A young woman’s mellifluous voice reverberated throughout the Bonner family home in Provo near Rock Canyon. As I spoke with Debra Bonner in her living room, this other visitor from Eswatini provided a rich musical background from Southern African music to hymns.
“I’m always taking people in,” she told me. “I’ve just developed this reputation that everyone knows that,” Bonner said, explaining that the young woman had traveled to her home from this small country within South Africa to learn how to start a Unity Gospel Choir.
Even though her children have all grown up, Bonner’s six-bedroom home is almost never empty. People have traveled from all over to stay with her, sometimes to take her rigorous voice lessons and other times because she just gladly opens up her home to them.
Debra is the matriarch of the Bonner Family, one of Utah’s most iconic family musical ensembles. The Bonner Family seems larger than life.
While music is their joint venture, it isn’t the only way the Bonner family is transforming Utah and the world. Ahead of the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir at the Capitol Theater Friday evening, I talked to members of the Bonner family to better understand their musical harmony.
The early years
Debra grew up in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s and 60s. From an early age, Bonner described herself as “a little fighter.”
“I’ve always been kind of feisty,” she said, smiling. Smaller in stature than most of her peers, she wasn’t dissuaded from intervening in fights when she would see kids who were bullied.
From an early age, she wanted to fight for the people who were the underdog. It’s a lesson she learned from her father who was a civil rights activist
s. And from her mother, she learned to have a strong sense of confidence.
By age 12, Debra hadn’t yet learned how to read, eliciting some insulting labels from some of her teachers. But she didn’t care what they called. She felt confident everything was going her way.
When she was in fourth grade, she had a teacher named Mr. Ford who would sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” After singing me a verse of the song, she described the impression its words had on her: “Everything was going my way,” she told me.
Debra was happy even though she didn’t have many friends — at least, not until she met a girl named Linda Gale who moved to Michigan from the South. As short as Debra was, Linda was tall.
“I admired her because she was bigger than everybody, stronger than everybody and yet, she would not fight,” she told me. “I thought that took a lot of strength.”
When Debra asked why Linda wouldn’t fight, she responded, “My friend won’t like it.”
As the two girls’ friendship deepened, young Debra asked Linda to introduce her to that intriguing friend who had persuaded her to not fight.
Sunday rolled around and Debra finally met Linda’s friend. “I met Jesus,” she said. “I met Jesus by listening to gospel music.”
The Foss Avenue Baptist Church had a gospel choir directed by James Peoples and all Debra could think about was joining, but she had to wait a year because of the age requirement. “For a year, I sat in the pew ... and I said ‘Lord, if you could just give me a voice, I won’t ever fight again.’”
As she continued to attend church, she built up her voice. She would pick up a hymnal and learn how to read by singing the words to hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Her prayer was answered and Debra became a regular soloist at the small church. Her congregation even saved up money for her to take voice lessons throughout high school. She started to audition for various singing gigs around town and at her local high school.
When Debra graduated, she and Linda went on tour all throughout Europe with a Michigan-based performance organization, Musical Youth International.
“I was the diva” Debra told me. “The one that would give the flowers to Duke and Duchess because I was the representative.” She didn’t get to see Linda much that summer, which flew by quickly. As the two girls were dropped off by a bus in their neighborhood, Linda broke offer her friendship with Debra, who she felt like had ignored her on the tour.
“I felt so bad and so I never pursued my singing career.”
College and conversion
Instead, Debra went off to college, attending Kentucky State University and the University of Michigan, graduating with a Master’s Degree in vocal performance. She dated different men, but eventually she just asked God to help her pick her partner.
Then, she met Harry Bonner.
During their courtship, Harry would take her to breakfast every morning. And after a couple of months of breakfast, Harry finally said, “I want to marry you, now or never.”
“The Spirit spoke to me” Debra said, ”You told me to choose your mate.”
She said to Harry, “Let’s pray about it.”
Right then and there they prayed. She recalls the response: “This gift I give to you for eternity.”
Two weeks later, the happy couple married.
After two children and a third on the way, Debra told me she felt they needed to move West.
