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A People’s History of Yardfest

“[The Blues] take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.” — Martin Luther King Jr., Speech at Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Before we had Wale at Yardfest 2018, we had Wale at Yardfest 2010. And though Yardfest has a complicated history, some things—like Wale—have remained the same.

Before Yardfest, we had Springfest. From 1994 until 2006—when Yardfest got its name and came under the purview of the College Events Board—the Undergraduate Council planned an annual event called Springfest. The event featured a number of festivities missing today—carnival games, dunk tanks, sumo wrestling, jousting, and free beer.

Since conception, Yardfest has sought to unify the college student body. In reference to the goals of the first ever Springfest, one organizer said it was designed to be “one day when everyone at Harvard from gov jocks to pre-meds puts aside their work, leaves their rooms, and comes to the Yard where we all started off.”

The idea that Yardfest creates monolithic unity among undergraduates is only partially true. Even though thousands of undergrads come together for Yardfest, we arrive there from wildly different places—some from final clubs, others from kickbacks in our dorms. Yardfest should be used as time to bridge these divides. But even the debates around music selection undercuts this project.

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Music has been a staple of the event since 1995 when several local bands were invited to play. Though initially a grab bag of nationally relevant artists (Violent Femmes in 1999) and in-house performers (purely student acts in 1998 and 2001), recent years have brought bigger names to Harvard. Today, Yardfest is all about the headliner.

Choosing a headliner has never been a simple task. In 2002, the UC was considering OutKast for Springfest. In an email to the UC president, Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth wrote that “their language may not be acceptable for many audiences, and also that, reportedly, Rosa Parks once sued the group. These comments cause me to worry that OutKast may not be the best group for the Concert Commission to bring to campus.”

Most recently, and perhaps notoriously, over 1,000 students protested Tyga’s 2013 Yardfest performance because of his “explicitly and violently misogynistic” lyrics. The complaints prompted administrators to ask the CEB to reconsider their selection, while not forcing student organizers into anything. Though Tyga was ultimately allowed to perform, the event schedule was modified to allow people to leave before he came on stage.

Parsing through the complexities of Yardfests-past brings us to a simple truth: artist selection matters. It matters, not only because the performer is the factor that determines whether Yardfest will be—as the kids say—lit, but also because artists inherently send a message about who we as a community imagine ourselves to be. Beyond an artist’s lyrics, their selection can remind us of the ways we are not as united as brochures and administrator’s speeches portray us.

Artists will not be booked if they don’t have popular appeal, but notions of “popularity” privilege certain sectors of the College student body over others. Country music and Latino music have become increasingly popular in recent years, concurrent with the increase of regional and ethnic diversity at Harvard. Yet in 24 years, there has not been a single act under either of those genres.

The “popularity” of the Yardfest act caters to the tastes of a majority that is so wealthy and white that in 2012 a headliner yelled “What’s up, you drunk, overprivileged shits?” and “All you white people make some noise” at the crowd. Minority preferences at Harvard—though popular in other parts of the country—simply won’t make it onto the stage.

Even rap music, made by black folks and co-opted by white Harvard students, reveals the fractures in this amorphous entity we call our undergraduate community. In advertising Yardfest this year, the CEB put out a flyer with a whale and a yacht, presumably a homage to Lil Yachty and Wale. But the flyer is predicated on the mispronunciation of Wale’s name (pronounced wah-lay, not whale), an error also made in 2010 when The Crimson attempted to make a joke about how the rapper’s name rhymed with Yale.

Though seemingly minor, the transgression shows just how different member of our community consume music differently based on their backgrounds. Yardfest is then a reminder of how difficult transcending class, race, gender, and religious lines at Harvard can be. As a Crimson editor wrote in 2009, “Harvard is a diverse place with high expectations, and no artist choice will ever satisfy everyone.”

Acknowledging these fractures and criticizing naive notions of unity is not antithetical to continually reaching for them. We’ve always striven to frame Yardfest as a moment of unity. At Jesse J’s 2015 performance, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said “I think it’s a great way our community comes together,” echoing a comment made in 1996 by a Campus Life Committee co-chair about Springest being “a really great opportunity to bring the campus together.”

We should continue to strive for unity, but we should not do so blindly. We should realize that fostering a unified student body requires more effort than simply attending a social event with individuals we generally don’t cross path with. After we’ve recovered from one too many drinks and strained vocal chords, our responsibility lies in what we’ll do to achieve the cohesion Yardfest allows us to imagine.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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