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Black Ensemble’s ‘Explicit Content’ invites love and learning

On April 30, Black Ensemble performed their spring showcase, “Explicit Content.” This show was meant to run Spring of 2020, but the COVID-19 shut down postponed the event. After two years of planning, “Explicit Content” expressed love and passion from Black students on campus.

Black Ensemble Co-Chair, Emmanuel Bioh ’22, spearheaded planning for the event.

“I knew the concept I had in my head was big,” Bioh said.

Bioh was involved in the initial planning for the 2020 showcase, but after having experienced two more years of discrimination at St. Olaf, the topic of “Explicit Content” became even more important.

“Explicit means no filter,” said Black Ensemble Personal Relations Representative Ashley Sarpong ’23. “We’re unbothered by what the response might be or how people might react to it.”

Performers were given the opportunity to express themselves and their talent through a showcase format that allowed for audience engagement.

“No one listens,” said Black Ensemble Co-Planner and Co-Creative Visionary, Cameron Hubbard ’24. “We just want to be heard, more than anything.” 

The goal of “Explicit Content” showed through in its format. The showcase was split into two acts, and at the beginning of each act, performers came on stage to emphasize that the audience should be “taking notes,” as if performances were lessons on Blackness. However, the show also invited love into the space, from both the performers and the audience.

“When you enter this space, you better enter it with all adoration, love, and support you have for the Black community,” Bioh said. “Your payment is your vow to come into this space with respect.”

The emotional and personal nature of the performances expressed this invitation for love. Black Ensemble Co-Planner and Co-Creative Visionary, Mariam Prater ’23, performed a spoken-word piece about her experience with sexual assault and how it has affected her even at St. Olaf. Leila Rocha Fisher ’23 shared emails to professors that detailed instances of prejudice and racism. Simon Brown II ’24 recited a poem titled, “The Epitome of Black Love,” which described his overwhelming feelings for his girlfriend. All of these performances reached out to the audience, demanding attention and sharing affection.

On one hand, Sarpong hopes that the audience laughed and enjoyed parts of the showcase. On the other hand, she wants the audience to “actually pay attention to us and take notice that we are here, and we are students of this school.” 

However, even some of the more fun performances still exemplified the “Explicit Content” theme of learning and love. Bioh’s dance, in which he waves around a baseball bat, expressed the frustration of racism on campus while still relishing in the art of dance. Dayo Ogunmodede ’23, Mary Maker ’23, and Hubbard sang multiple songs of various genres and meanings, and their talents brought the audience to an uproar. However, Hubbard later revealed at the end of the concert that he sings in Black Ensemble because he does not feel comfortable singing with the music department here on campus.

“Explicit Content” highlighted the different forms of expression of Blackness here on campus. Although Bioh said that the showcase was for self-expression and building the Black community, he does have expectations for the audience that witnessed the performances.

“The only thing that should be taken out of that space is how you react to Black students after this,” Bioh said. 

Looking forward, Black Ensemble plans to continue meeting and growing next year. Prater said that they are moving away from showcasing in the future, but COVID-19 protocols have actually improved their process of weekly meetings and attendance. Both Prater and Sarpong said that the future is unknown, and there are no plans yet for future events.

Instead, especially since Bioh and Black Ensemble Co-Chair Chanta Robinson ’22 are graduating, Black Ensemble is celebrating the success of “Explicit Content” and sending their seniors off with love.