Shortly after All Campus Entertainment (ACE) announced that Chance the Rapper would headline this year’s Spring Fling, several students expressed concerns about the use of homophobic language in one of his songs, sparking a campus-wide discussion about larger issues of LGBTQ and race perceptions at the College.
The lyric “slap-happy f****t slapper,” featured in Chance’s “Favorite Song,” was first brought to the attention of ACE during a recent meeting regarding concert finances. According to Gabe Stephens ’15, ACE concert co-chair during the selection process, Chance was chosen for a number of reasons, including his price falling within ACE’s budget, the survey results and his “popularity and potential to be a rising star.” Stephens explained there was not much discussion beforehand about lyrics: “At the time it was a no brainer and now it’s a little more clear cut,” he said.
After this lyric was pointed out as a potential problem, various campus leaders met twice to discuss the appropriate way to respond to the unprecedented situation. After these discussions, ACE sent out an all-school email announcing plans for an open forum last Thursday as an opportunity for students “to respond with any comments or concerns.” The email noted that Chance will still perform in April.
On the morning of the anticipated forum, members of the College awoke to find fliers distributed throughout multiple campus buildings with the header “PSA: Williams College Doesn’t Care About Black People.” Below this bolded statement, the posters explained that when Macklemore performed at the College last year, there was no resistance to his song “American,” which includes homophobic phrases.
The poster states, “Both artist’s [sic] satirical use of homophobic and racist lyricism are present. Yet
which one is being interrogated today?” alluding to the discrepancy in student resistance toward the two performers and introducing race into the campus conversation. The poster concludes: “Williams is approaching this situation from the perspective of concern for students’ frame of mind, but is clearly privileging one group over Black students on this campus. Where are the Black voices?”
“Pinning Chance the Rapper as homophobic and misogynistic has a lot to do with the fact that he is a Black man and that Black men are viewed as inherently violent, homophobic and sexist,” said Kaya Gingras ’16, QSU Minority Coalition representative. “This is, of course, a larger societal problem, but I would hope that we, as a Williams community, would be aware of the implications of our language in any given situation.” However, Gingras noted that QSU does not have an official stance on the matter.
Although initial rumors speculated that the Black Student Union (BSU) was responsible, according to a BSU post on Williams Students Online (WSO) written by Maya Hawkins-Nelson ’14, BSU was not responsible for the posters and does not have an official stance on the matter.
“Our constituency varies drastically in terms of the way that they may identify and in their opinions on the matters, especially as controversial as the posters,” Tre Colbert ’14, co-chair of the BSU, said. “We have no official statement regarding the issue.”
Williams is not the first college to be in this situation. In the fall, students expressed similar resistance before Chance performed at Middlebury. Administrators asked that he refrain from singing “Favorite Song” during his show; however, he ultimately performed the song.
“The authoritarian and official nature of the statement might have been disregarding what his actual context was,” Stephens said. “I think he was fighting back against artistic censorship.” However, Stephens emphasized that this is just speculation about Chance’s motives in performing the song.
As a result of the events at Middlebury, Stephens explained that the College is possibly planning to reach out to him on “a platform of intellectual honesty and clarity for his art” instead of “a platform of censorship.” Stephens said, “We are going to try to see how he feels about our conversations we’ve been having. I’m optimistic that he’d be receptive to explaining why he decided to put it in the song and explaining at the concert. That would be a nice outcome.”
However, other students feel that stronger actions should be taken. “Ideally, Williams and Chance will set up an agreement so that the verse, or potentially the whole song, is not part of his set list,” Gingras said.
On Thursday, former ACE co-chairs Louisa Lee ’14 and Katy Carrigan ’14 monitored the 90-minute forum. Lee opened the conversation by stating, “This isn’t the end of any conversation, but it is just the start.”
At the beginning of the discussion, a number of people questioned the intent of Chance’s language, explaining that the lyric is not meant as an anti-gay statement, but instead serves as a satire of what society values and expects from rap. They also referenced Chance’s extensive smoking habits and the possible double meaning of the slur to reference cigarettes. In a different song, “Dr. Oz,” Chance role-plays, rapping about the difficulties of life as a gay man.
However, others noted that his intention is not the problem; instead, the lyric itself can be triggering for some people and should be avoided altogether.
“This in no way excuses the use of a homophobic slur by a straight person, but I do not think that Chance intended harm or malice in its usage,” Gingras said. “That being said, I think the Williams community has an obligation to make it clear that we don’t stand for this.”
Throughout the discussion, students suggested concrete measures that the school might take before the concert, including poster campaigns and petitions against the use of the lyric and “word burials” for offensive language. They also suggested the idea of remaining silent
during the lyric and entirety of the song.
In addition to addressing immediate actions, the forum generated conversations about long-term issues at the College. One of the major concerns voiced at the discussion was the perception and role of black and LGBTQ students on campus. Students challenged the administration to play a bigger role in setting community standards for all groups on campus, in addition to making their initiatives and programs more transparent to the student body.
Students present at the forum also expressed interest in finding ways to get students who would not normally attend forums to participate by instituting additional discussions during First Days about privilege and power, follow-up entry discussions and required sports team discussions.
In the future, “We will have more conversations. This should only be the start of a conversation and hopefully we can continue and in other ways engage the student body,” Lee said.
In the light of the conversation, Aramis Sanchez ’17 added, “Chance is an opportunity for us to further examine and discuss race dynamics at Williams.”
Chance also performed at Syracuse this past fall where he faced no organized student resistance and is slotted to perform at Yale this spring.