The beauty of music is in its power to impact change and spread influence. I admire the singers and musicians out there using their gifts to promote positivity—especially Grace Theisen. Singing, writing, and producing meaningful music are her clever and creative ways of fighting against sex trafficking. As the co-founder and director of artist relations for Songs Against Slavery, she advocates for victims at the mercy of sex traffickers through song.
Read about the inspiration behind Songs Against Slavery, the impact Grace’s music has made to end sex trafficking, and much more in our interview with her.
Who is Grace Theisen?
At my core, I would say that I am someone who is a deep feeler, has a curious mind and loves to make people feel known. I think intentionality is what brings me to life—whether in music, my job, conversations with others. It is the word I strive to apply to all aspects of me. I am surely not perfect at it (especially in the mornings… asks my roommates.. I am the world’s biggest morning grump. LOL). But at the end of the day, if I can be intentional with the things that I do and how I both care and love for others, then it has been a successful day in my book.
I work hard every day to fight for joy and find purpose in my pain. For me, Jesus is my best friend. He is the one I turn to first, both on the hard days and the great days. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, my battle with chronic back pain over the last five years has shown me my deep need for Him.
Through self-reflection, I realized that I can easily turn bitter, angry, and cynical towards myself and others. These last few years have taught me that Jesus is the greatest heart healer. He can handle all of my emotions at all times. When I choose to sit quiet and let Him in, I can be the person He always intended me to be: passionate, loving, caring, kind, humble, and intentional.
I am and have always been an old soul. I would much rather lay in bed, read a book, or take a bath instead of going out on a Friday night. In college, one of my dearest friends was a 89-year-old man named Bob. We actually called him “Happy Bob” because he was the happiest guy any of us had ever met. For three years, I gleaned so much wisdom from him on what life is all about: family, love, and hard work. He showed me that no matter the circumstance, there is always beauty that can be found. He passed away my senior year of college; but to this day, I hold all he taught me close to my heart.
Ok, I promise I am not a total old soul. What gets me out of the house on a weekday or weekend night? Swing dancing. It’s my all-time favorite pastime. I just LOVE to dance. Anxiety, fear, and worry all go out the door when I am on the dance floor; and it is the one time I don’t think about my pain. I just feel free to be me.
At what point in your life did you realize that music was your passion and calling?
My freshman year of college. That’s when I really started to realize music was going to be a bigger part of my life than I had imagined. Up until that point, my family and I would sing at every gathering. I grew up harmonizing and learning how to play guitar, but I never really thought music was going to be the biggest part of my life. It has been my greatest joy, but also my greatest insecurity.
I actually had someone come up to me when I was leading worship one day in college, who said, “Grace, this is going to be a bigger part of your life than I think you realize. Music is where your joy comes from, and that’s where you most come alive.” I remember hearing him say that and in my head thinking, “Oh yeah, whatever,” but I kind of just thought about it and prayed about it more. Eventually I just said, “OK Lord, if this is where you’re calling me then you’re gonna have to open the door, because I will not walk through this on my own. It’s just too scary.” I mean, ask any musician, anywhere. It’s hard work, it doesn’t pay a lot…there’s just a lot that goes into being a musician and I knew nothing about any of it—other than the fact that I just knew that I could sing and play the guitar.
I’m in awe of the fact that you’re using your musical talents to promote a great cause. What inspired you to launch Songs Against Slavery?
When I came home after my freshman year of college, I had learned about the issue of sex trafficking online, and I had read a few articles about it happening in Michigan where I went to college. When I found out about it, I just sat there and cried. So one day I came home and talked with my best friend Lauren, who I went to high school with, and we were catching up about our year. Then I told her, “Lo, I learned about this issue and I’d love to use my music to somehow fight it.” And she was like, “Let’s do a benefit concert.” So one thing led to another. Lauren is not a musician at all, but she’s very business-minded and a great organizational planner. She was an education major, so she’s just very administratively gifted. She and I spent the whole summer researching nonprofits.
We decided that we wanted to do a benefit concert here in our hometown. We had no idea what we were doing—no idea. The owners of a barn in our hometown lent their venue to us for free. I played. A few other people played, and we ended up raising awareness and $4,000 for a safe house in Toledo, OH. One thing led to another after that, and so we were like, “OK, let’s just do one more concert next summer and see if we can raise double the amount.” We decided to call ourselves Songs Against Slavery. Lauren made a website for us, but again, we were nothing other than just two girls and a dream of helping to end sex trafficking.
After that concert a year later, we raised $8,000 for that same safe house in Toledo. We brought in musician Steve Moakler from Nashville to play, and I opened for him. One thing led to another and people just kept asking us how to get involved, and about our next concert. Lauren and I were like, “Well, we’re nothing, and we don’t even know what a nonprofit is.”
