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Immigrant Song concert series strikes a chord against hate

Immigrant Song musicians and singers perform at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on October 30, 2021.
Phoebe Landrum
Immigrant Song musicians and singers perform at the Ethical Society of St. Louis in October 2021.

The day after then-President Donald Trump announced an executive order barring people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., St. Louisan Katie McGrath found herself feeling “dreary and sad” — until she happened upon a scene at a protest at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

“A guy started singing ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ and one by one, people started joining in,” she said. “What started out for me, cynical me, as an eye-rolling moment became this really beautiful, hopeful, uniting moment. That's when I realized that we could use music as a way to express our need to unite, regardless of our origins.”

McGrath went to work founding Immigrant Song, a nonprofit devoted to producing concerts that celebrate ethnic and cultural differences. On Sunday, artists of various backgrounds will perform at the Focal Point for “Mother’s Day: The Gratitude Concert.”

From left: Chuck Flowers, Katie McGrath, and Larry Pry
Emily Woodbury
From left: Chuck Flowers, Katie McGrath and Larry Pry

Anu French has performed with Immigrant Song since 2018. The St. Louis artist, singer and holistic pediatrician immigrated to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago from India.

“I've experienced a fair share of racism, ignorance and prejudice because I look different, sound different, smell different, eat different and pray different,” she said. “But I would also say that most of what I've experienced has been inclusive, tolerant, patient and kind.”

French said she believes in the power of music to unite and heal.

“When we sing together as a group of people from different backgrounds and different immigrant ancestors' experiences — that’s the America that I want to live in, and choose to live in, where we all come together, [where] we continue to work to amplify voices of people who don't have voices. There was a long time where I didn't feel like I had a voice, and now I feel like I do, so I need to speak up for those who don't.”

Immigrant Song concerts feature a mix of storytelling and new arrangements of well-known songs. Genres include, but aren’t limited to, contemporary pop, soul, gospel, folk and rock, as well as more traditional music styles.

For music director Larry Pry, having performers reflect on their ancestry is an important part of the show.

“I think a big problem in today's world is, we don't want to embrace what happened before us,” he said. “Even though I'm the first gay person in my family that I know of, I have a foundation of love and happiness [from] my family and the family before them. My grandfather, my great-grandfather, as they journeyed to this country, they gave me my legs to walk on. They gave me stories to tell.”

“If we stop telling ancestral stories,” Pry added, “then we stop growing because there's nowhere to grow from.”

Immigrant Song founder Katie McGrath, music director Larry Pry and performers Chuck Flowers and Anu French joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss how music is a tool against hate and divisiveness. Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or by clicking the play button below.

How Immigrant Song celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity in St. Louis

Related Event
What: Mother's Day: A Gratitude Concert
When: 2 p.m. May 12 (doors open at 1:30 p.m.)
Where: The Focal Point (2720 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, MO 63143)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.