Power in Polyphony: Chanda Rule

Photo of Chanda Rule (c) Karl Fluch
Chanda Rule (c) Karl Fluch

Chanda Bernroider, better known by her artist name Chanda Rule, is a singer, writer, teacher and podcaster. She has spent much of her musical career paying homage to her heritage, choir music, finding the power in her own voice as well as in the collectivea gift she now graciously shares in the city she has now called home for over seven years – Vienna.

By Tonica Hunter

“I spent so much of my life wanting to be a singer.”

Multiple times in Chanda Rule’s career has someone asked her the question: “Do you…by any chance…sing?” Now, for some Black people, depending on who’s asking and in what context, that’s an immediate red flag. Stereotypes of the Black individual as a natural-born performer are rife all over the world, including in Europe, where the exoticization of African Americans (conflated with reckless usage of African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE (think “y”all”, “ghetto”, “sis”, “yaaas”, “homegirl”, and gestures like finger-snapping and neck movements) equates Blackness with a projected ideation of excellence in entertainment. Fortunately, though, the question “do you sing?” is less loaded and more intuitive when applied to Chanda Rule: she looks like a star. She has a presence which fills the room entirely and her voice, even when she’s speaking, is one that you immediately feel belongs on a stage.

The question of whether she sings has often been followed by others: “Do you by chance….?” or “Would you try…?” These questions have often led to incredible opportunities, very much in line with her dreams. At key moments in her life, someone saw a talent in her that could be honed – and she has repaid that kindness throughout her career in the form of community-focused work, empowering others to find their voices as well.

Born in Chicago and – from the age of 21 – shaped in New York City, Chanda first had to grow into the star that people saw in her. She grew up listening to the church choir and learning the music they sang by ear; she would memorize the musicians’ parts as well as those of the singers, in order to fully understand the music – a holistic approach to being in a choir and the mark of a musician who is humble about their own role in a larger concept of what music is. Still, it wasn’t always a given that music would be her career. She speaks frankly about wondering if she was a good enough singer to become one, and her path initially led elsewhere.

Chanda studied journalism at the prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the historically Black college and universities (HBCU) in the United States. Upon graduating, she landed a job working in public relations at a global marketing giant, then spent a few years in publishing. She was hell-bent on being in the big city – so much so that she would try any means to get there. She was only supposed to have a layover in NYC back then in 1996, but her gut feeling was that she should get off the plane and stay. And so Chanda packed accordingly and paid heed to that feeling which, when she describes it, sounds like destiny. What she didn’t know then is that that step would lead her right back to her love of music.

“One day, I just took a day off of work…”

Chanda found herself on a park bench one day, journaling about the next things she wanted for her life. Across from her was a theater – she entered, auditioned and the rest is simply astonishing. She left the corporate world almost as quickly as she had entered it; fast-forward a few years and she was performing in major shows on both sides of the Atlantic, including at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park and the musical Hair. Since this quick and intense introduction to the musical life, it has taken her far and wide, to the stages of the world, performing as an opening act for artists from India.Arie to Kamasi Washington.

Photo of Chanda Rule (c) Marlene Fröhlich
Chanda Rule (c) Marlene Fröhlich

Understandably, after some years of the performing life, the singer’s outlook and priorities changed. “My son was two at the time, and that New York artist life was challenging for a family,” she remembers. “So we said three years [in Vienna] – and now it’s been seven,” she says with a look that is part wince and part smile. However, a choice bigger than her career as a solo artist – to put her family first – was by no means a step away from music for the young mother. Chanda found a renewed energy and focus which, even in moving to a new country, tied her back to her musical home: “Choir music is my heart. I think about renewal and community. Most of the songs are to do with that – what happens when we sing out and with people.” The need to find new communities and solidarity in Vienna was doubly urgent, given that in her new home – back in 2016 and still today – racism is rife and relentless. Choir music offers her an anchor, a core around which such communities can be built.

And so, having sung in choirs as a child, Chanda seeks out spaces of solidarity in song as an adult. This instinctively people-centric approach to music is a defining characteristic of the artist’s work. She likens music and singing to ritual – and, asked what she defines as ritual, she sums it up simply and elegantly: “Ritual is a set way of being with one another that we repeat. It is still in everything I do. That is still how I interact.”

Permission to let go

Since coming to Austria, Chanda’s main projects have included the organ-based Sweet Emma Band and the duo Revival. Both bands boast a mix of local and international artists and act as a space for unfiltered exploration of musical genres ranging from field recordings – her “more quirky, weird musical taste”, as she puts it – to jazz and soul. Beyond performing, Chanda pursues deep community work in the form of empowerment and vocal workshops where – just as she says she does in her own concerts – she helps people to unlock “permission”. In Chanda’s work, permission means letting go – allowing the body to move, the mind to open, and the heart to lead. “We need more permission,” she insists. “This stuff” – meaning music – “is moving us literally, it is changing us. We have to respond to that.”

Chanda strives, through her music, to get her Austrian audiences to move and be moved. Her sound and its history is deeply rooted in stories of captivation and liberation, ranging from blues and gospel to soul and jazz and passed down from her ancestors. That’s the power that infuses her song.

Tonica Hunter

  • Chanda Rule will be performing at Frau Mayer in Vienna on November 18th at 7:30 p.m. and on December 1st in Bozen, Italy.