Columbus State University is home to a new student organization focused on raising awareness for inclusivity and diversity in the field of music. The Black Schwob Society was founded by two student leaders, Jordan Johnson and Christian Harvey, who saw the need for a student union where Black students could feel heard, seen, and validated in their field of study.
"After the events of last summer, what with the continuation of atrocities committed against Black people in our nation, a group of students got to together to discuss their feelings about what was happening and what they could do to make an impact on a local level," said Ianthe Marini, one of the group's faculty advisors. "They found themselves seeking a platform where they could discuss things openly in a safe space, and I was honored to help facilitate their request."
Marini said they came to her to express their wishes for some significant changes to the music curriculum to provide more inclusivity for BIPOC individuals who have made an impact in the field.
"Classical music is forever changing and the group of students respectfully requested that our curriculum show as such," said Marini. "I agreed wholeheartedly that this was a conversation we needed to pursue together."
The first thing Marini and the students did was to develop their mission. "The mission of the Black Schwob Society," Maraini said, "is to strive to advocate for the inclusion of music composed and performed by black composers, to create a plan for the inclusion of black culture in Schwob's curriculum, to provide visible information on the issues Black musicians face, to serve CSU and our community through tutoring, lessons, service projects, and to showcase the talent of black students, faculty, and alumni of the Schwob School of Music."
Out of this mission, the Society adopted five words to direct their efforts: advocate, create, provide, serve, and showcase. "It was very important to us all that we have a plan within each of these action areas to keep us focused and moving forward," Marini explained. "Forward momentum has not been an issue with these incredible students though!"
The Black Schwob Society's founding board members and faculty advisors.
Clockwise from left: Jordan Johnson, Christian Harvey, Abriahna Fambro, Nikko White, Kam Hardee, Jelani Surpris, Cedricia Thomas, and Ianthe Marini. Images via Black Schwob Society.
Marini said the students immediately put their goals into action by collaborating with Dr. Kristin Hansen, head of Schwob's Convocation class. Typically, Convocation involves live performances in one of the school's concert halls, but due to COVID-19, the class had to go virtual this year.
"Everybody performs and everybody has to come," said Marini,"so it was a perfect way to get the word out about the Black Schwob Society quickly. The students were eager to invite their peers to get involved."
For their first Convocation program, the Black Schwob Society featured a conversation with three successful Black artists: Dr. Rosephanye Powell, a nationally recognized award-winning choral composer and conductor; Professor Natalia Temesgen, an award-winning playwright, screenwriter for Netflix, and professor of creative writing at CSU; and Maestro Kellen Gray, a Schwob alumni and the associate conductor of the Charleston Symphony.
"We were so fortunate to have these esteemed guests for our first panel," said Marini. "They spoke to the students about their journeys as black artists, challenges that they've been faced with because of the color of their skin, and the ways that they've overcome those challenges. It was a remarkable conversation."
The Black Schwob Society has hosted more than just conversations, though. In October, they performed on Broadway in a free concert for the public. "The students wanted to showcase the incredible talent we have at Schwob School of Music," said Marini. "They programmed all types of music, and it was a very successful night with a lot of positive community engagement. I was so very proud of them."
In addition to educational programming and community outreach, the Society has had positive and meaningful conversations with administration about incorporating Black culture and artists into the curriculum more often in the future. "I have been so impressed with the way they've taken on their goals with such professionalism and leadership," said Marini. "I'm so encouraged by their example."
Marini added that the Black Schwob Society has already made a significant impact in the community, and now has more ambitious goals they're working toward together. They hope to start to provide music theory and aural skills lessons to area high schoolers. They've committed to commissioning a Black composer every year to write a piece for the Society. And their largest goal? To start a scholarship for Black students at Schwob School of Music.
"Each member of the Black Schwob Society is dedicated to serving as community leaders," Marini explained. "They're passionate about finding really positive ways to serve our community, and it's an honor to be a part of their work. I'd encourage everyone to get to know their mission and support their work as much as possible in the coming years." ◼︎