February 14, 2020

MSM Spotlight: Rayna Campbell, Imani Williams, and Chira Bell

Students Rayna Campbell, Imani Williams, and Chira Bell serve on the executive board of the Black Student Union (BSU) at Manhattan School of Music.

We sat down with President Rayna (BM ’21, Classical Voice), Vice President Imani (MM ’21, Jazz Voice), and Secretary Chira (BM ’22, Classical Voice) to talk about Black History Month, the importance of BSU, and their upcoming student-led concert in Neidorff-Karpati Hall.

Tell us about the Black History Month concert happening next week.

Imani: The concert planning is going quite well, we just solidified a lot of details today. There are 19 different acts, and it’s very difficult getting that many people together, but we did it! We’re adding a recorded audio component in between pieces that’s basically an iPhone voice memo from our last BSU meeting. In the recording, members of the BSU share how great it feels to have a place for your community to reside—it’s going to be really cool. We’ll also have jazz, classical, musical theatre, and even some more avant-garde performances as well. It’ll be a very fun concert!

Chira: Last year’s performance was in Ades Performance Space, but this year we’re in Neidorff-Karpati Hall which is a much bigger stage and space. It’ll be a real showcase of all that the BSU has to offer.

Rayna: I think this is definitely our biggest participation yet! Most of the acts are bigger groups, quartets, and combos. It’s great to have everyone involved.

What’s your favorite part of the concert?

Imani: I can’t even choose a favorite part because I really think it’s all going to be great! I’m excited about the opening number where everyone in the BSU will perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, which is the black national anthem. The crowd will start off with us for a portion of the song, and then it’ll go into a more artistic interpretation which will feature our vocalists. I’m also really looking forward to performing with the gospel ensemble. There are a lot of students who aren’t members of the BSU that are in the show, as well as many people that are very new to gospel singing, which is a black art form. I think it’s going to be wonderful for them to have fun with it and become a part of the community.

Rayna: I’m excited to see all the members work together to create this amazing concert! I’m looking forward to seeing their growth as artists since last year’s concert. So much effort has been put into this event, and I’ve never seen the BSU work so hard to be more involved in the MSM community. Just watching the group work together as a whole has been inspiring!

Chira: I’m most excited to hear Subiya Mboya (BM ’22, Musical Theatre) sing “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. It’s one of the most emotional and difficult pieces from the musical and we’re all confident that she can completely blow it out of the water. I’m also looking forward to Alumni Council member Sharon-Daley Johnson (BM ’88, MM ’89) bringing her choir of students from Harlem School of the Arts and Reaching for the Arts to perform. That’s going to be a really special moment for all of us.

From Left to Right: Rayna Campbell, Chira Bell, and Imani Williams. Photos by Toby Winarto.

What else does the BSU have planned to celebrate Black History Month?

Rayna: We had our Black & Queer Talk with QueerPBS earlier this month, and we’ve been tabling in the student lounge to share fun facts about black history with the whole student body. We’ll also be selling golden roses on Valentine’s Day, having a Debate Watch Party on February 25th sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, and partnering with Veg Society for vegan soul food potluck called Seasoned Vegans on February 27th.

Chira: Our Chief of Staff Alexa Smith is also hosting a Black History Month panel on February 20th about what it means to be an activist, ally, or advocate in Mikowsky Hall. I think it’ll be a really interesting conversation!

Imani: We really want to encourage all students to attend these events, regardless of whether or not you’re a member of the BSU. The more the merrier!

Why is the BSU important?

Chira: The Black Student Union is important at all institutions, but I think it’s even more important in a conservatory where the majority of students study classical music. You have a lot of minority representation in Jazz Arts, and even some in Musical Theatre, but you really don’t see many people of color in the classical world. It’s rare that I have even one class with someone that looks like me. I think the BSU bridges that gap and strengthens our community across majors, helping us work towards having better representation in all areas. It’s so important to have the BSU as a support system for people trying to fit into a world where they don’t often see themselves represented.

Rayna: I’m the only black classical vocalist in my whole class, and it’s been that way since my freshman year. When I first arrived at MSM I would try to find groups of people with similar upbringings and customs, but it was hard. Having the Black Student Union gives us space to express our culture and talk about things as simple as our hair—it creates such an important bond between us. I really cherish having the BSU as a home away from home that allows me to be who I really am.

It’s so important to have the BSU as a support system for people trying to fit into a world where they don’t often see themselves represented.

BM '22, Classical Voice

Tell us about your roles in BSU and why you wanted to be apart of the executive leadership team.

Rayna: I’m the President of BSU, and I’ve been active in the group since my freshman year. I really wanted to be a part of the leadership of a marginalized group that’s been extremely inspiring to me and the MSM community as a whole. This year I’ve tried to bring the BSU forward and interact more with the student body. It’s important to me that we showcase all the incredible black musicians we have here because they’re absolutely incredible! I’m so happy that we have the freedom to express ourselves through this concert and throughout all events that we put on during the year.

Chira: I’m the Secretary of the BSU, and this is my first year as a member. I wasn’t involved last year, which I think had a lot to do with my own identity formation, but I think it’s so powerful to be a part of this community and lead it towards a more unified vision. I think this year’s Executive Board is really on the same page about how we see the organization moving forward, which is awesome. I love this position because I get to help bring people together to grow and empower them.

Imani: I’m the Vice President of the BSU. I’m a first year Master’s student, so it’s my first year in the organization as well. When I first started at MSM I signed up for pretty much every club before realizing that I was in grad school and had no way of keeping up with all of these activities! During my first BSU meeting we voted on our leadership, and everyone spoke if they were interested in a position. I got up and said “I would like to be involved, but I don’t know what I would like to do.” Another member that I knew from Chicago nominated me to be Vice President, and it all worked out! It’s definitely stressful on top of all of the demands of school, but I’m so happy to have the BSU as well as weekly meetings with my wonderful executive board. It’s great to work with people who have the same clear vision for where we want to take the BSU in the future.

Read more conversations about creativity, inspiration, and life at MSM.

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