To paraphrase John Lennon — at Yale, a cappella is bigger than Jesus.
More students come to see the Duke’s Men of Yale sing “Ave Maria” in Battell than come to Sunday services. We cheer harder for Whim ‘n Rhythm than we do for Guster or Ben Harper.
But as rush winds down and singing groups batten down the hatches — spending hours rehearsing or on the road — it all comes down to the company. Can you stand three straight hours in a basement in Silliman attempting to arrange the latest Alanis Morissette single with 15 or so people you just met? When rushees choose among the myriad a cappella options, they consider not only the music and the prestige, but also the people.
With on-campus discussions scrutinizing ethnic diversity at Yale, the newest members of Yale’s age-old a cappella tradition often find themselves thinking about diversity among their newfound friends. While most maintain that only the music matters, others still notice race during the rush and remember it when making their big decision.
Does race matter to rushees?
No matter how much of a “scene” a cappella may be, singers emphasize that their decision to rush or to join one group over another is rooted in musicality. But repertoire, performance style, and talent being equal, other factors can play a role in a rushee’s decision.
“I think really and truly it’s mostly about music first,” Lindsey Ford ’05, a member of the group Shades, said.
But if a would-be singer cannot decide with his or her ears alone, she said, “then it’s like, ‘what are these people like, would I be accepted, would I hate going to rehearsal?'”
Vikram Swamy ’04, a member of the Spizzwinks(?), said he thought diversity could be an asset to groups but that he did not consider it when making his decision.
“It makes the group seem almost more like a Yale institution, because when you think of Yale, you think of a really liberal, diverse place,” he said.
Jeff Barrett ’05, the only black member of his a cappella group, defined the consideration of ethnic diversity as a “comfort thing.” He said the part of rush that happens outside the audition room can be intimidating for minority students rushing groups with few minority members.
“It takes a little more courage, I feel, because you’re exposing your personality to people you’re not used to,” Barrett said.
Ford said she thought having only one minority member would be enough to make some students comfortable.
“Since I was black, I wanted to be with at least one person who was similar, but most groups have at least one black person.”
But not all students said they felt the same way.
“I’m very aware of the fact that I’m the only black person in Something Extra,” Anjanine Bonet ’05 said. But she added, “For me, it wasn’t a problem.”
Bonet said growing up in a biracial family and attending school with few other black students affected the way she felt. Chirag Badlani ’03, whose situation is similar, said he had been influenced the same way.
“I came from a high school that wasn’t very diverse,” Badlani said. “I was kind of used to being one of the ‘minority’ minority people.” Badlani, who is South Asian, only rushed two groups, both of whose members were mostly white.
But Barrett’s story differs. He said he was originally interested in the Alley Cats, a group that was — when he rushed — more diverse than the one he ended up joining.
“It just seemed like it was shades of people, more so than Shades itself,” he said. “The Alley Cats were my first choice for a long time — I guess that’s an example of your prejudices and how they play out.”
A legacy of diversity
According to its members, Shades has always been diverse.
“Ever since the founding of Shades there have been non-black members as part of the group,” Peter Hasegawa ’05 said. “Diversity is a big part of why you join Shades.”
This may be true for some, but Celia Gomez ’06, a black member of Shades, said the group’s diversity did not figure into her decision at all.
“It was a performance thing,” she said.
Many members of Shades who were not black said their decisions to join the group did not hinge on diversity. But they said they were conscious of joining a musical tradition that Hasegawa described as “not my own.”
“I wouldn’t say it gave me pause,” said David Carpman ’06, a white member of Shades. But he added, “It wasn’t something I didn’t think about.”
Billy Schraufnagel ’03, who is also white and sang with Shades, said the presence of other white singers in the group when he tried out was “very reassuring to me.” One of those white singers was Gregory McKneally ’00. McKneally said he saw Shades’ diversity as one of its assets.
“I was definitely drawn to the group because they represent my own belief that whatever color you are, if you can bring the funk, that’s what counts,” he said in an e-mail. But he said that the absence of white singers in Shades “thoroughly intimidated” him at first.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get into Shades at all,” he said.
Andrew Hamilton ’05, a member of another group, chose not to try out for Shades.
“I felt like I didn’t have the background,” he said.
Hasegawa said Shades does not consider ethnicity when choosing taps.
“The only thing it takes to be in Shades is a very high level of vocal competence and enough interest in the music we sing that you don’t mind devoting much of your life to it,” he said.
Ford said it was the non-ethnic diversity of Shades members that appealed to her.
“At rush meals, people were pretty different than each other,” she said. “I also felt like the people in Shades were a lot different from me.”
Barrett, too, said he thought other types of diversity were important. He said he admired the fact that members of his group came from a variety of different places and had different ideas and opinions.
“That’s diversity I don’t think you find out [about] until you get in,” he said.