On Friday, Nov. 2, the S-Chords and Oxford Blues gave what turned out to be a quite controversial a cappella performance. Things had seemed to go off without a hitch: the Zubrow Commons venue had been filled to the brim, the sets had been well-received, the choreography had been flawless.
The following morning, a senior S-Chord who requested to remain anonymous stumbled across something on social media. A post in a private Facebook page for current and former Haverford students of color levelled claims of cultural appropriation at both groups for their decision to cover Kanye West’s song “Ultralight Beam,” noting that the song is seen by some as being specific to the African-American experience. (There are no black students participating in either group currently). But even S-Chords co-head Cole Roland ’20 doesn’t know much more than that.
“We were not directly confronted about this issue; thus, the details…were not explicitly conveyed to us,” Roland said, though he acknowledges that one particular objection made regarded the substitution of the word “brother” for the n-word.
Regardless of their lingering questions, such as what other aspect(s) of the “Ultralight Beam” cover the complaint was made in response to specifically, the S-Chords as a whole were, according to Roland, “somber and reserved, ashamed of [their] mistake but eager to rectify the situation” following the anonymous senior’s discovery. And it was a situation which needed rectifying: with more than 24 likes and 8 comments, the original post seemed to have struck a chord–no pun intended–with many students and alums.
“We all agreed that our intentions were innocent,” Roland said, “ but that our actions were inappropriate and needed to be addressed. We felt that the best and most effective way to express our sentiments to the community was via a letter facilitated by the COMLs (Community Outreach Multicultural Liaisons), who we also used to help us understand the issue better. We wanted to be certain that the community knew that we were aware of the problems with our actions and were taking steps to prevent those problems from reoccurring.”
The Oxford Blues, who had been informed of the posts’ existence by the S-Chords co-heads, felt likewise.
“Our immediate reaction to the complaint was genuine concern and a desire to better understand the role that race plays in music and within the a cappella community at Haverford,” said Oxford Blues co-head Polina Lipskaya ’19.
With the help of COMLs Claudia Ojeda ’21, Miranda Johnson ’19, and Noorie Chowdhury ’21, the Oxford Blues and the S-Chords crafted a letter to the Haverford community in response to the complaint. It was embedded as a PDF in a college-wide email sent out on Nov. 14, 12 days after the song was performed and 11 days after the complaint came to light.
“We would like to extend our apologies to those in the community who felt affected by our performance,” the two groups wrote. “While our intentions were not malicious, we acknowledge how the hurtful impact of our actions outweighs the thoughts that preceded it. Neither of our groups have any black members, and it was inappropriate for us to proceed without seeking relevant input or considering our lack of representation. Given our demographic makeup, we are incapable of fully embodying this song’s deeper meaning. We therefore performed the song as a piece of music without acknowledging its significance. For this, we are sorry.”
The response to the letter was generally positive, with most students praising the Oxford Blues and the S-Chords for their willingness to admit that they had made a mistake and actively address it, rather than just sweeping it under the rug.
“I thought the…apology was both warranted and well-written,” said Maya Gordon ‘20, who attended the original show.
When asked for their thoughts on the legitimacy of the controversy itself, the COMLs were diplomatic. “None of us attended the performance, and so we don’t feel entitled to comment,” they said in an email. However, they added, a good rule of thumb for non-majority-PoC a cappella groups considering covering “a work [that] directly relates to the experiences or culture of or is created by PoC” is to examine “your motivations for doing the piece in the first place, as well as looking into the history and significance of those pieces and even having conversations with people with whom the work resonates to see if it is okay to make it your own.”
It’s advice that the Oxford Blues and the S-Chords intend to take to heart in the future.
“We plan to check with the COMLs before choosing to perform songs which were written by black artists, so that we have another perspective on what songs may be seen as co-opting and harmful for us to perform,” said Roland.
Adds Lipskaya, “Our group hopes to bring joy to the Haverford community through our music. We are planning to be more mindful in our song selection in the future…We would like everyone to feel welcome at our concerts.”