A cappella groups plan inclusion efforts

What started in the spring as a series of intimate brainstorming sessions within a cappella groups has now blossomed into an effort across EphCappella, the a cappella governing board, to make the a cappella scene at the College more welcoming, inclusive and safe for all participants. The a cappella community on campus is of notable size considering the size of the student body and has an extensive history. Like many other long-standing organizations and policies at the College, some a capella traditions are not condusive to the inclusion of students outside of a specific privileged demographic. Many students, whether or not they are part of a group, often compare the audition process to “rush week” for fraternities and sororities.

To address these issues collectively, representatives of each group recently attended an all-EphCappella meeting to discuss initiatives for deconstructing the elitism surrounding a cappella at the College, and for groups to share and suggest different strategies they had been employing.

The meeting discussed the issues of labelling groups based on the gender binary, with groups agreeing to label themselves as “all-gender” or “female-voice” instead of the limiting and constraining gender-centric labels. Relabeling, of course, can only effect change if it is accompanied by a thorough rejection of the link between musical unity and gender identification, an essential next step.

Gillian Goodman ’18 and Nick Dehn ’18, members of Ephlats, voiced their desire to completely sever the ties between perceived professionalism, a construct that maintains white conformity, with musical prowess. Representatives from many groups agreed that constructs such as professional concert attire are not only unnecessary, but run the risk of alienating students who cannot conform to the group’s ideal image. Alternative suggestions included color coordination instead of a strict dress code to not only keep group members comfortable, but also to strengthen the idea of a group’s cohesion in a healthier way.

Representatives also discussed how thoughtful song selection is pivotal in avoiding cultural appropriation and microaggressive messages, an issue becoming increasingly pertinent as popular white artists “rebrand” by blatantly copying the styles of artists of color. Jazmin Bramble ’20 encouraged vocalists to personalize songs in order to avoid impersonation of other artists. Elisama Llera ’18 advised groups to consider the reason behind singing or rapping a given song (e.g. sharing an important message or being comedic) and to specifically be aware of white vocalists singing songs by artists of color about experiences they cannot relate to. This also means that groups are actively avoiding “classic” songs that contain outdated and insensitive language, opting instead for newer, catchier and more inclusive alternatives.

As for welcoming prospective group members, several groups are also actively modifying some of the the hallmarks of the audition process. As of last year, most groups had traditional late-night callback parties at which auditioning students were the “guests of honor.” Groups advertise this as a way for students to get to know them in a social setting, but members agree that marketing in overwhelmingly white party spaces, let alone dealing with multiple parties in one night, is a recipe for discomfort. One solution to combat this phenomenon was to throw a barbecue, more of a group meal than a classic college party. Other groups will try new methods and approaches this audition season that will allow them to meet their prospective members in a more comfortable, relaxed and enjoyable way.

President of EphCappella and Ephoria member Lauren Steele ’18 summarized her vision for the future of the audition process as follows: “The a cappella audition process has been compared to rush week for as long as I’ve been at Williams and I am so glad that EphCappella is consciously thinking about ways to minimize these similarities. EphCappella’s inclusion conversation [last] Wednesday proved how dedicated each group is to making their space as welcoming as possible, and how much we can learn from each other.”