Over the last week, Action Bronson has become the biggest name on campus.
A week ago, Bronson, a rapper from Queens, was set to headline Spring Fling – but by Thursday, he was out. What happened in between was a torrent of conversation about GW’s campus climate, with some saying Bronson’s lyrics condone rape and are insensitive to sexual assault survivors, and others arguing that students are too sensitive and are inhibiting artistic freedom.
Program Board, which selects the performers for Fall Fest and Spring Fling each year, initially stood by their decision to invite Bronson, saying they do not necessarily condone lyrics in his songs. But instead of quelling concerns, the statement only seemed to ignite them: By Monday night, a petition was created in favor of removing Bronson, and online battles played out on the popular Facebook group, Overheard at GW.
Ultimately, Program Board’s chair said it was advice passed along to him from University President Steven Knapp that caused them to reverse course.
Program Board Chair Seth Gold said Knapp discussed how his decision to revoke comedian Bill Cosby’s honorary degree last January was motivated by his discussions with sexual assault survivors.
“I was struck by this answer and decided that the impact that Bronson’s performance would have on survivors and other marginalized students was more important than having him perform,” Gold said in an email.
Gold added that Program Board met with officials early last week to discuss the controversy, and felt pressure to cut Bronson from the setlist. On Thursday, Program Board apologized for selecting Bronson and “attempting to bring an artist who is not consistent with our values of diversity and inclusion.”
Rapper GoldLink, who was set to open for Bronson, headlined Saturday’s concert in front of a noticeably smaller crowd than in past years.
Gold said the events of the week were “distressing” for members of Program Board, who he said never intended to “put on an event that would upset students,” and said he also met with members of Students Against Sexual Assault last week to discuss their concerns.
‘Far from who I really am’
Bronson himself issued an apology on his Facebook page Thursday. He did not return requests for an additional comment.
“I can’t continue to walk around with the thought that people are thinking these things about me that are far from who I really am,” he wrote in the statement.
The root of student concerns centers around Bronson’s 2011 song “Consensual Rape,” which contains lyrics suggesting he drugged and raped a woman. Bronson never performed the song live, and had agreed to not perform it Saturday. Students also voiced concerns about an Instagram post from 2011 where Bronson mocked a transgender person. He later deleted the post, Pitchfork reported.
Bronson said in his statement that “Consensual Rape” was meant to tell a story and does not represent his own actions – but is similar to how an actor plays a character in a movie. He said he has since met with members of the LGBT community to “understand how to avoid being hurtful and insensitive towards these issues moving forward.”
“I think rape and acts of violence toward women are DISGUSTING. I would never condone anything remotely close to that type of behavior, and it’s certainly not what I’m about at all,” he wrote. “Regardless, I understand that when it comes to musicians, and more specifically rappers, the lyrics I say are taken to heart many times as a representation of my beliefs or true feelings.”
Gold declined to say how much Program Board paid to bring Bronson to Spring Fling or if they would lose that money by dropping him from the setlist. GW does not publicly disclose details of contracts, like how much an artist costs. In 2012, GW spent $472,500 to bring Diplo, Train, Earth Wind and Fire to campus for Fall Fest, Colonials Weekend and Alumni Weekend – numbers The Hatchet obtained at the time.
Standing by survivors
Over the last several years, sexual assault prevention and support for survivors have been among the top concerns for student leaders. Last spring, a group of students marched to Rice Hall demanding mandatory sexual assault prevention education at Colonial Inauguration, which Knapp instituted this year.
The Bronson controversy unleashed a deluge of commentary on Facebook: There were more than 11 separate posts in “Overheard at GW,” some of which received more than 100 comments over the course of several days last week.
In some threads, sexual assault survivors shared their experiences, while others bemoaned a campus culture that silenced artistic expression. After he was taken off the setlist, a counterpetition to reinstate Bronson as the headliner received 725 signatures.
Brian McGrath, who helped to create the petition along with a few friends, said the group felt canceling Bronson’s performance was the wrong approach to address the climate around sexual assault on campus.
“No matter what artist you put on that stage, there’s going to be someone out there who’s upset by it,” he said. “This made an artist apologize for his work and made students speak incredibly angrily toward one another. It’s not the kind of attention that should have been brought to this issue.”
Incoming SA President Erika Feinman and Executive Vice President Thomas Falcigno said in a joint statement that they did not discuss Bronson with Program Board and said they would leave it up to student organizations to “make their own decisions regarding their programming.”
On Saturday, a group of student organizations hosted “Spring Bling,” a low-key event on the Mount Vernon Campus created to provide a safe space for students who wanted to avoid Spring Fling. SASA, the Association of Queer Women and Allies and the Progressive Student Union did not return requests for comment about the event.
At the event, attendees played board and lawn games and watched the movie “The Bling Ring.” Organizers set up a table with pizza, condoms and informational pamphlets about healthy and abusive relationships. The event also included several a cappella concerts.
Allied in Pride President Ciaran Lithgow said the week had been “traumatizing” to some survivors of sexual assault.
“When you have your peers directly telling you that your experiences don’t matter and something happens that triggers an event that is one of the most horrible things that has ever happened to you, it’s very distressing to see,” Lithgow said. “People need to look inside themselves and ask if their experience at a concert is worth hurting their peers.”
Lithgow said while it is necessary to have a conversation on campus about sexual assault, Bronson’s lyrics are a “glorification of it” rather than a discussion.
“We don’t want our tuition dollars going toward someone who glorifies violence against women and trans people,” Lithgow said. “We should have someone who represents our values.”
A broader pattern
Discussions of campus culture have taken place at countless universities over the last year, ranging from analysis of racial equality, freedom of speech for college newspapers and the climate surrounding sexual assault.
Student protests about race relations began at the University of Missouri in November, ultimately leading to the resignation of the system’s president. Similar scenarios have played out at Yale and Howard universities in the last year.
Earlier this year a group of students gathered in Kogan Plaza to demand more support for minority students on campus.
It’s also not the first time a college has canceled a performer after controversy. Last year, Oberlin College canceled a planned performance by a band called Viet Cong after students said the name was inappropriate, Stereogum reported.
Sarah Brown, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education who covers student life and diversity issues, said there is a tension on campuses between “free speech and expression and inclusivity and sensitivity.”
“College leaders are learning in this day and age that they need to engage with students who are protesting someone’s forthcoming appearance on campus, regardless of whether they are a vocal minority,” Brown said. “And if a particular group of students worked to bring that person to campus, college leaders need to engage them in the discussion too.”
Sera Royal and Natalie Maher contributed reporting.