Tonie Larkins, an eighth grader at South Lake Middle School, walks into the school gym Oct. 1 for an assembly in her honor for her work with the Detroit Youth Choir on “America’s Got Talent.”

Tonie Larkins, an eighth grader at South Lake Middle School, walks into the school gym Oct. 1 for an assembly in her honor for her work with the Detroit Youth Choir on “America’s Got Talent.”

Photo by Deb Jacques


Student recounts ‘America’s Got Talent’ experiences with Detroit Youth Choir

By: Jonathan Shead, Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published October 4, 2019

 Larkins and other members of the Detroit Youth Choir pose with “America’s Got Talent” host Terry Crews.

Larkins and other members of the Detroit Youth Choir pose with “America’s Got Talent” host Terry Crews.

Photo provided by Anthony Larkins

 Anthony and Rosetta Larkins, of Eastpointe, beam with pride during an assembly for their daughter.

Anthony and Rosetta Larkins, of Eastpointe, beam with pride during an assembly for their daughter.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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When 13-year-old Tonie Larkins, of Eastpointe, auditioned for the Detroit Youth Choir four years ago, it was just to get the chance to do some of her favorite things.

“My favorite part is singing and dancing,” said the eighth grader at South Lake Middle School.

But she never would have dreamed that being a part of the group would have her and her fellow choir members singing their way into the national spotlight as part of the 2019 season of “America’s Got Talent.”

“I had a lot of fun. We rehearsed at a lot of different places. To see the producers set up our background was very fun to watch,” Tonie said. “I was very nervous. I was excited too, but I had all these feelings and I didn’t know how to feel, what to do. I just got up onstage and did it.”

The Detroit Youth Choir is a nonprofit music education, dance and theatrical arts program for students ages 8-18. It was founded in 1996.

Tonie joined the choir to follow in the footsteps of her cousins, who were also in the group at the time, said her father, Anthony Larkins. The group typically rehearses two or three times per week, Anthony said, and it first tried out for “America’s Got Talent” on NBC more than a year ago.

The choir didn’t make it, he said, but about a year ago, the group was contacted by the show and asked to audition again.

“They had the opportunity to go in March of this year to audition on TV,” Anthony said. “They taped it and it was aired in June.”

Under the direction of Anthony White, who has been conducting the choir for 18 years, the choir found national fame after its June audition performance of “Can’t Hold Us,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, went viral and garnered national headlines. They also received a golden buzzer from “AGT” host and Flint native Terry Crews, sending them straight to the quarterfinals.

“It felt actually very amazing,” Tonie said of that performance. “It was happy, it was sad, it was emotional.”

White said that he was happy to share the talent of the Detroit Youth Choir with America, and that he hopes that its success will change the way people think about choirs.

“Being the director of this organization and the choir, it’s an uplifting experience, especially knowing the world is now listening to what we have to say and how we do it,” White said. “The Detroit Youth Choir, we have our own style and we have our own way of conveying music to the masses. That’s pretty much how I feel — now the world and America knows who we are.”

Anthony said that watching the group on TV was so much different than everything that his child and the others lived through. The students all had tutors to help keep them on track as they missed the beginning of school. The show paid for their hotel and flights, and even gave them a per diem, so Anthony said they grew up a bit as they learned how to budget for themselves.

Tonie and the other choir members also got to meet all of the stars of “America’s Got Talent,” as well as other celebrities.

“The journey itself was just something you can’t describe unless you lived in that moment,” Anthony said. “When you’re looking at it on TV and when you’re truly there and you’re in the audience and you’re seeing your child performing, it’s overwhelming. It brought tears to our eyes.”

Although the group was in Hollywood for about a month during the finals, Anthony and his wife, Rosetta, were able to come out for about a week to see one performance and then returned for the finals.

Leaving Tonie with the group “was kind of dramatic for us, because she had never been away from us,” he said.

“She had the opportunity to meet different people, meet different stars. It was just overwhelming; a great experience for her. ... She made friends with a lot of the performers that were onstage.”

Tonie said that the most fun she had, aside from being on TV, was that every time they would go out to eat, they would meet another celebrity, including Diana Ross and Nathan Arenas, who plays Jorge on Disney Channel’s “Bunk’d.”

When the group got to perform with Macklemore, Tonie said, she didn’t know what to expect.

“He was actually a nice person. He was very chill, very calm,” she said.

Although the group ultimately placed second in the final episode of the show, the star treatment didn’t end for the Detroit Youth Choir.

When the members arrived home in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, they boarded charter buses at the airport and had a police escort to the Greater Grace Temple, where they met their parents.

“That Friday, (Tonie) wanted to go to school. She was so excited to see her friends. She needed a little normalcy in her life,” Anthony said.

But that afternoon, the Detroit Youth Choir was back in the city for a ceremony at Campus Martius, where Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke and the group was presented with a surprise $1 million from city businesses that pooled their resources to show the children their support.

“It’s a great experience for them,” Anthony said. “I told her, ‘You will never forget this year in your life.’”

Now, Tonie said, the group is getting ready for its next performance as part of “America’s Got Talent,” when it gets to be the opening act in Las Vegas for AGT winner Kodi Lee in November.

“My favorite part was performing and getting the opportunity to actually be on national TV in front of the whole world, because not many people even travel out of the state, so it was just a great opportunity for me,” she said.

White said that all of the children handled themselves like professionals throughout the season.

“I just want to say thank you so much for the support, for the votes and for the city trusting our organization with the youth of Detroit,” he said.

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