Athletic Department halftime booking causes controversy

By Nick Escobar

The Department of Intercollegiate Athletics works to find entertaining acts for University sporting event halftime shows. Problems do arise, though, which is what happened to the a cappella singing group SoulEssence on Feb. 27.

The DIA works in conjunction with the school of music to find people to sing the national anthem at the start of both the men’s and women’s basketball games. They also look for performance groups to sing for approximately three minutes during halftime. The DIA marketing department creates a spreadsheet at the beginning of the semester with a list of scheduled performers.

“We want it to be as entertaining to as many people as possible without being controversial,” said David Johnson, assistant athletic director. “We want to give them the opportunity to showcase their talents.”

Those chosen to perform at halftime are usually DIA-affiliated student and faculty groups such as the Marching Illini Drumline, the Illinettes and the University’s cheerleaders.

However, everything does not run smoothly each time a group is scheduled to perform, as the DIA found out with SoulEssence. Johnson said the group was asked not to sing because the DIA felt that some of the people in attendance would be offended by the religious references in their songs.

SoulEssence planned to perform the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which contains the word “God.” The group also planned to sing a song called “Thank You, Lord.”

The group was booked to perform for Black History Month the day before the game. This was not enough time to go over what they were going to sing, which the DIA usually does, Johnson said. He added that cancellations do happen, as was the case with SoulEssence.

But the group was upset that they were asked to not sing the songs they had prepared.

“Why would you invite a minority group for Black History Month and not let us sing the (Negro) National Anthem?” asked Amanda Burrell, senior in LAS and member of SoulEssence.

This is one of the few times that the DIA has had a problem with a halftime act.

Aaron Troy, senior in business and business manager for the a cappella group The Other Guys, said that his group has had nothing but positive experiences working with the DIA.

“I’ve never talked to any other performers who have had problems with the DIA,” he said.

Burrell said the group received an e-mail from an African-American professor that explained that the athletic department was seeking minority groups to perform for Black History Month in the hopes to bring African-American culture to the halftime shows.

The group arrived at 12:30 p.m. to conduct their sound check. It was after their rehearsal that a staff member approached the group and asked them not to sing the two songs because of the religious implications. It was felt that the reference to God might offend those in attendance, Johnson said.

“We are a minority group that sings songs about God and our culture,” Burrell said. “Perhaps someone should have inquired into our repertoire.”

The group asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” but was informed that someone else was scheduled to sing it. The athletic department wanted them to sing “America the Beautiful,” but the group decided to excuse themselves from the event.

“I can’t believe that it happened,” said Kristy Kusuma, senior in business and SoulEssence member. “It was discrimination right in front of your face.”

Burrell said that the staff at Assembly Hall handled themselves professionally, but that it still hurts that they would ask a minority group not to sing African-American songs for Black History Month.

“I have never been a victim of out-and-out racism on campus,” Burrell said. “I proudly wear the colors orange and blue.”

Johnson added, however, that the DIA still wants to celebrate Black History month.

SoulEssence received an oral apology that day and has subsequently received a written letter of apology from the DIA. A reconciliatory meeting between the two groups is to occur at a later date, Johnson said.