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The South African choir that brought Simon Cowell to tears eyes next stage of US talent competition

KIFI

By Jackie Prager, CNN

(CNN) — On a stage more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) away from the small township of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Mzansi Youth Choir was seeing their dreams come true before their eyes. Confetti rained down at the “America’s Got Talent” (AGT) audition as the young group received the first-ever audience-awarded “golden buzzer,” sending them straight to the live shows of the popular NBC talent competition

That was at the end of May. Ever since, the choir has been back in South Africa preparing for the next step of their journey.

“Coming to the US to perform on the world’s biggest stage, ‘America’s Got Talent,’ is a dream come true,” choir member Zoe Gulwa, 21, told CNN during a recent interview in Johannesburg.

During their first audition, the choir performed a rendition of “It’s OK” as a tribute to former AGT contestant Jane “Nightbirde” Marczewski who died from cancer in 2022.

Emotions were running high, even for one of the more critical judges, Simon Cowell. After their audition, the teary record executive told the group their performance was “perfect,” saying it “brought back memories” for him.

“The judges cried. They said that that tribute took them back to the moment when Nightbirde sang on that stage,” Gulwa said. “They said that she would’ve been so proud, and she would’ve cried as well witnessing that moment.”

It was a moment she and other members of the choir say they’ll never forget.

Marina Zaaiman, one of the co-founders of the choir, said, “when the audience went mad, we looked at each other (and) all three of us started to cry and smile and we couldn’t believe what’s happening around us. It was just amazing.”

More than music

When Zaaiman and her husband Jannie created the choir in 2003, they had no idea the group would become an international sensation. She says their intention was simply to create an environment of “unconditional love and safety.”

The couple established the group after they were carjacked by a group of young people. Jannie Zaaiman says rather than focusing on anger, they wanted to create a sense of purpose for underprivileged children to “ensure we keep these youngsters off the street and do something meaningful.”

The choir has since become a lifeline for members like 22-year-old Bulelwa “Kaybee” Mphahlwa.

“We love each other. The Mzansi Youth Choir is family away from family,” said Mphahlwa. “They’ve taken us away from the streets, away from the danger, away from the worst things we would’ve been doing right now.”

Eyes on the prize

The Mzansi Youth Choir has performed alongside musical talents including Shakira, Beyoncé and South African flutist Wouter Kellerman. Now 45 members strong, they have their sights set on what would be one of their biggest accomplishments to date – winning “America’s Got Talent.”

“Preparing for the next round of AGT is real hard work. We are working tirelessly to get the best results possible,” said Gulwa.

Winning the overall competition, which includes a $1 million prize, would “mean the world” to them, said choir member Keneilwe Melato.

“(It) would be the biggest achievement of my life and the biggest achievement for the choir. It’s a big stage and (we’re) able to touch so many people’s lives,” she added.

While the group is confident they have a fighting chance to be crowned the winners, they know, win or lose, the choir’s message has already spread beyond borders.

“I hope that the choir brings hope to many people,” said Gulwa. “That is our goal as a choir – to reach out to the hearts and souls of people around the world.”

The live shows begin August 22 in the US, with the AGT finale airing September 26.

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