Sophomores and friends Indira Mohabeer and Chelsea Fosu have been singing for as long as they can remember. Whether it’s chorus or the church choir, both said music is an integral part of their lives.
But when it came to joining a cappella groups in college, Mohabeer and Fosu noticed an alarming lack of people of color in campus ensemble groups.
Mohabeer, formerly a member of the co-ed a cappella group Dime a Dozen, said she was one of the few people of color, if not the only one. After being in the group for a little more than a semester, she said she left in search of a singing group that sang more soulful songs with a modern twist.
“I just didn’t necessarily feel like it was exercising my talents to the ability that I thought they could be utilized for,” Mohabeer said. “Especially the song choices. I felt like we could be doing more.”
Mohabeer and Fosu aren’t alone. Representatives from two of the a cappella groups told The Eagle that people of color scarcely make up either group. They founded the AcaBellas, an a cappella club for people of color, to fill this void.
Racial diversity across a cappella groups
Erica Worrell, a member of Treble in Paradise, said she was the only female of color who auditioned for her group. Worrell hopes that more well-known a cappella groups will support smaller groups to help their performances reach a broader audience.
“The a cappella groups can maybe try to get involved in more events that have to do with different cultural activities,” Worrell said. “I think that would be a cool way to get more involved.”
Maya Krishnan, the music director of Pitches Be Trippin’, said the lack of diversity stems from a cappella being a predominantly white activity, making it harder for students to leave their comfort zone.
“It takes a certain kind of exposure to music in the past to … go out of your comfort zone and audition for a group,” Krishnan said. “It’s weird to go join a very musical group and say, ‘I don’t have this kind of background,’ or … ‘a cappella is very new to me.’”
Sarah al Maghlouth, the manager for Pitches Be Trippin’, said that because AU is predominantly white, most of the girls who audition for their group are also white. As an Arab woman in the group, she said she likes to keep an eye out for women of color who audition.
“I always try to look for girls who are looking for some sort of community that they can’t really find in the rest of AU,” al Maghlouth said.
Their goal is to create a space where anyone can feel like they belong. However, at the end of the day, it’s mostly about the individual’s voice, al Maghlouth said.
“Even if I really like you as a person, if your voice isn’t what you’re looking for this semester, then it’s not what we’re looking for, you know?” al Maghlouth said.
AcaBellas promote racial diversity in a cappella
After being rejected from another all-female a cappella group twice, and talking to Mohabeer about her experience, Fosu said they both noticed other students of color on campus who had talent voice-wise, but weren’t using it in a cappella.
“We noticed there’s so many people of color in our school who are so talented and can sing, but they were either intimidated, felt like it was a lost cause or just didn’t know about these groups,” Mohabeer said. “They didn’t want to join them because they didn’t feel comfortable, so we were just like, something needs to be done.”
The two decided to form the AcaBellas, a new a cappella group on campus originally meant to give a platform for women of color. After promoting the group on Facebook, however, so many students showed interest that they decided to call the male members within the group “AcaFellas.”
One of the key differences that will set this new group apart from others on campus is their musical style, Fosu said. Although the other groups are very talented, Fosu said she has heard people say that some of their music choices can be bland and old.
“We want to bring that soulful, eccentric [sound] back from Michael Jackson to today,” Fosu said. “SZA, Lauryn Hill, anything in between, and really create those cool mixes.”
Mohabeer said that she wants their performance element to also set them apart, by including artistic people who are open to new ideas. However, Mohabeer said the main goal of the group is to promote diversity, showcase the talents of students of color and provide them a “family-like” safe space where their voices can be heard.
“We definitely want our performances to be very artistic and involve a dramatic element to it,” Mohabeer said. “We can incorporate many different things … but we definitely don’t want it to just be us standing still, singing a song.”
The AcaBellas hope to collaborate with some of the existing groups in the future, Fosu said. On a Sensual Note, an all-male a cappella group, had already expressed interest in working with them, Fosu said.
After seeing many of his friends excluded from the a cappella community, Andrew Watring, business manager for On a Sensual Note, would love to support the new group, Watring said.
“We’re not a co-ed a cappella group and so we can’t accept all these people,” Watring said. “We don’t really have a way to promote [gender] inclusivity outside of our own group, and so I’m all for it.”
Jared Buto, a member of On a Sensual Note, said that he appreciates that the new group for people of color is being formed. However, he thinks the fact that students of color don’t feel accepted in the existing groups says a lot about the racial climate at AU.
“We should always be trying to create inclusivity in areas that we already have, rather than trying to create separate areas, because then that sort of creates its own inherent divide,” Buto said. “Hopefully the other groups will see this and be like, ‘...Maybe the fact that they feel like they need to create their own group of color means that we should start being more conscious about that type of thing.’”
Although the group is meant to give a platform for people of color, Fosu doesn’t want students to feel forced to join the group just because they are not white.
“We’re in no way saying that the creation of AcaBellas means that if you’re a person of color, you should only come to us; I think we’re all equally great and talented,” Fosu said. “If AcaBellas is what you think is for you, then come aboard. If the others are what you think is for you, that’s great too. We’ll collab with you soon.”
Mohabeer said auditions for the group will hopefully be sometime in April, and will consist of a song, a brief interview and a test to check their range via the musical scale.
There’s still more work to be done behind the scenes before the AcaBellas take the stage. To have an official group, they will need to find a staff supervisor, create a group contract and constitution and have at least eight students interested. Fortunately, about 13 students have already expressed serious interest in joining, and the group hopes to fully launch by August of next semester.
In the meantime, Mohabeer and Fosu are continuing to reach out to students from all different ethnicities and backgrounds.
“I would love to see more diversity,” Mohabeer said. “I really want us to be conscious about the fact that we’re making it open to people of color that have talent and want to be a part of an ensemble group.”
This story was originally published in the April print edition of The Eagle.