Racial Shock at Hampshire Halloween

Can They Play That Funky Music?

On the homepage of its website, the Valley band Shokazoba highlights a quote from Bluebird Reviews describing it as “an Afrobeat ensemble that blends jazz and old school funk, with a West African beat that sets the foundation for a great community vibe.”

That foundation proved very shaky, however, when the band’s performance at Hampshire College’s annual Halloween party on October 25 was canceled amidst cries of racism—both from a group of students at Hampshire and from the predominantly white band as well.

One of several musical acts hired by Hampshire’s event-planning Hype Committee to play the Halloween party, Shokazoba’s performance was canceled after a group of students voiced concerns about the musicians in the Afrobeat band being mostly white. The annual event is funded by student fees.

“We have always been a group that celebrates diversity. However, the problem was that we apparently have too many white members,” Shokazoba said in an email to the Advocate. “Then there was a frighteningly ignorant chain of comments on the Hampshire Hype page defaming our character after members of our group attempted to defend themselves.”

The Hampshire administration, however, says that the band’s performance was not canceled due to the racial makeup of its musicians, but rather because of the remarks that were made after the students questioned Shokazoba’s inclusion on the bill.

“On an online event site, some members of our student community questioned the selection of … a predominantly white Afrobeat band and [expressed] concerns about cultural appropriation and the need to respect marginalized cultures,” reads a statement from Hampshire’s Office of Communications. “The decision by student planners not to have the band perform was not based on the band’s racial identity. It was based on the intensity and tone that arose on the event’s planning site on social media, including comments from off campus that became increasingly aggressive, moving from responses to individual student voices to rude, and at times unsettling, remarks.”

Efforts were made by the college to delete those comments. But the group of Hampshire students said the administration went too far in its censorship of the online communication, eliminating the positive aspects of the conversation as well as the negative. In a letter to faculty and staff, the group of Hampshire students expressed concerns both with the school’s “silencing” of the potentially productive dialogue and the administration’s lack of vocal leadership on the issue of racism, especially as it relates to student safety.

“Cultural appropriation is a major aspect of what makes Hampshire College such a hostile and inhospitable place for students of color,” the letter reads. “Students of the college should not be responsible for mediating these issues. Students pay tuition to attend a school that is a safe environment.”

In an email sent to the Advocate, the group of Hampshire students note that, even though Shokazoba issued an apology for its objecting to “reverse racism,” the “harassment of members of [their] community and [their] community as a whole by complete strangers” has not stopped, and “members of [their] community are still being targeted.”

“This … is a private campus that is set up as a safe space for marginalized individuals,” their email says, “and our politics and actions both vehemently reflect these standards.”

Shokazoba issued its apology on October 27 on its Facebook page.

“Censorship of music is an inherently problematic course of action,” the post reads. “However, we would like to formally apologize to anyone we may have inadvertently offended from the misuse of certain nomenclature … We’ve learned a lot through our recent experience about privilege and racial theory. Thanks so much to everyone who has helped us to more clearly understand what we have been through, and what so many people go through on a daily basis. We hope as a band to continue to learn and be more sensitive to such important issues facing so many people in our communities and elsewhere. Let’s continue the dialogue without censorship, and hopefully we can all enjoy the music together.”

Though barred from performing at the Halloween party, Shokazoba was still paid.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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