Student performers of color share their hopes, concerns for a cappella at Tufts

Known for elaborate showcases of vocal talent, Tufts’ numerous a cappella groups have established themselves as vibrant fixtures on campus. In recent years, these groups have also become sites of intentional dialogue to address issues of race and identity within their respective groups and in the broader Tufts community. These student efforts to create both music and community not only reflect greater questions of race and identity in a political world but also actively shape Tufts’ culture, both inside and out.

Indicative of this are groups such as The Ladies of Essence and S-Factor, which both perform music exclusively of the African diaspora. For S-Factor social chair Jordan Haney, who is Black, the group not only provides a space for him to sing songs he grew up with, but also acts as an educational tool for members of the group and the broader community.

“We all come from different backgrounds in our group, Some of us are from the African diaspora, some of us are not. So even within our group, we’re educating people who may not know as much about the African diaspora… We educate them on the music and the culture in general … It’s all of us just learning from each other, which is great for both parties involved: people from the African diaspora and people not from the African diaspora,” Haney, a sophomore, said.

In a predominantly white institution like Tufts, immersion into music that is not in the white American pop culture canon is both fun and affirmiring for members of these a cappella groups. Among other a cappella groups without identity orientation, a cultural shift toward broader awareness of racial and identity-related issues has brought much-needed meta-assessment into spaces that were traditionally focused solely on vocal performance.

For senior S-Factor member Travis Percy, issues of race and identity are deeply ingrained in Tufts and the university’s a cappella history. These tensions have long been on the minds of people of color and marginalized identities within Tufts and its a cappella community, manifesting themselves in diverse ways.

Percy recounted some of his own experiences during his first year at Tufts in the Beelzebubs, a group he eventually left before joining S-Factor his sophomore year. He said, “Particularly as a black male in [the Bubs], [a group] which has existed now for over fifty years and has a tradition of singing certain styles of music and having a certain culture that is not inclusive of people of color… I knew I was fighting an uphill battle by joining that group… Now where it fell short ultimately, [was when] I realized that I don’t belong in this space and in order to make myself feel a sense of belonging, I [would] have to change too much of myself to conform to the standard of this culture.”

Percy believes that specific dialogues where students of marginalized identities feel more comfortable bringing their genuine selves can be productive. But during his tenure as a Bubs member, these dialogues did not occur.

“There are certain spaces where there is hope to change because the culture is willing, meaning that the people in that group are saying, ‘Okay we need to be self-critical about how we operate, figure out how we can be more inclusive, how we can meet you where you are as a minority in this group of majority white males from wealthier background.’ But there was none of that [in the Bubs]. It wasn’t a reciprocal interaction,” Percy said. “And so I said, after about a month and a half, this isn’t for me.”

Percy later found a community more attuned to his needs when he joined S-Factor the following year but acknowledged the continued struggle for people of color and marginalized identities to find their places in the Tufts community.

“[Being part of an inclusive, supportive community in S-Factor] is not something I could have envisioned in the Bubs. And unfortunately, I know that is the case for a lot of people who were a part of the Bubs and… other groups that just aren’t really for people of color [and] marginalized identities to thrive at Tufts. I’ve noticed that a lot of those people have either stuck to it and stayed in those groups, even though it’s not really healthy for them, or they have left and have struggled to find their musical, creative, cultural niche at Tufts outside of that group.”

For other a cappella singers of color, experiences within predominantly white student groups have not been uniform. Amalgamates historian Alex Strong, a sophomore who identifies as mixed-race, commented on an in-group tension she called “double-takes.”

“Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but in a group of white people, my experience could be very different. So I think it’s that ‘very’ that adds to the ‘double-take’ sometimes,” Strong said. “For me [the topic of race] is something prevalent in my mind, just in terms of social interactions, because I’ll walk into a room and it’s the first thing someone will notice about me.”

Former Beelzebubs historian Aji Sjamsu, who as an Asian-American was once the only person of color in the Bubs, commented on microaggressions he encountered during his past tenure as a member of the group. Sjamsu, a junior, said, “I was very rooted in my identity and people were interested and … inquisitive. I did notice in my freshman year that I became in tune with microaggressions, and at times you’d feel that people were ignorant. But ultimately it came from a place of curiosity.”

Although each a cappella group and its constituent members deal with issues of race and identity differently, these diverse experiences are symptomatic of long-standing political issues and tensions at Tufts’ core. Recent efforts to alleviate these tensions through intentional conversation have been fruitful in many ways.

For Strong, transparent dialogue is key to an ever-changing group dynamic. After gaining five new members this past fall, the Amalgamates have worked to focus on honest, direct conversation.

“It’s definitely something for the ‘Mates specifically, that we’re trying to make more central to who we are this year… It’s a combination of how we feel like being placed in the world around us right now and just the nature of how things change within a group,” Strong said.

Strong elaborated on how helpful these discussions, which began last semester, are for the group dynamic.

“At the end of last year … everyone who was going to be in the current group … had a discussion about how the ‘Mates were for us the past year, and how we wanted to start the year,” Strong said. “I thought that was such a productive discussion, so unlike anything I’d ever been a part of … with the Mates or even at Tufts … it was a space where people felt comfortable addressing what they wanted to address … I personally felt like I was taken seriously in a space that I valued so much.”

