When Black Band Leaders Meet Black Student Leaders
Trill or Not Trill?


I have worked with a number of black students who’ve held leadership roles at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). Some were in traditional black leadership positions, within Black Student Unions or Divine 9 Greek lettered organizations. There were also others who held titles in non culturally based clubs and groups. For those students, asserting their blackness or simply existing and remaining authentic in these PWI worlds has often been a challenge.

When I think of their struggles, I am reminded of Stephen Colbert’s recent late night CBS debut. During that first show he introduced Jazz musician, Jon Batiste as his band leader. The young black Louisiana native brings some funk and soul to a space that doesn’t often embrace a style such as his. Across the dial, Questlove and the almighty Roots band are rocking another major late night show. This is pretty trill if you ask me. Having two black musicians existing simultaneously in these predominately white spaces is something those aforementioned students could learn from.

As stated by Inside HigherEd, “African-American students who attend predominantly white universities also experience significant internal tensions – over their cultural identity and their desire to acclimate.” When the Roots, were selected to work with Jimmy Fallon, as a hip hop fan, I feared that the iconic rap group would lose their flavor. Granted, Black Thought goes by his actual name of Tariq but the culture is infused up and down that show. Fallon rapping with Justin Timberlake, slow jamming with the president or freestyling with the audience is not by accident. Like the Roots, Black student leaders should never be afraid to show off the creativity of their culture. Never hide who you are. Instead of engaging in a battle of blackness versus the perceived whiteness of your school, show off your ability to reach wide audiences. Don’t compromise, instead, continue to create.

Jon Batiste is easily one of the best live performers I have ever seen in my life. What he has immediately taught me and could teach Black students leaders at PWI’s is that talent finds a way. A dynamic spirit and high level of skill are characteristics that can often transcend. If you’re truly talented, you can often assure that your race is not the first thing to enter the room. Even if people are thinking about you being black, don’t let such thoughts cloud your own mind. Batiste and his band, Stay Human, have an infectious spirit that makes you want to follow them. They literally have led audiences out of their seats. He actually did this on the Colbert Report. This pied piper mentality is one students can use to teach others about who they are but also gives them a chance to learn about other cultures as well. They will follow you for your energy and leadership capabilities all while learning about your culture.

Questlove and Black Thought have certainly integrated their personalities into the Tonight Show in ways not necessarily involving music. They’ve acted in skits and participated in the daily banter with Fallon. The band in general is just amazingly skilled. They consistently crush it and show how versatile they are. I’ve watched them kill it with classroom instruments time and time again. Black Thought, I mean Tariq, bodied a verse in during a Sesame Street theme song remix, for goodness sake. This is an example of showing potentially small minded audiences your versatility. Don’t be afraid to give the world what they expected but never shy away from a chance to shock them with an expansive skill set. Being a chameleon with the ability to walk into any room and not only fit in but shine is impressive. Not everybody is capable of such a feat. Being a successful leader at a PWI will sometimes require that of you.  Your blackness is important but it’s not the only thing that makes you a leader.

Students should bring their world to others. Batiste has come out dancing to soul music with Colbert at the start of each episode. I can’t remember the last time seeing Colbert get down with the get down. Oh, wait I do. It was that earlier video of him body rolling with Batiste. Black students like any student leader should push people out of their comfort zone.  Now, if that means doing something defined as authentically black, then go for it. You don’t have to be the all knowing but embrace teaching. Take someone’s hand and walk that walk to a place that was once foreign.

To the Black student leader, I say this, situations will arise where racism might sneak in.  There will be cases where you’ll be asked to unfairly defend your entire race. Don’t let those moments deter you from being an outstanding  leader. Find a mentor and rock with other black students and non black people with open minds. Your leadership matters. Play on!


Stay trill, folks.