5 Questions to Tehillah Alphonso (vocalist, arranger)

Vocalist and arranger Tehillah Alphonso has forged a multifaceted career by working on several films, television series, and live performances. At 23-years-old, her arrangement of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” for LA-based choir Tonality has earned her a GRAMMY nomination for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals, making her the youngest person and only woman of color nominated in this category this year. (Esperanza Spalding was the first and only woman of color to win in this category in 2013.) Alphonso’s arrangement of “A Change is Gonna Come” can be heard on Tonality’s 2021 album, America Will Be, with Alphonso herself featured as a soloist.

The original version of “A Change is Gonna Come” was released by Sam Cooke at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964. How did you approach the arrangement through the lens of our current racial justice climate?

I was asked to arrange this song in the peak of our modern-day civil rights movement in 2020, in between the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer and the presidential election in the fall. As I was conjuring up ideas for the arrangement, I had the realization that this song usually resurfaces as a statement of “solidarity” within the Black community after tragedy strikes, and then slowly fades back into the ether until the next horrible event makes the news cycle. So I felt the extra weight of responsibility on my shoulders to ensure this wasn’t just another one-and-done moment.

Over the years, it seems that we as listeners have watered down the lyrics to the point where we hear the first line and think, “Oh, I love this Sam Cooke song!” rather than 1) acknowledging the sadness, frustration, and anger Cooke must have been feeling as he wrote and recorded this piece and 2) realizing how relevant Cooke’s words are nearly 60 years later. That being said, my goal with this arrangement became to remove and rewrite the instrumental elements to the point where the listener had no choice but to really hear what Cooke has been saying. More than anything, I wanted this arrangement to serve as a 21st-century version of Cooke’s declaration of change.

You are also featured as a soloist on the recording of your arrangement. Do you think the time you spent with the song as an arranger influenced how you approached it as a performer?

The time I spent arranging this song absolutely influenced how I performed it. During the “virtual choir era” of this pandemic, it had been really easy to sing whatever notes were written on the page for the sake of meeting a quick deadline and without having any emotional connection to it. Even on the arranging side, rarely do I ever dig into the historical context of the songs I’m hired to arrange. But I had poured my heart and soul into arranging “A Change is Gonna Come,” and it only made sense to deliver a lead vocal that met the musical and emotional standards I had set for this arrangement.

The theme of “change” in the song is quite apropos, as you’ve broken two significant barriers with this arrangement by being the youngest person and only woman of color to receive this nomination this year. What changes do you hope to see in the industry after this milestone?

Every aspect of the music industry has been severely underrepresented by women – especially women of color – for as long as history shows, even more so for female/female-identifying songwriters, composers, arrangers, and any job behind the scenes. In the 63-year history of the GRAMMYs®, only five women have won across both arrangement categories – four in the “Instruments and Vocals” category, only one who was a woman of color and one in the “Instrumental or A Cappella” category… That’s wild.

There is an insurmountable amount of talent in this industry by women in all fields of music who aren’t being heard or even sought out by the people who can make a difference. My hope with this nomination, regardless of the outcome, is that there will be a stronger effort to actively include women and people of color in the rooms and conversations that have been gate-kept and dominated by one perspective for far too long. It only takes one person to inspire change. Additionally, I hope that my nomination will inspire women to just keep writing and creating, and they’ll know there is someone who looks like them fighting for them on the inside.

There is nothing better than watching good people win, and I want to use whatever power I have to bring more people into these spheres and to make the music industry a more accessible field to work in.

At 23-years-old, you’ve broken through in many industries such as film, television, and live performance. To what do you attribute this rapid success?

My accomplishments in the last few years have to do with a number of things, starting with my roots in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Growing up as the firstborn, first-generation child to Nigerian immigrant parents, I had always been expected to strive for excellence in everything I do. My close attention to detail in the simple habits at home have easily carried into every aspect of my life, musically and otherwise.

Moving halfway across the country to go to music school was probably the best thing that happened to me. I knew prior to starting my four-year degree that my options upon graduating would be 1) to have a semi-steady career in the music industry and live in LA, or 2) to return to Nebraska and maybe figure something out from there. As someone who despises uncertainty and loves to be in control, I did everything in my power to avoid option 2 by simply giving 120% to every opportunity that came my way, regardless of the stakes. Unbeknownst to me, my mentors and college professors took notice and believed in me enough to pass my name on up. I still can’t pinpoint exactly when or how my career picked up so quickly, but I’ve since learned that word travels fast when you do the work and even faster when you don’t.

The other half of this equation is my authenticity and my willingness to learn. Nine times out of ten, I’m the youngest person in whatever session I’m called into by at least a decade. Rather than seeing my inexperience as a disadvantage, I used it as an opportunity to grow musically and learn from legendary musicians I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. It’s really easy to “fake it ’til you make it” and pretend like you know what you’re doing. But over the last few years, I’ve learned it’s better to place your ego aside and lean into the people who know something you don’t.

Tehillah Alphonso--Photo courtesy of the artist

Tehillah Alphonso–Photo courtesy of the artist

Lastly, as someone with many talents, how do you hope to use them next?

I grew up with the mindset to always have goals to work towards five years into the future. Upon graduating school in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, my goal, in short, was merely to have a full-time career in music. With the unexpected GRAMMY® nomination and my life changing so quickly, I’m doing quite literally everything I’d sought out to do. On the other hand, this is the first time in my life that I have no idea what’s next for me. However, I realized recently just how much I love seeing other people’s visions come to life.

As I previously mentioned, Los Angeles definitely does not lack in talent; yet so many incredibly skilled and hard-working musicians struggle to even get their foot in the door. Though I was incredibly fortunate to have people looking out for me and helping me advance my career, I am more than aware that not everyone has those resources. I have no idea how yet, but I know that I want to be a resource for the amazing musicians in this town who are more than deserving, but just haven’t yet found their stride. There is nothing better than watching good people win, and I want to use whatever power I have to bring more people into these spheres and to make the music industry a more accessible field to work in.


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