Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for 11-year-old Kai Young as he arrived for a morning choir rehearsal at Cardinal Shehan School in Baltimore late last month.
He mingled with friends, suppressed any nerves he had about singing his solo and let out a voice that would eventually be heard by millions — although he had no idea of that at the time. Kai was simply singing because that’s what he loves to do.
Over the course of just a few weeks, Kai and his school’s choir have appeared on television stations, courted countless media requests and gone viral for their uplifting performance of “Rise Up” by American singer and songwriter Andra Day.
It all started when Kenyatta Hardison, the choir director, decided to record her students’ progress on a Facebook Live video for the kids’ parents.
“I thought I was just singing and when she took that video I thought it was just going to be a simple video,” Kai said recently, “but it really wasn’t.”
Practice that morning was only the second time Kai and nearly 30 of his classmates in the choir had met up this school year, and they were rehearsing “Rise Up” for an upcoming gala.
As her kids got ready to sing, Hardison took out her phone and began recording live on Facebook, figuring parents would tune in to watch their children.
Hardison’s prediction was slightly off.
Since posting the video on her personal Facebook account, the original nine-minute clip has amassed nearly 3.5 million views as of Friday morning. The video quickly spread and was eventually picked up by ChoirBuzz, a choral-focused Facebook group, whose video of the Cardinal Shehan School Choir has been viewed more than 5.3 million times.
The powerful lyrics and the children’s talented voices have resonated deeply with viewers, even bringing some to tears. Several commenters shared stories of personal struggles and how the video has inspired them.
“This touched my heart so much! Keep reaching kids through music!!” a Facebook user who said she was diagnosed with breast cancer last month wrote in one of the most liked comments on the ChoirBuzz video.
Viewers from around the world have also reached out to the school, Hardison said, and many have expressed how the kids’ talents and innocence have given them hope during a time where it feels like tragedies dominate the news.
“With what’s going on in the world, it’s refreshing,” Hardison said when asked to explain the video’s power. “I even said to my kids, ‘Whoa, this is a different type of movement.’ … I just told them God is using you and your gift.”
Kai’s father, Deron Young, echoed Hardison’s thoughts and pointed to the song’s poignant but straightforward refrain as a necessary message: “I’ll rise up/I’ll rise up unafraid/I’ll rise up/And I’ll do it a thousand times again.”
“This song, it resonates so much because of the times we’re in right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain going on. … When you have a group of kids, innocent kids singing ‘Rise Up,’ the message is mind blowing, how such a simple phrase can impact so many people. … The kids are trying to show us there’s another way than what we’re experiencing. As a parent, I’m just full of joy that my son is a part of this.”
The attention has stunned the members of the small, predominately African American pre-K to eighth-grade Catholic school in Baltimore, and Hardison is hoping the video can help clear up any negative images of the city that some may have.
“When you think Baltimore City, people talk about ‘The Wire,’ they talk about the deaths, the killings — and people, they’re scared of the city,” said Hardison, a 44-year-old Baltimore native. “When we said Baltimore, people were, like, shocked, ‘Baltimore?’ I said, ‘Yep, right here in Baltimore.’ We have kids with heart, kids with capacity, kids who care. There’s talent all around Baltimore. There are some bright kids here that get overlooked because of some others who make wrong choices.”
Cardinal Shehan is a Title 1 school serving mostly lower- and middle-class students, according to Hardison, who is in her 23rd year at the school.
While only about 30 kids performed “Rise Up,” the school has a 96-member choir with varying levels of talent and experience.
Some, like Kai, have sung most of their lives. When Kai, who lives in Ellicott City, was 3, he would belt out Jackson 5 songs into a turkey baster while pretending to be Michael Jackson.
“Anything from the Jackson 5 really inspired me to sing,” Kai said, “and for this song [“Rise Up”] to have inspired hope and happiness, it just makes me happy.”
The four soloists in the video, in order of appearance, were Kai (sixth grade), John Paige (sixth grade), Bryana Hardison (fourth grade, and Kenyatta’s daughter) and Carlyse Blackwell (fifth grade).
Bryana and Carlyse had never performed a solo before the video, and in its caption, Hardison wrote the performance was, “Not perfect but Imperfectly perfect.”
Hardison has been inundated with requests for more performances but said there are no plans for anything beyond rehearsals right now. However, fans can expect more Facebook Live videos (the choir practices weekly on Wednesdays) and an understanding from her students the world is now watching.
“Just going to keep on spreading,” she said. “There’s nothing else we can do. Just keep on spreading. Just let God have his way.”