asper Augustus Ferguson—a “mellow, kind gentleman,” according to his classmate and friend David Futransky, BC ’37—first stepped onto the Boston College campus as a student in 1933. The first black student to attend the University, Ferguson was an intelligent young man who graduated at the top of his class at Roxbury Memorial High School and was more than prepared to receive a college education. But was BC ready to receive Ferguson and his talents? Finding no other students who could relate to his experience as a black man in a pre-Brown v. Board, pre-Civil Rights America, Ferguson was ostracized from the social scene and excluded from the school’s clubs and organizations. At BC, Ferguson found no comfort in community.
Eighty-six years later, Ferguson would find a vastly different BC: Today, 4 percent of students are black, and black students have grounded themselves in a community boasting a number of organizations intended for support and enrichment—ranging from the African Student Organization (ASO) and Black Student Forum (BSF) to black and majority black dance groups, such as Presenting African To You (PATU), Females Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step (F.I.S.T.S.), and Sexual Chocolate.
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mong these organizations, Black Experience in America Through Song (B.E.A.T.S.), a majority black a cappella group, acts as a sort of initiator, a booming presence that signals the opening of various black student-centric events with the signature performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a 1900 James Weldon Johnson poem that has since been set to music and converted into a song. Popularly referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” the song timelessly documents the harsh struggles endured by and unrelenting persistence of black Americans. Much like the sun peeking over the horizon in the early morning hours indicate the end of night, the familiar words transform a room into a space for the expression of unity and love.
“The reason why we always sing ‘Lift Every Voice’ before every performance is to show that we are all connected, no matter what,” Nikitaa Newton, president of B.E.A.T.S. and LSEHD ’19, said.
One particular performance of the song struck a chord with Charles F. Smith Jr., BC’s first black tenured faculty member and Professor Emeritus in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development. An attendee at this year’s Black History Month Opening Celebration, Smith remarked to Hanna Kim, a member of B.E.A.T.S. and LSEHD ’20, that he remembered a time when he had to initiate the song, a time when there were too few black students at BC to create the symphony of unified voices that the members of B.E.A.T.S. and the event’s attendees created that night. Smith began teaching at BC in 1968.
Artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose exhibit Strategies of Engagement highlighted stories of African identity and American oppression at the McMullen Museum of Art in the fall, also asked the group to perform the song at the exhibit’s opening on Sept. 7, 2018.
B.E.A.T.S.’ unique ability to unify black students, faculty, and community members through song is an extension of the connectedness between its members. Now 14 members strong, the group was founded with 13 members in 2009 by then co-presidents Titiciana Barros, BC ’11, and Amber Shackelford, BC ’11, along with Earl Edwards, BC ’10; Diana Morris, BC ’11; and Catherine Duarte, BC ’11. According to an article published in The Heights on Dec. 7, 2009, Barros took to the mic at the B.E.A.T.S.’ inaugural performance and declared the group’s mission: to “educate the BC community about the traditions and struggles of African-Americans through song.”
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his mission has evolved over time to be more inclusive of black students who are not a part of the African Diaspora, however. Rather than focusing exclusively on the experiences of African-American students, B.E.A.T.S. tries to incorporate elements of experiences of black American students of all different backgrounds.
“Although we are called the ‘Black Experience,’ we are not saying that we embody everyone’s black experience,” Bryan Paula Gonzalez, vice president of B.E.A.T.S. and LSEHD ’19, said. “But we do hope that we can be a space on campus where people feel represented, and if they don’t, we also hope to give people the platform to represent themselves, to be included in that experience.”
Newton added that the group has also shifted from representing black “traditions.” While the organization prides itself as an R&B and soul group—both genres that are rooted in black culture—the B.E.A.T.S. president recognizes that there are far too many black traditions from all over the world to justly represent them all onstage.
“I don’t feel like it is our mission to share the traditions, because I feel like that would be too much to do since there are so many black traditions,” Newton said. “But definitely our struggles [are] perceived through our music.”
Although the group aims to encompass aspects of different black experiences, not all of the members are black—some of the members are Asian, Hispanic, and white. Regardless of race and ethnicity, each member within B.E.A.T.S. wants to take part in the celebration of black identity and culture, and all of the songs the group performs are reflective of this central purpose.
“They’re singing [about] our experience, and trying to understand it and learn from it and love it,” Newton said.
“They very much strive to embody the message of B.E.A.T.S. without appropriating a culture that isn’t theirs,” Gonzalez added.
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he prevalence of soul and R&B in Korean culture has made B.E.A.T.S.—as the only soul and R&B a cappella group on campus—a fitting home for Korean students throughout its history, and at one point, B.E.A.T.S was a majority Asian a cappella group.
“I think being an ‘other,’ [having] a marginalized identity, we grow up with certain types of music,” Gonzalez said. “Being at a predominantly white institution, B.E.A.T.S. feels like home. The other groups are obviously predominantly white, and I think B.E.A.T.S. is very intentional in creating a space for people of color on campus and creating narratives that match some of those identities on campus as well.”
