Western Michigan University alumnus Travon Williams, is speaking out against the faculty and students who “traumatized” him for years as a member of WMU’s Gold Company Jazz Program.
In an 11 page open letter to Jazz Professor Greg Jasperse, Williams detailed four years of racially motivated emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of Jasperse and the company members.
“Saying things like your ‘blind eye is no longer turned,’ that you’ll ‘mobilize your power and privilege to benefit BLM’ is the furthest thing from the truth,” Williams wrote. “Perhaps this is something you’d understand if you had empathy for the living Black people around you, rather than just the dead Black bodies whose photos you slap on your bike and will ride 1,000 miles for.”
Williams was referencing “Biking4BlackLivesMatter,” an event and Go Fund Me Jasperse organized where he biked 1,000 miles before Labor Day to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“Your words directly contradict your actions as a professor and as a person,” Williams wrote. “You have never been an ally or supporter for the Black community; not at Western, and definitely not in the school of music. You seem adamant about performing this lie on the public facebook stage, hungry for validation via social media attention on this topic, so let's tell the actual truth, shall we?”
When Williams joined the Gold Company, he was immediately targeted with micro-aggressions from his white peers. Williams explained how his appearance was compared to a photo of a Black trumpeter on the wall at one point. On another occasion, one of Williams’ white female peers asked him “what tribe are you from?” and later, told Williams he was “the blackest thing (she) ever saw.”
“From there it only got worse,” Williams wrote. “The most well known racist white student in the program, began freely using the word “nigga” around me and other students. It was deeply upsetting and disturbing, but he would continue to justify it by explaining that they say that back home in Ohio like it's nothing.”
When Black guest musicians taught the Gold Company, this student would appear “good-natured” in front of them but call the guests “stupid niggers” behind their backs, Williams explained.
Williams also described how a non-Black student of color would call Black students “nigga” during rehearsals. The same student of color also said he himself was “basically a nigga.”
“These were the people I had to sing, learn, and interact with all year,” Williams wrote. “These were the people I had to be in community with. These were the people I had to be with for sectionals. These were the people I spent hours upon hours with. In hotel rooms. At gigs. Suffering in silence as if I wasn't obviously disrespected and marginalized by them.”
At the end of his sophomore year, Williams explained the encounters to Jasperse as reasoning for why he would likely quit the company. Jasperse instructed Williams to set up one-on-one appointments with each of the students to describe how hurtful the comments were.
“Oh, how young and impressionable I was to think that you, the professor, cared enough to hold them accountable yourself,” Williams wrote. “Negligence at its finest. Your assignment was for me to set one on ones to talk about how the things they said were wrong. Really Greg? These are your students and they are behaving in a blatantly racist manner.”
In his junior year, Williams said he recognized he was only a “token” to make the company appear diverse and had no real voice or influence.
“Your unchecked implicit bias compromised you as my teacher,” Williams wrote. “Your internalized supremacy and anti-blackness lead to the majority of the racial injustices I faced while under your tutelage.”
Williams described how Jasperse told him he had “unrealistic expectations” when Williams was disappointed with his progress in the program. During a rehearsal, Williams was instructed to sing out of tune to match the other company members even though Jasperse said Williams was “in tune with the universe.”
“I started then to realize the polarity of your standards and support; being held for me, compared to your star students,” Williams wrote. “So I under-sang and strained, attempting to make my voice smaller. Not to blend, but to fit in.”
One particularly difficult experience for Williams was performing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” his junior year. The song is supposed to celebrate the “American experience” but Williams viewed it in a much different light.
“Lines such as ‘We come on a ship they call the Mayflower’ and ‘We’ve lived so well, so long/Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on I wonder what went wrong’ make my stomach churn,” Williams explained.
Williams described how the lyrics only apply to the white American experience.
“How is a Black American going to sing that knowing full well his ancestors survived the ships of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to build this country for free, deemed property and treated habitually as less than human… Who has lived so well, so long? Who wonders what went wrong with the country? Not me.”
When Williams approached Jasperse about the selection, Jasperse couldn’t understand how the selection wasn’t inclusive, Williams explained.
At an open discussion with company members Jasperse held to discuss the selection, the same white student who openly called Williams the n-word equated Williams’ discomfort to non-Christians singing Christmas songs.
In a private conversation Williams described, Jasperse told Williams he had some “soul-searching” to do.
“You made it MY problem, implying that someone else was telling me what to think, do, or feel which is exactly what YOU had been doing,” Williams wrote. “It was an inconvenience for you and by extension, MY problem that I couldn’t happily enjoy singing the praises of the white American experience alongside people who thought I was a “Nigga.”
Williams explained the ultimatum Jasperse gave him: Williams could participate or walk off the stage during the performance.
“The purpose was to pacify my complaint and vindicate a false persona as ‘angry’ or ‘sensitive,’” Williams wrote. “Not only now could people get away with calling me ‘Nigga,’ but they could also compare the trans-Atlantic slave trade to Christmas songs. So that was my choice. Unfortunately, I was manipulated into feeling required to sing it whenever it was on the setlist (which it always was).”
Williams went on to describe how scheduled MLK Day rehearsals were shortened only after more Black students asked they be canceled. The company was sent the following email after the holiday:
Williams also explained how Jasperse failed to apologize after the company was forced to perform “Country Dances,” a medley that included “Dixieland,” the national anthem of the Confederate states. Dixieland was later removed from the show.
Williams described how he was forced to explain to the company why he felt uncomfortable with the selection. After Williams explained, Jasperse added the song had been in the program for 30 years and people of all different skin tones and ethnicities had sung it before.
During one rehearsal, Williams and other Black vocalists were repeatedly badgered to perform the rap segments of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” Williams explained how company members framed it as the Black students “duty” to do the genre justice.
“I find it revealing that you and your students never felt that way about appropriating jazz,” Williams wrote. “That’s pretty ironic for the sole Black GC vocalist to continually be told that my natural voice was inappropriate for jazz. The assumption is that Black students must possess some inherent ‘cultural’ advantage over the non-Black student leaders/Miller Show producers.”
Williams also explained how Black women in the company were not allowed to audition for the lead roles in songs by Black women.
The mistreatment Williams experienced extended beyond the walls of Miller Auditorium. He explained how people often called his hands “ashy” or described his behavior as “uncivilized” and said his afro was “nappy.”
While Williams was staying at one of his white company member’s houses before a company trip to California, the person’s father joked about Williams being shot and killed because he was wearing a hoodie.
A guest artist also told Williams to “stay alive” upon hearing his first name, referencing the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Another masterclass instructor also described Williams’ gestures and voice as “sassy.”
“I wasn’t adding sassiness or attitude in my voice at all. Just. Singing,” Williams wrote. “Using my own voice. My voice is not an affectation. No one seemed to notice the horrifying nature of his comments. Certainly not you. Everyone sat idly by in oblivion except one student (of color) who left the room in disgust.”
Williams described how when he unsuccessfully auditioned for the Songbird ensemble he was told the decision came down to “preference” because everyone performed well.
To conclude the letter, Williams expressed how he was looking forward to Jasperse’s response and called for the professor to quit in order to make room for better representation in the department.
“I pray the future students of color at WMU won’t have to withstand the same torture that your program epitomizes,” Williams wrote. “To the school of music, please don't subject any additional Black lives to this toxic learning environment.”
Editor's Note: Greg Jasperse did not respond to multiple requests for comment through email and Facebook.