With only $100 in their pockets, the family arrived in downtown Vegas and stayed at a hotel for three days until they only had $18 left. After spending the fourth night in a shelter.
Someone at the hotel had given them the number of a person in the area to call if they needed help. Harry decided to try calling.
“My faith was down to the size of a half of a mustard seed,” Debra told me. She didn’t understand why God would tell her and her family to move out west and not have the situation work out. She remembers slumping down on a wall a few feet away from Harry who was on the phone.
The man on the other end of the line — a Latter-day Saint bishop — invited the Bonners to stay with them for a few months while Harry found work. The Bonners began attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But at the time, they had no intention of joining. Nor did the missionaries seem interested in teaching them.
After Harry got a job, the Bonners moved into an apartment of their own and started attending a different Latter-day Saint ward “out of respect for the family we stayed with.” But after one general conference weekend, in which Latter-day Saints don’t meet at their usual time but watch a world wide broadcast, the Bonners showed up to an empty Church building, and they simply stopped attending.
That is, until the same missionary who once avoided the family when they first attended church showed up at their apartment, explaining he had a dream about the Bonners being baptized. The Bonners decided to have a prolonged fast about the decision, and if they had any negative feelings they wouldn’t be baptized.
When Saturday had rolled around, the missionary baptized the couple.
The Bonners and their young children soon moved to Provo, Utah, where they’ve spent more than four decades. Debra continued to train her voice by taking lessons with Seth Riggs (the singing coach for Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and other celebrated musicians).
But she still didn’t pursue a singing career of her own.
With her husband and eight children, however, the Bonner Family music group was formed. And, over the years, they steadily gained popularity for their music videos.
The eight siblings in the Bonner Family each have successful careers. Nolong Bullock is a vocal coach, Yunga Webb is a musical theater department at an independent school and Clotile Farkas has gone on a Broadway tour. Oyoyo Bonner landed a Broadway role in a Tony winning show.
Mauli Bonner, whom I interviewed last year, is a developer and songwriter, who also helps run a nonprofit organization to help at-risk teenagers through music and creativity. He directed the film “His Name is Green Flake,” in which his brother Yahosh Bonner acted. Yahosh Bonner is an athletic director as well as a vocalist.
Oba Bonner is living in L.A., pursuing a music career and has a couple of acting credits to his name. Conlon Bonner, who is number six of the siblings, talked to me about the work he’s doing in Murray, Utah, with his diversity firm Cultivate.
Conlon Bonner said he believes there needs to be “a new approach” when it comes to building diverse and unified communities — one that incorporates attributes of kindness, acceptance and empathy. “We want that to be the message instead of a shame or blame type”
“We’re cultivating an environment where people want to be,” he told me, summarizing his organization’s approach.
Seeing her children succeed and contribute to the community means a lot to Debra Bonner — although she added, she sometimes wishes they weren’t so busy because then they would be able to sing together more often.
The next chapter for Debra Bonner
As for Debra, her main project right now is the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Project, created to give back to her hometown Flint, Michigan.
“Most of the houses in Flint are boarded up,” she said. When she walked down the hallways of the high school, Bonner said she saw children who looked like they hadn’t ever known happiness.
“The Lord told me to transform Flint, Michigan,” she said. So, a few years ago, she started little choirs in the areas and would “see the light in kids’ eyes.”
Her work to inspire young people with music continues in Utah and beyond. Bonner believes music is “greater than the spoken word because music penetrates to the heart. And when you have a whole group of people singing the same thing, there’s synergy, there’s resonance and people are feeling the Spirit together.”
Reflecting again on her own experience as a young girl, she added, “It’s a personal relationship with Jesus that you gain in singing gospel music.”
So, Bonner has decided to place almost all of her time into the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir which transcends geography and religious denominations.
She believes it can be transformative in kids’ lives, because it’s helped transform her own life.
After decades of not talking to her old grade school friend Linda Gale, the two reconnected a few years back and reconciled.
This small restoration of a friendship liberated Bonner. She remembered something her mother had once told her, if she had a voice, she could always sing later.
“I’m feeling the Lord is telling me to do it,” Bonner told me. “But if I’m doing it, I’m going to pull these kids with me. If I sing, it’ll be to change hearts.”