So a week before our junior year of college, we just Googled, “What is a nonprofit and how do you become one?” Then we found out that you need a lawyer, a start-up fee, and a board—but we had none of those things. So we just prayed and said, “OK God. If this is what you want us to do then you’re gonna have to provide all of these things this week, because I’m gonna go back to Hope College and Lauren’s gonna go back to state. Communication is gonna be harder because we’re further away.” I kid you not, to a T, in one week, we had a lawyer who had come up to us and found out about us through a friend. He said, “Hey, I start up nonprofits for a living and I would love to start yours up for free.” He’s still on the board. We also had a family donate a startup fee, and developed a board of directors filled with people of great character, well-versed in their areas of work.
We became an organization in 2012, but we didn’t become an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit until 2014. We realized quickly that sex trafficking looks very different in every city, and we at the ages of 19, are never gonna be experts; so if we use concerts as a way to uplift those other nonprofits that are fighting on the front lines, and spread awareness in the towns we have concerts, our audience won’t have to feel the need to go overseas to get involved. We figured they can learn about the issue and get involved right in their hometown, with a nonprofit that’s doing amazing work fighting sex trafficking.
We have an 80/20 split. After all the costs get paid off, 80% stays local to the nonprofit and we take 20%. Lauren and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee and started doing this full-time in 2015. It has been our full-time job ever sense and it has been a joy. I mean, there’s a lot of learning curves with running a nonprofit, especially considering that I was a psych major and Lauren studied education. So we didn’t know ANYTHING about business, but we have learned and grown so much. We would both say that it is a dream job.
I’m director of artist relations at SAS. I book all of the artists, I book all of our venues, and I manage all of our finances. Lauren is the executive director, so she works with the nonprofits and oversees our entire business. She is truly a jane-of-all-trades, and she also does all of our graphics, yearly budgets, big decision making, runs the shows and makes sure we are on track with our yearly business plan. We take each nonprofit that we work with through a rigorous application process, to make sure that they’re putting their money in the right places. We also look at all their finances to make sure that the nonprofits we’re raising money for are the top in the state.
Through Songs Against Slavery, you and your team have raised a lot of aid in an effort to end sex trafficking. I’d love to hear about the progress you’ve made with your mission thus far!
WE HAVE! In the last three years, we have put on over 27 benefit concerts in 10 states and helped 14 nonprofits. We have raised over $200,000 for the fight against sex trafficking and made over 15,000 people aware of this issue through our events and social media platforms. It is pretty crazy to think that we were just two nineteen year-old girls sitting at dinner when we started, brainstorming ways to help join the fight.
Here we are, six years later, and this is our full-time job. We are such believers in finding what brings you to life and going after it. We have learned it takes a community to raise a nonprofit and we would never be where we are at today without the help of our board members, families, friends, and all the people who have believed in us, donated to us, prayed for us, and encouraged us every step of the way.
In what way do you hope to influence the world with your music?
The only reason I felt called to pursue music was because I wanted it to be something bigger than me. Being on stage, to this day, scares the living daylights out of me. I shake and I sweat. But when I remember that being up there isn’t actually at all about me, but instead using my voice as a gift to help others heal and find their voices, it brings me peace. I always hope my music is the kind of music that helps people find light, joy, and hope in dark circumstances.
Working in trafficking, and dealing with chronic pain for the last five years has given me a lot of perspective. It has shown me that sometimes, in our lives, it feels as though dark trumps light—but it’s really the exact opposite. The dark is where we find the light. The dark is where we find our resilience, our joy, and what we are really made of. I hope my music can be just that for people—a breath of fresh air. Something that makes them feel, think, and know deep down in their cores that they aren’t alone in their struggles or battles. That hope awaits the other side.
I have no idea where music will take me, but I do know that music will always be a part of my life. It is my greatest joy and the thing I feel most called to. Although I’m a big dreamer, I have learned to take it one day at a time. I work to keep my head low, stay humble, and focus on why I do music instead of getting caught up in the comparison factor that is so easy to do—especially living in Nashville.
How can others get involved with your mission?
There are so many ways! If you visit out website, we have a tab on there with information on the many ways to get involved. Donating, volunteering, applying for an internship, following us on social media (@SongsAgainstSlavery), buying music, and/or coming to a concert. I may be biased, but I truly believe I have the best job in the world—because of our team. Lauren (my co-founder) and I work hard to make sure every person we interact with, or take on as an intern, feels loved first and foremost. At its core SAS is all about uplifting others. We strive hard to make that our core as well, both in and outside of SAS.
Support Grace’s music to support the cause! Stay tuned for Simple + True, her new EP coming out this June 16, 2017.