This “other”-ness is a unifying force within the group: B.E.A.T.S aims to provide a space where students who feel as if they do not fit into the BC social scene—who feel an otherness similar to that felt by Ferguson during his time at BC—can come together and be a part of a welcoming and supportive environment. During especially challenging times, B.E.A.T.S. allows its members to express their emotions without the added pressure of rebuttal that often comes with tough conversations.
“I particularly remember the day that Trump got elected was the day that we had practice, and that was a moment where—as black students—that was hard for us,” Gonzalez said. “That practice we literally just sat there and talked and we sang ‘Lift Every Voice’ and that was the most powerful moment.”
Spending long hours practicing and performing together, the members develop strong relationships and forge spiritual, almost metaphysical connections. Often times when Newton and Gonzalez are selecting songs for a performance, they can immediately match the music to a performer’s personality. This process pulls emotional, passionate solos out of the members during performances.
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hile students of different backgrounds were welcome additions within the group, members of the black community outside of B.E.A.T.S. were not so quick to accept outsiders into what is a sacred space for many on campus. This became especially apparent in the years during which the group was majority Asian, some of which occurred while Newton and Gonzalez were members. Some used to refer to the group as “K.E.A.T.S.,” replacing black with Korean.
“For a long time we were majority Asian and the black community did not see that we were fit to be called ‘Black Experience in America’ because of that,” Newton said. “That was really hard to deal with because we just generally felt a lack of support from the black community with their views on us.”
“Being predominantly Asian negated our blackness,” Gonzalez added, speaking on the feelings of black individuals in the group at the time. “But all the songs we sing are black, all the messages and intentionalities are black, but because of how the group looked, we weren’t black. And that was hard for us because if we weren’t black, what were we?”
Blackness has always been central to B.E.A.T.S.’ identity—even during the years in which the group was not majority black—but the group feels a distinct twoness in regards to how its identity is perceived on campus. Much like W. E. B. DuBois described a “twoness” as a black man and as an American, B.E.A.T.S. feels a duality of identities as a black student organization and an a cappella group.
There is the perception within the a cappella community that B.E.A.T.S. is different, that it is the “culture group of a cappella,” as Newton put it. Within the black community, B.E.A.T.S.’ reputation is dependent on the year and the number of black members. Caught between two communities and not always fitting into either, B.E.A.T.S. marches on to the beat of its own beatboxing—with or without the support of those around it.
Reflection on the racist events on campus that have occured over the course of the past two years has caused B.E.A.T.S. to shift its approach to performing. For B.E.A.T.S., being an artist means being an activist. Much of this activism comes from the group’s very intentional song choices for their performances.
“You’re in this predominantly white space, and you’re singing ‘Lift Every Voice,’ you’re telling everyone, ‘Please rise for the Black National Anthem,’ and they have to rise,” Gonzalez said. “Whether they believe that’s the national anthem or not, that’s a very powerful thing.”
Aside from “Lift Every Voice,” the group sings songs that served a role in progressing the Civil Rights Movement or provide political commentary on current issues. At last year’s Black History Month Invitational, B.E.A.T.S. performed Jorja Smith’s “Blue Lights,” a track that comments on police brutality. Also included in the set were Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” and “Glory” by John Legend and Common, a track that was written for Selma (2014), a film that documented Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery.
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he event bridged the gap between the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and the current Black Lives Matter movement: As the powerful lyrics emanated out into the Cushing 001 auditorium, the performers stood in front of a chalkboard filled with the names of 21 black people who were killed by police officers, all arranged around a single clenched fist—a symbol from the Black Power movement—drawn on the board.
Taking on such serious issues can be empowering in a group setting, but incredibly taxing on the individual, and Newton and Gonzalez recognize this dichotomy. In a show put on by the group last year, the setlist showcased a range of emotions felt during an individual’s journey through love, loss, and recovery. With tracks such as Usher’s “U Remind Me,” Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” and Kodaline’s “All I Want,” the performance dispelled the notions cast out into the world by monolithic narratives about black experience.
“Black people are people too,” Gonzalez said. “They can be happy, they can be sad, they can go through struggles, they can go through grief. We’re people.”
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cappella is a performance medium that requires the coordination between different voice ranges and, in many ways, embodies B.E.A.T.S.’ purpose to bring together students of different backgrounds—of different experiences—and create a sense of community around black identity. In the process, B.E.A.T.S. lifts every voice of its members and every voice of those who have felt silenced by the white noise around them, voices like those of Casper Augustus Ferguson and Charles F. Smith Jr.
“Historically, black people have not been given the credit for a lot of different [art] mediums,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t think of black people discovering rock ’n’ roll music and all these different things like black country music. You don’t think of the amount of credit that black people [deserve] for creating American culture. I think that [participating in the] arts allows us to reclaim that.”
Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor