perseverance and positive message, but it was Crews who sealed the deal by running up to the panel’s desk and shouting, “They have moved me to this point right now!”— before emphatically slamming his hand down on that Golden Buzzer button, thus ensuring the choir’s automatic advancement to the live shows. (Side note: Crews is clearly a choir aficionado. He used his one Golden Buzzer of Season 14 on the Detroit Youth Choir!)

Tuesday’s premiere was full of heartstring-tugging moments (and some zany ones, like a vomiting sock puppet and a hog-wild animal act called Pork Chop Revue). But while the episode did briefly address the above-mentioned coronavirus-related production issues, it unsurprisingly did not allude to that other big development that nearly derailed this season: the scandal surrounding the controversial 2019 exits of judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough. Union's departure allegedly came after she complained about inappropriate/racially insensitive behavior and a general “toxic culture” on the set; the fallout prompted an NBC investigation.

Tuesday’s premiere saw the return of former judge Heidi Klum — who’d initially defended the show against Union’s accusations, before backtracking and clarifying her statements — and the debut of new cast member Sofía Vergara. Klum and Vergara, along with regulars Cowell and Howie Mandel, both seemed happy to be sitting behind the business-as-usual AGT desk.

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