Derek Zanetti: Homeless Gospel Choir Founder Talks Roots, Punk and Charities

Photo By  Shannon O’Toole

Derek Zanetti was never meant for a “normal” life.

Growing up in a strictly conservative, born-again Christian household, Zanetti looked at mainstream music as forbidden fruit and as something so special and inviting, that the threat of eternal damnation as a result of listening to any sort of mainstream music- even his grandparents’ Sinatra records- made that forbidden fruit all that much sweeter.

It was through that invitation and inclusion- and the messy noise from a Green Day cassette- that he gravitated towards mainstream music and sparked a desire to play music for a living. And thus, the Homeless Gospel Choir was born.

While his stage name can be misleading, Zanetti felt it was a fitting name to represent how he viewed music– a celebration of togetherness and a celebration of different people from different places.

“I was travelling a whole bunch at the time, and making music with a bunch of different people. And it was my goal to be able to sing these songs of hope and courage together. That’s where the Homeless Gospel Choir name came from. Just a bunch of people moving about and at the same time, creating art, and creating music and being able to sing these songs together. That was I wanted it to be about all along, just togetherness and inclusion,” he said.

With the goal of inclusion in mind, Zanetti has set out to created a catalog of upbeat punk music that he himself would consider “protest” music – but with a message that runs deeper than what might come to mind when thinking about “usual” protest music.

Even with the feeling that he could easily write a full album in a week if he were to base his protest messages off Donald Trump’s tweets and the barrage of headlines that come through social media in droves, the Pittsburgh native bases his protest message on various other topics that still focus on bring about a sound of social awareness and solidarity.

“All of my music is protest music, in a sense. Whether you’re talking about mainstream media, or what it’s like to be in love and who you get to be in love with, or about big pharma, who prescribes mental health medication only to keep patients on these mental health medications. Or if you’re talking about the police and police brutality, those are all things we’re protesting, and I want to be able to take the platform of what protest music is and make it palatable for people who might not show up to a protest,” he said.

“I wanna be able to talk about things like depression or heaven and hell, or any other thing that someone has always wanted to talk about in public, but couldn’t really say it quite right,” he said.

In the spirit of staying present, Zanetti makes a priority to not project the news, as it would require him to be connected to his phone all day, and he would rather create a dialog that stretches far beyond the 280-character limit of a tweet. One such conversation is about the outbreak of gun violence, and the nonchalant reaction from the NRA.

“How can I, as just one person, address something that I see is affecting other people without being extraordinarily limited and narrowed down to one very specific event? Yes, there is a gun violence issue in America. Yes, it is absolutely a travesty that young people are losing, like down in Florida. But the NRA didn’t just become bad people over night. These people are making a lot of money by staying open for business while other people are suffering so badly,” he said. “So, I would much rather address why we allow people to be subjected to violence so that this corporation, that supports a very small amount of people can continue to become blindly wealthy. That scares the fuck out of me a lot more than whether I know my neighbor has a gun or not. The question is just so much bigger than what is presented.”

Zanetti was a high school student in 1994, when the shooting at Columbine happened. At the time, he and his classmates were blown away at the idea that people their age could get guns and bring the to school, and what is still blowing his mind is the fact that it’s now happening regularly, to the point that people aren’t even talking about tragedies like the shooting in Las Vegas last October.

“Bodies aren’t even cold in the ground yet, and nobody is talking about a shooting where fifty fucking people were murdered. Or what about the shooting at the nightclub in Orlando? Like, how the fuck are we not still talking about these things? There weren’t even that long ago. I’m not even immune to the fact that it burns me out to go onto my computer and see all this shit. Sometimes I’ll read something devastating, and then I’ll feel like I’m too emotionally vulnerable to be a contributing member of society that day,” he said.

As a person, it comes natural to Zanetti to be involved with social awareness in many capacities. As a music artist, it’s no different, as he and the rest of the Homeless Gospel Choir stay involved with local charities, including one in particular that Zanetti feels connected to on a personal level.

Every year, Zanetti takes account of the money he’s made off of selling shirts and records, and a percentage gets donated to a local charity in Pittsburgh called “Pittsburgh Action Against Rape,” an organization that provides tools, training, and assistance to women and men who are victims of sexual violence.

“It’s something that’s very close to not only my own heart, but to my family as well. We’ve been able to give financial contributions to them over the last few years, and we’ve even had them come out to shows and spread their message,” he said. “It’s something that I’m very proud to be able to give to.”

This summer, Zanetti and the Homeless Gospel Choir will set off on a national trek with English punk rocker Frank Turner as he supports his upcoming album, Be More Kind, which brings him to Boston’s Royale on June 26. While Zanetti knows a lot of the fans that come to see his shows are also in line agree with what he stands for, he understands that his message isn’t going to sit well with everybody– and that’s more than okay with him.

“My goal isn’t just to preach to the choir. My goal isn’t just to talk to leftist punk kids about leftist punk shit. They don’t need me for that,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I’m going on this tour, because it is a message of inclusion, and a message of how we can be different and think differently on political things, but as long we’re here to together, we should try to hear each other out and really try to make a difference.”






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