It was on a cold rainy evening in early March, when I stepped into Volksbühne to witness something special. Over forty beautiful souls radiating energy warm the darkest of Berlin winter nights. Almost everyone who has made a name for themselves in the city’s soul and RnB scene is somehow connected to the project. This a perfect example of power in community. There is no question of the project’s potential to strengthen the local scene when they sold out the venue before even releasing any music.
A Song For You is a Berlin-based vocal ensemble project that brings together over fifty singers and a revolving band from the city’s neo-soul/RnB/hip-hop scene. To find out what’s behind it all, I meet up with Noah Slee and Stephanie Ilova on one of the rare sunny afternoons in April. Noah is no stranger to the RnB scene and has been recognized for his solo projects. He is one of the co-founders of the project alongside creative director Dhanesh Jayaselan. Steph choreographed the show in March and is part of the core team. Berlin is busy at that time, so we walk around a bit looking for a place to sit and chat. We settle for a little Italian place that doesn’t have oat milk but smells of Cannelloni.
From Collective Singing to Soulful Performances
A Song For You (ASFY) came to life roughly a year ago. Noah and Dhanesh have been working in and around the Berlin RnB, Soul, and Jazz scene for some time. It all started with a conversation and connecting on what the Berlin music scene was missing for them and their friends. They were bouncing off ideas to highlight the many talents based in Berlin and bring the scene as a whole to an international level. How could they platform their community, on their own terms?
“Berlin is still seen as a techno and house scene, which we are not trying to change at all. We are just trying to raise awareness so that our industry can flourish also. So people are not just interested in partying, but maybe doing studio sessions, pull up songwriters, doing side shows with certain connectors and collaborators.” – Noah
It wasn’t all big ideas from the start. First and foremost it was about getting together and making music. Collective singing is a big part of Noah’s heritage and upbringing, and something he has been missing in Berlin. But dreaming big is where Noah and Dhanesh really connect, they both have that “just go for it” mentality. When they went to see a theater show, they were impressed by the quality of the production, maybe even more so than the performance itself. They thought: “We could do this if we had the right platform, and if we had the right opportunities”. Recognizing the huge talent within their community and its potential, they could see it going above and beyond: “You know, there’s so much richness in our friends and also in how diverse we are and our different backgrounds. That you don’t have to be in this space of someone else’s script, but our own.”
Through Noah’s initiative and Dhanesh’s vision, the vocal group has grown from a handful of singers to a community of performers. Their collective singing has brought people together and given them the opportunity to showcase their talents. The power of collaboration and community is evident in their story, and their journey serves as a reminder of the potential for joy and creativity when people come together with a common purpose. The ASFY sound was developed largely through experimentation and exploration. As most of the members come from jazz, soul, and RnB backgrounds, they have naturally connected to these styles, while remaining open to influences from other genres. Their songwriting process is also collaborative. In a week of songwriting, they created several songs a day by breaking into smaller groups. Together they chose the ones that stood out and kept on refining them to eventually put them on an album. Then one thing led to another.
“It started as just getting together to sing. But when you get booked for Volksbühne and it’s sold out in two weeks, you don’t want to be just a cute project. We’re going to work our butts off to put on the strongest show we can.“ – Noah
And let me tell you: A choir performing SZA hits differently. Over 40 singers, dancers, and instrumentalists orchestrated an evening of truly soulful music from covering a Jill Scott classic to performing their own original songs. Every emotion was articulated and transmitted through multiple art forms. You wonder if every second of the performance was strategically planned, yet feels anything but. The music overflows with the sounds of many upbringings and disparate backgrounds, an amalgamation of influences that feels only natural.
Building a Community Through Music
So is A Song For You an artistic project? A choir? An artist collective? Talking to Stef and Noah helped me to understand that it is all of the above, but first and foremost it is a community. And for many of its members, a place of safety and friendship. Naturally, it was a big learning curve for everyone involved to manage 50-plus people and their different expectations, emotions, and skill sets. Not everyone in the group experienced being on a stage, let alone one the size of the Volksbühne. At the same time, having people from many various professions, both within and outside the music and arts industries, proved to be a great asset, as Steph explains: “The good thing about having a big group with people from different backgrounds is that everyone brings different knowledge to the project, not just musicians. But it’s people with different perspectives and different know-how. And it’s a lot about trust, but it’s also a beautiful space to be in. To know that we trust each other. And that we are all going to do the best that we can and even grow beyond that. So for me, it was the experience of doing the Volksbühne choreography to go beyond what I knew I could do.“
As social beings, humans thrive in community. We seek out spaces that enable us to connect with others who share our values and engage in activities that bring us joy. As the choir continues to grow and evolve, Noah and the core team remain focused on the balance between professionalism and community. They want to provide the tools for the singers to develop their skills, while at the same time fostering a safe space for them to be vulnerable, to honor the music, and to show up for each other.