But Strong, who remains the only person of color in the Amalgamates, acknowledged some of the difficulties in approaching issues of race in the group. “I had to work myself up to [discussing race and identity] … as the conversation wore on, I got more comfortable…being transparent in saying, ‘Hi, a cappella isn’t super diverse, but I think that’s something we should all be conscious of,'” Strong added.

For members of other a cappella groups, like Jackson Jills Music Director Mallika Purandare, who is Indian-American, difficult conversations about race and identity have also helped create a more supportive community. Like the Amalgamates, the Jills began this internal reflection recently, dating back to when current co-president Ming Lewis published a letter to the group in spring 2016.

Purandare, a sophomore, expressed enthusiasm regarding the productivity of these still ongoing discussions.

“We had a night where we  … talked about where we were born, what household we grew up in, things about our parents, how important our family is, if religion played a big role in your life … I felt like I learned a lot. It’s kind of hard to get to know where people come from … it’s hard to reach in,” Purandare said.

In the Jills, these conversations brought about concrete changes in policy and group dynamic. Purandare explained a mark-up” system, inspired by changes implemented by a recently graduated member of a cappella group sQ!, Elise Lee (LA ’17).

“We had a conversation in the spring last year about different kinds of micro-aggressions … just being cognizant that people come from different backgrounds,” Purandare said. “We started using the system of marking comments. So suppose someone says something that I perceive as a microaggression or makes me feel uncomfortable about my race I will talk to them afterwards and just say, ‘Hey, I want to mark that comment.’ Then we’ll pick a time to talk about it and just go over it.”

Despite sustained dialogue and concrete policy change, a cappella groups without identity-based orientations still face existential issues over topics of race and identity.

Sjamsu acknowledged that racial representation matters immensely to a group’s stage presence and campus persona. When he and fellow Bub Nikhil Srinivasan, a sophomore and copy editor at the Daily, both left the group after the previous spring, he discussed with Bubs members the issues the group would face in its racial composition.

“The first thing that I talked about with [members of the Bubs]… [was that] if you want to be a place for people of color, [people of color will] have to see it with their own eyes,” Sjamsu said. “Talking with the group before I left, knowing [Srinivasan] would be gone and I would be gone, it was going to be an all-white group. And people will think what they think.”

The issue of representation has a strong effect on the communities a cappella groups try to reach, particularly new members. Sjamsu elaborated on this existential issue currently faced by the Bubs.

“People definitely had this on their minds [in our weekly meetings] and we fleshed it out at length,” he said. “One of the toughest questions to answer, and I personally didn’t really have an answer to this question, [was]: If you have a space that’s geared for people of color — the analogous group would be S-Factor on campus, and if that seems to vibe with you as an auditionee, why would you even try to do the Bubs?”

For a cappella groups without identity-based orientations, representation on stage will always be a continued struggle. However, some a cappella performers of color have stated that their joining was partly inspired by existing representation in their groups. Purandare echoed some of these sentiments when she saw representation that affirmed her place in the Jills.

She said, “[When] I saw the Jills perform the spring of my senior year in high school, there was a girl who is a year older than me… she’s Indian, and when I saw her perform in the spring … it made me really comfortable to see someone I identified with in that group, and I can’t really stress how important that was … Seeing how much she was accepted into that group, at least visually, it made me feel that I could do that too.”

Strong shared a similar story, recalling the impressions she had as a first-year student watching a cappella groups perform at the O-Show.

“Even just seeing one person of color there [shows] that ‘there’s a person of color, I could also be a person of color in that setting.’ … It’s kind of a subconscious thought that ‘this is okay for me to do,” she said.

For Purandare, efforts to ensure the Jills reach more people during the auditions process doesn’t just come from a more diverse stage presence but also means an active openness during recruitment.

“Making sure that our advertising reaches the Asian American Center, the Africana Center, these specific groups of people, we want to show that, yes, you can also audition,” Purandare said. “You don’t have to come find us. We’ll come find you… In order for people to feel comfortable auditioning, we have to be open.”

This shift toward a more thoughtful auditioning process and transparent dialogue to address issues of race and identity seems to have had a positive effect on a capella groups without identity-based orientations. This kind of active push for more diverse representation also has huge implications for an undergraduate student-body that is reportedly 56 percent white, 12 percent Asian, seven percent Hispanic and four percent black.

For Percy, these shifts don’t only address issues within the a cappella community but are in response to long-standing, broad sociopolitical symptoms of Tufts University and the space it inhabits.

“These discussions have been ongoing for a while, I know that even when I was in the [Bubs], people would kind of joke about how white the Bubs were and are, or how white the Jills were and are… I also think that naturally attitudes and opinions toward different groups change over time,” Percy said. “Maybe by the nature of our political climate. Who’s to attribute it to one thing? But I know diversity and inclusion is more a popular subject point to discuss because people know Tufts is so homogeneous. But people know there are class divisions, people know that there are ethnic cultural divisions at Tufts.”

Strong spoke with optimism on the recent concerted efforts of fellow a cappella community members.

“I think generally a cappella is going in the same direction of transparency in those kinds of conversations…[Though I don’t want to assume] I think we’re all going as one giant thing…I think it speaks to who’s in a cappella right now: some great people, making moves,” Strong said.

Percy echoed some of Strong’s thoughts on this shift toward intentionality and inclusivity.

“In my opinion, it’s about time,” Percy said. “It’s a good thing, it’s a good shift, but it’s about time.”