This Year's BSU Production Explored the Meaning of Black Music

It only took a few notes of Lil Nas X’s rap-country fusion hit “Old Town Road” to get the Middle Schoolers in the Caplin Theater to begin singing along and dancing in their seats. They were waiting for the beginning of the 31st annual Black Student Union Production to begin. They didn’t know it already had.

When the music stopped, members of the Black Student Union (BSU) told the audience that the song had reached the top of the Billboard Country Music chart upon its release in March 2019—only to be removed for “not embracing enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current vision,” according to Billboard. (“Old Town Road” also simultaneously charted on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts.) The BSU performers asked: What is country music, and why is “Old Town Road”—which name-checks horses, cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, and tractors, and even features country superstar Billy Ray Cyrus on one remix—not part of the genre?

Inspired by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which included a podcast episode called “The Birth of American Music,” this year’s BSU Production, “And the Beat Goes On…,” examined black music’s effects not only on American music broadly, but on American culture as a whole. Moving from the spirituals of enslaved people to contemporary black music, the show traced the history of the black American experience through a songbook that represents both oppression and joy. The student performers demonstrated how black music was both a part of and separate from the music of white America—as when white artists co-opted black music, sometimes for inspiration, but all too often for exploitation, as exemplified by the indignity of minstrel shows. But mainly, “And the Beat Goes On…” was a celebration of the black artists who sculpted the modern American landscape: a heart-wrenching piece from Alvin Ailey’s signature ballet “Revelations,” a flirtatious medley of Motown greats, a poignant verse from Langston Hughes, even an exuberant nod to the Sugar Hill Gang.

A team of students began writing the show back in December. Then rehearsals began in January and continued nearly every weekend until the performances on February 12 and 14. Among the staff heading up the production and advising the students was Natalie Randolph ’98, the School’s director of equity, justice, and community. It was a full-circle moment for the alum who was once a performer herself in the Black History Month Show, as it used to be known. “Part of being a black student at Sidwell Friends during that time was participating in the Black History Month Show,” she said. “It was just a big part of our experience and a time where we got together and produced something for the community.”

For the community and by the community. Students from every division of the School took part in “And the Beat Goes On…,” signing, dancing, and speaking about the importance of African American music. “The kids really wanted a certain vision, and it was up to us to help them make it happen,” Randolph said. “This is their experience, so I wanted to do everything in our power to make sure it was what they wanted.” That included ending on a high note. “And the Beat Goes On…” closed with an epic finale in which both the students onstage and those in the audience took up an exultant chant from Pulitzer Prize–winner Kendrick Lamar: “We gon’ be alright.”

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