Vocal Arts undergraduates Khady Gueye and Tatum Robertson are leaders of the Juilliard Black Student Union, which was formed this fall after a hiatus of several years. The group meets twice monthly and is organizing events like Martin Luther King week, which begins with an interdisciplinary series of performances on January 16. First-year Vocal Arts graduate student Andrew Munn sat down with Khady and Tatum to discuss the vision of the organization and its work for racial justice at Juilliard and beyond.
What is the Juilliard Black Student Union?
Tatum Robertson The Juilliard Black Student Union creates a space for black students to come together to support one another and discuss issues that affect black communities. It's about feeling comfortable being ourselves and having a space to be black artists together, which I don't think happens often. And it's a place where we can discuss what we can do as young artists to change things.
Khady Gueye We're also trying to create understanding of social and political issues that often feel ignored at school, like the Black Lives Matter movement.
What made you decide to start it?
KG During the school year there are many events that happen outside of the school—sometimes blocks away—that deeply affect us. Say a black person is shot and killed by a police officer and there is no criminal indictment, and the video of the death is being published throughout social media—we need an outlet to discuss this, share the pain that comes from it, and discuss among ourselves how we want to respond.
How does the Black Lives Matter movement—or other issues facing black communities—inform your work as artists?
TR A discovery I've made after being at Juilliard for four years is to not be apologetic about who you are. And I think that that movement has helped me to feel that way. I've usually gone to predominantly white schools, and I've usually felt that if I talk about race, I'm seen as playing the race card or burdening everybody. Which is first of all uncomfortable, and you don't want to seem aggressive. We're just having a discussion, and the Black Lives Matter movement is bringing it to a broader audience.
KG It makes me want to use my art to highlight those issues. I'm inspired by Nina Simone's quote “an artist's duty is to reflect the times.” That's our job, especially at an institution that promotes the idea of the artist as citizen. We have to back it up with our actions. And so, yes, I am studying to be excellent at my craft and I love what I'm doing. But I also want to use what I have—artistically and otherwise—to highlight those issues and to be a voice.
What can non-black students do to create an inclusive community here at school and in our society, and what's already being done?
TR We invite everyone to participate in Martin Luther King week and other public events we host, and we invite non-black allies to some of our meetings to come and learn with us, find out what your black colleagues are concerned about, and use your voices to deepen other non-black students' understanding of racism and ways to work to overcome it.
KG I do see people taking initiative. International Advisement did a panel on Black Lives Matter and issues surrounding that. Student Affairs has events and resources that let us know that they are here for us and want to support us not just artistically but in our personal growth.
Tell us about the M.L.K. week activities.
KG We're planning a week of performances, discussion, and action. The main performance, on January 16, will be interdisciplinary and will highlight the history of black Americans from the enslavement of so many of our ancestors to the civil rights movement and present-day struggles. We would love to have more people involved!
What can the Juilliard community learn from Martin Luther King week?
TR What being black entails every day. How that has changed and how much of a journey it will continue to be because of racism. I hope the community comes together to honor the struggle to be accepted as equal in a world that has many things to shut you down, whether through the educational system, the prison system, or the workplace.
What do you think the role of learning about race and racism is for young adults maturing and forming their identities while at Juilliard?
TR I feel like racism is learned. A child doesn't automatically look at someone and say “you are this or that because you are black.” At college, you have to start making your own decisions and come into your own individual body, being, and artistry. This is a time that we—all students—learn, factually and through experience, about what happens in communities that are not our own. Not just in matters of race. You need this kind of information to feed your spirit and soul. The Juilliard Black Student Union is part of making the space for that growth to happen.
First-year Graduate Diploma candidate Andrew Munn holds the Marion and Robert Merrill Voice Scholarship, the Max Dreyfus Scholarship in Voice, and the Michael L. Brunetti Memorial Scholarship in Voice.