By Destiny Riley
During the 1930s, the University of Richmond’s very own Richmond College Glee Club made quite an impact not only on the Richmond community but also on various communities around Virginia. The Glee Club was led by Charles Troxell. Earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Richmond, Troxell was an oratorio tenor and worked as choral teacher in Richmond, Virginia for many years, beginning in the 1920s. Throughout the city of Richmond, and eventually throughout the state of Virginia, he led the Glee Club as they performed minstrel shows and Negro spirituals. Minstrel shows, which originated in the 1840s, were created and written by White people to perpetuate stereotypes of Black people and were typically done in blackface. Negro spirituals were written by slaves regarding their suffering and despair, and how they would overcome.
Not only was the performances of the Glee Club problematic, so, too, was the overwhelming support from the University and the Richmond community. In an article from the University’s student newspaper, The Collegian, the author describes one instance of the Glee Club performing Negro spirituals as “excellent work,” and a “fine type of presentation” (Collegian 1933). A few months later that same year, another article that detailed a performance by the Glee Club was published in the Collegian. This time, the author discussed the University-sanctioned expansion of the Glee Club’s program and its major success in increasing support of its minstrel shows. The overwhelming support by the University and the Richmond community tells a tale of a longstanding cultural appropriation at the expense of Black people.
Though these articles were published in the early 1930s and performances of minstrel shows and Negro spirituals declined at Richmond after the 1970s, one has to wonder: How does cultural appropriation look today? Also, more specifically, how does cultural appropriation exist and look at the University of Richmond today?
Today, it is not common for groups and organizations to engage in cultural appropriation through the performances of Negro spirituals and minstrel shows. However, there has been a trend over the past few years of White rappers culturally appropriating Black culture in other ways. For example, Australian-born rapper Iggy Azalea exists in popular culture today as a modern-day minstrel. Azalea learned to “make a huge career for herself by mimicking the vocal patterns and phrases of a Southern black girl” (Zimmerman 2014). Azalea is not from the South, nor does her identity have any roots in the South. However, she appropriated Black culture for fame and profit. She does not physically wear blackface, but her appropriation of Black culture classifies her as a modern-day minstrel.
At the University of Richmond today, White rapper “Lil Dicky” provides a fascinating site for discussion. Born David Andrew Burd, rapper Lil Dicky graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Richmond’s E. Claiborne Robins School of Business. Though he may not explicitly acknowledge it, he plays an active role in cultural appropriation in the music industry and popular culture today. In a 2014 interview with New York Hip Hop Radio Station Hot97, Lil Dicky admits that he initially had little interest in rapping, saying that he “started rapping simply to get attention comedically, so [he] could write movies, write TV shows and act” (Lucas G. 2015). This quote exposes the underlying appropriative nature of the rapper’s career. While hip hop originated as a way for Black and Latino communities to relay their stories about injustice, poverty, and racism, rappers such as Lil Dicky have used it as a way to assert their White privilege. Many of the current students at Richmond are avid fans of Lil Dicky, even advocating for him to be one day be the homecoming performer, which poses the question of what that indicates about the University’s views on cultural appropriation today.
It has been over eighty years since the articles about the Richmond College Glee Club were written. The University community, however, still actively supports cultural appropriation at the expense of Black people. The archive presents us with various examples of the University’s problematic views and how they were manifested in the early to late 20th century. Though no organizations on campus are performing in blackface or singing Negro spirituals any more, the support from students for artists such as Lil Dicky raises a vital question: How much have the University’s views on race and cultural appropriation truly progressed?
Destiny Riley is a sophomore from Maumelle, Arkansas majoring in Rhetoric & Communication Studies and minoring in Sociology. She wrote this blog post in response to research she conducted during her Spring 2017 Independent Study (RHCS 387), during which she developed content for the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project. Specifically, she was a member of a team that developed the digital exhibit, “Performance & Policy: Construction of Race Through a Musical Lens.”