BOULDER, Colo. — Andrea Ramsey was horrified by what she saw on the news about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Ramsey, associate director of choral studies and an assistant professor of conducting on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, realized she could use music to raise awareness about the water crisis and give a voice to the community members whose drinking water had been contaminated by toxic lead.
“It hit like a lightning bolt one day,” said Ramsey. “I was thinking about composing this piece and I had my own personal reaction to the Flint situation, but those were two separate things. A lightning bolt hit and I said, ‘I need to figure this out and make (these ideas) work together.’”
Last spring, Ramsey wrote a choral piece titled “But a Flint Holds Fire.” It’s now being performed by children’s choirs around the country and is on tap to be performed by the Boulder Children’s Chorale during a future season.
The drinking water in Flint became contaminated with lead in 2014 after the city changed its water supply and failed to treat the water with a corrosion inhibitor, which caused lead to leach from the pipes into the water. Pediatricians say lead consumption can cause behavioral and cognitive issues in children but more than two years later, unfiltered water in Flint is still not safe to drink.
The piece was commissioned by Chorus America, a national group that supports singers, conductors and choral administrators with advocacy, research and leadership development. Ramsey donated the piece to help raise money for the organization; 24 children’s choirs around the country also donated funds to be able to perform the piece.
Many of the lyrics for “But a Flint Holds Fire” come from a 19th-century poem written by Christina Rosetti titled “Flint.”
Ramsey also solicited written responses from schoolchildren in Flint and used many of their observations, fears, feelings and thoughts to create additional lyrics and to add spoken-word elements to the song.
When performing the piece, children take turns speaking phrases such as, “My water had orange little pieces in it,” and, “Flint is in a rocky place right now. We have to do everything with bottles and jugs of water. I constantly fear running out of water.”
Ramsey also asked the Flint schoolchildren to share the positive aspects of their community. As the piece progresses, the music and lyrics become more hopeful. In the end, audience members are left with thoughts such as, “No matter how deep and dark the mud is, the people in Flint hold true and bright.”
She included a QR code in the score that links to the website for Flint Rising, a coalition working to help Flint families. Ramsey encouraged choirs to copy and paste the code into their concert programs so that audience members could easily take steps to help.
“We’re just starting a dialogue and encouraging people to start donating and just be aware,” said Ramsey, who earned her doctoral degree from Michigan State University, which is an hour’s drive from Flint, just before the water crisis started. “It’s hard for me to imagine that (the crisis) has gone on for this long and that these people have been without clean water since April of 2014. This is not right. This is not OK.”
Though many people may think of the water crisis in abstract terms, Ramsey attempted to highlight the lived experiences of Flint residents.
“I do think it humanizes it and you realize this is everyday life for them,” she said. “Most of us, at one time or another, have had to be without water or boil our water and we know just how inconvenient that is for one day. We’re so desensitized because there’s so many different things happening everywhere that are bad that we just become dismissive after it leaves the media cycle.”
The Michigan State University Children’s Choir performed the piece in November and again at a state music conference last month. Kyle Zeuch, the group’s director, said despite the heavy subject matter, the piece seemed to resonate with students in the choir.
“This one seemed to hit closer to their hearts because these are kids that are their same age, living an hour away from them, so I feel like they were able to put themselves in the situation and it was a very sobering experience,” Zeuch said.
The Boulder Children’s Chorale plans to perform the piece during a future season, said Kate Klotz, artistic director for the group.
Klotz said Ramsey’s piece brings the story of the Flint water crisis to life and paints a clear picture of the situation there. She compared it to other examples of musical activism, such as civil rights-era protest music and South African apartheid freedom songs.
“Using music for social change and social justice is something we’re seeing more and more of,” Klotz said. “This piece fits right in that category of having a message to share and having something to teach people.”