Collective singing, especially in this refreshing new approach, is something we have rarely seen before in Berlin. Yet it ties in with the city’s character as a place of liberation and freedom, a creative playground. Reflecting on his Tongan roots, growing up in New Zealand (Aotearoa), and going to church, Noah experienced collective singing that is so rich in culture and passed down from generation to generation. Something he wants to pass on here in Berlin, but without a specific framework or tagline. ASFY is trying to reimagine the concept of a choir by bringing it to a contemporary level, without denying the influences of gospel music originating in US-American Black churches or the many different religious and non-religious backgrounds of its members. That’s why they’ve never put religion or even spirituality at the center of their work, even though it could be both for individual members: “There’s no agenda other than being creative and making music. You know, for me it’s not about spirituality at all. Although the experience can be spiritual, singing together has a spiritual way.“
Taking Space and Creating the Narrative
The Volksbühne has a loaded history spanning over 130 years. Once built as a place for workers and the less privileged to attend and enjoy theater productions, the monumental building was later overshadowed by its Nazi Germany and World War II history. Today, it is again a place where socio-political issues are discussed and pushed forward. To claim space there is to take an active part in this discourse.
Being a BIPoC-centered vocal ensemble, they are aware of being politicized, as Noah describes: “We are political by default. Our existences are political. And showing the different identities in one space is also very political.” So even though their main driving force is to make music, they are aware of the opportunity of controlling their own narrative. A narrative that goes beyond what is expected of a BIPoC story, a narrative that celebrates and honors the different cultures of each individual. “If you have the voice and the possibility to speak, you should use it in a way that feels authentic. It’s not about protesting or being specifically political, it’s about touching on issues that feel dear to us and to the people of a collective,” Steph adds.
As their show at Volksbühne took place on International Women’s Day, they decided to call it The Matriarch, exploring the concept of living as equals and listening to each other’s natural strengths, which is embodied by the matriarchal societies that still exist in parts of the world. The show delved into the idea of everyone’s voice being heard and respected. They found tools and approaches to decolonise and reclaim theatrical practices, again drawing influences from the many rich heritages of its members, for example through connecting with the Sāmoan cultural practice of oratory. Celebrating the power of underrepresented voices, different languages, and musical styles, they took a truly intersectional approach.
Sustainable Community Development & Giving Back
But space is only one of the many resources needed to facilitate a project of this scale. They currently rehearse in a small room, rearranging the tables each time before they actually start practicing. While it is common for choirs to charge members a regular fee, they are mindful of the time and energy people put into the project. They hope to find ways to eventually generate enough income and funds to give back financially. They talked about being recognized for their collective’s cultural value in the city and getting funding from the local government and smaller institutions. With a strong belief in the power of collective singing and their unique position in Berlin, they aspire to share their knowledge by hosting workshops and offering training – like the many other educational programs funded by government grants, but more often than not are run by established institutions. That’s why it’s even more important to give space and resources to projects run by a group of artists from different backgrounds like ASFY.
“It’s not just a cool project, it could be something that’s important for the city and the next generations because I think it will be. If it has these structures in place, I feel like we could give a lot back to up-and-coming musicians. Because Berlin is an ever-evolving city with people coming in and out.” – Noah
What’s to Come
For now, ASFY is busy anyway, preparing their next shows at the renowned festivals XJAZZ!, Melt, and Pop-Kultur Berlin. Although their DMs are going wild, they want to focus on fewer gigs, potentially a biannual show at a set venue. This will allow them to create an experience that is tailored to their vision and not constrained by the limitations of programming and booking from others. They are also selective with their collaborations to ensure the best experience for everyone in the group. With that many people involved, they have to be mindful not only of the project’s resources but also of the time and energy that everyone can give.
And they are putting the finishing touches to their first album, which features names such as Theo Croker, Annahstasia and other collaborators, although they are keeping the details under wraps until everything is finalized. Singing with a choir is a new and exciting experience for many musicians, and collaborating with other artists has been inspiring and energizing for everyone involved. When asked about their dream features: “80% of the choir is like: Beyoncé!”, so Queen B, if you’re reading this, hit them up!
A Song For You presents “The Matriarch” live at Volksbühne, Berlin.
Directed by Noah Slee
Creative Direction by Dhanesh Jayaselan
Produced by Elena Origliasso & Dhanesh Jayaselan
Styling by Halla Farhatt
Styling assistant – Diego Martinez
Photography by Anika Zachow
Follow A Song For You on Instagram to stay up to date about their recent shows.