One might expect a host or emcee to kick off an event by entreating the audience to “sit back, relax and enjoy the show.” Busola Olukoya ’15, however, chose a different starting point: she commenced an open-mic night by entreating the audience members to speak their minds. As the evening went on, the audience followed her instructions. This open mic, held on Wednesday, Jan. 21 at the Horn Gallery, was a new addition to the MLK Days of Dialogue event series, and transcended a gathering of artistic minds by fostering intensely personal conversation.
As a Discrimination Advisor (DA), Olukoya sat on the planning committee for the Days of Dialogue events, which spanned from Jan. 16 to Jan. 22. Students were welcomed to the committee for the first time this year. Along with fellow DAs Erika Cuevas ’16 and Alex Britt ’15, Olukoya suggested and organized the open-mic night, hoping it would act as a less cerebral environment for students to openly discuss any contentious topics relating to race.
Olukoya found that the Days of Dialogue committee welcomed the idea. “We started planning this last semester,” she said. “It’s been a couple months of planning. … Nothing like this has ever been done before and they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s why we have students on the … committee, so they can … have a voice for student input.”
While the Days of Dialogue schedule included a plethora of different discussions and panels on racial tension in America, Olukoya aimed for a less overtly intellectual environment with the open mic. “I figured that panels are great, but it’s more like a top-down [approach]: the panelists decide the conversation,” she said. “With an open mic you can take it wherever you want.” A conversation-focused event fosters a casual atmosphere with an unabashed authenticity; “an informal open mic is more … raw, so you can really experience people’s feelings … without using big words,” Olukoya said.
Olukoya began the night with an audio clip of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” She then read the poem “Songs of Sorrow” by Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, which expressed how the African diaspora led to a loss of culture. “I am on the world’s extreme corner; I can only go beyond and forget,” one of Awoonor’s lines read.
Patty Mota ’16 followed with an a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” singing about generations of discrimination, as well as strength in a captivating, sultry alto voice. Britt then presented an original spoken word poem. “I’m still shaking because I’m really, really angry,” she prefaced as she stood before the audience. Her piece hit all different kinds of discrimination in the U.S., swiftly punching out “-isms” like ableism, sexism and racism.
However, it was the conversation that followed the performances that enriched the evening and brought out the best in people and their spoken opinions. Associate Professor of Chemistry Yutan Getzler, this year’s chair of the Days of Dialogue committee, expressed his eager anticipation for this sort of unfolding dialogue. “The thing I’m really most excited about is after the next two or three or four weeks [following the Days of Dialogue],” he said. “I feel like in the past … opening up any conversation about race is not an easy topic, that when opportunity for that [topic] to open up happens, then it has frequently initiated much more interested conversation in the weeks after.” Getzler went to the open-mic event and at first bashfully conceded his role as the sole professor in attendance, but then slowly opened up and adding his voice to the euphony of that night’s conversation.
Getzler also commented on the necessity for change, not just dialogue. “What I’m interested in is: what can we change here?” he said. “That always seems to pick up a little momentum, so this is an opportunity for maybe people to get some ideas out.”
Getzler’s interest in conversation proved fruitful. Thirteen attendees sat in the Horn and shared in an intimate conversation. Each one introduced him- or herself, and once the haze of self-consciousness wore down, ideas came and went fluidly. One of the most touched-upon topics of the night was the deification of Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. Attendees discussed how our society exalts him so highly that we make his level of courage and outspokenness impossible to reach, when in fact everybody who fights for a cause should take action and follow his example, rather than wait for somebody else to stand up and take the lead.
By the night’s end, the group left with new words, songs and ideas to inspire them. As enriching as that one powerful evening was, the coming weeks will tell how permanent these changes are, and whether students take action on campus.