Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A look into the Black Mass Communications Project’s present and past

The decades-old RSO is working to increase student engagement
Photo courtesy of Special Collections & University Archives

Music is everywhere. From the release of Beyonce’s brand-new album “COWBOY CARTER,” to quintessential songs from the ‘90s that we still blast from the windows of our cars or the speakers in our rooms, music helps to shape our daily lives and experiences.

Modern country music shares roots with the blues, a genre created in the early 20th century. Hip-hop, R&B and electronic dance music all draw significant influence from Black musical traditions such as jazz, blues and funk.

The Black Mass Communications Project (BMCP) at the University of Massachusetts dedicates their mission to uplifting and enriching Black music and culture on campus. It’s impossible not to notice BMCP’s presence at UMass, from hosting their various ‘Berk Parties’ to the annual, highly anticipated SoulFest.

Juliannie Ayala,a junior journalism and legal studies student, is the co-vice president of BMCP. In Ayala’s role she maintains relationships with faculty, oversees other e-board member duties and organizes planning for SoulFest.

For Ayala, the connection she already had with the former president from high school drew her to join BMCP her freshman year. Her unique relationship with the organization inspired her to attend a few general body meetings, and in due time she established herself on the e-board.

Soulfest, BMCP’s week-long tradition, takes place during the spring semester, allocating each day to a specific RSO.

“It’s a way to get the community together,” Ayala said. “It’s fun, it’s interactive, it’s something that’s enjoyable and people actually look forward to it.”

Themed general body meetings, like those Ayala first attended as a freshman, run throughout the year. These include themes like ‘Dominoes & Dominoes,’ in homage to the beloved game that several Caribbean communities play with families and friends.

Co-vice president and senior communications major Elijah Fortune explained that he wasn’t aware of BMCP until he stumbled upon the organization at Welcome to the U, a series of workshops that occur at the beginning of the fall semester to help students explore campus.

Initially, Fortune served as BMCP’s music coordinator for general body meetings and promotion at SoulFest. He also works as a DJ on the side.

Unexpected challenges & adaptations

The extensive scope of BMCP requires coordination and adherence to tradition. For sophomore English major Hayden Previlon, their first year as public relations coordinator has involved conducting research on the different organizations on campus, promoting “New Music Fridays” and running the group’s “shadow program” – a mentor-based initiative to recruit new members.

Previlon was Ayala’s shadow, and he enjoyed the mentorship that the program provided for new members.

In tandem with Previlon’s work, events coordinator and junior public health major Ashley Tovar oversees room bookings and conducts outreach with alumni and faculty. Tovar is also a member of the Black Student Union.

“It’s kinda like joining a legacy,” Tovar said, who joined BMCP after her sister graduated from UMass.

In the midst of the RSO’s rich history of fostering student engagement on campus, all four e-board members pointed to a pattern of declining student engagement that started around the middle of last semester.

Previlon described how: “What I’ve gathered is really just…I talked to a lot of people and a lot of them think there is no point in going,” he said in relation to the financial aspect of attending a few events.

Alumni are an integral part of BMCP, said Ayala, and there has been a lot of pressure from alumni to maintain tradition, especially after the cancellation of their annual homecoming event last semester.

On-campus bookings and financial regulations have changed as well, forcing BMCP to raise ticket prices to offset venue costs. They’ve also had to contend with the absence of an advisor for this year. This creates more taxing work for e-board members, such as acquiring DJ’s and venues.

“We are taking on the role of what an advisor should do,” Ayala explained. “So that’s affected all cultural RSO’s tremendously, because they have to take on a role as not only a full-time student, but also like an advisor…we’re trying to keep campus engagement up, there’s just so many factors working against us.”

Ayala recognizes that the incoming classes are coming out of the pandemic, creating a piece of disconnect within the community on campus.

“UMass holds that ‘Zoomass’ title, but like for who?,” Ayala  said. “Not for us, not for the Black community, you know? So we have to reach a completely different audience compared to ‘Zoomass.’”

A rich history

As one of the oldest Black RSO’s on campus, the group’s roots on campus can be traced back to 1968.

1968 resembled a turning point for the political and social history of the United States, from the first trip around the moon to the establishment of the landmark Civil Rights Act. At the time, many colleges throughout the United States had to address the reality of racism on campus and higher education in general.

BMCP established an educational platform that catered to Black students at UMass, gaining official recognition as an RSO within a year of its founding. Over its evolution, BMCP curated cultural events, lectures and workshops to cultivate an appreciation for Black music and public affairs.

Throughout the 1970s, BMCP members offered programming at WMUA’s radio station for shows and interviews. When perusing through the archival collection, the history of BMCP is rich, representing the efforts around social justice at the time, as Ayala put it.

“They just kind of wrote up whatever was going on in the world, whether it was about war, presidents or anything with laws,” she said. “It was a really historically grounded type of organization.”

The inventory even includes tapes from the Five College radio, such as the recording of the country’s first Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, lecturing at Mount Holyoke College in 1971. They also interviewed writers from the Drum, the University’s only Black literary magazine.

Ayala shared she was looking at files recently, where there are over 500 ranging from audio to written scripts.

“So that was pretty interesting, they were such an avid group,” Ayala said. “They really advocated for equality for Black students, because obviously around that time [there] was crazy injustice.”

Fortune and Ayala agreed how it was “chilling” to hear the soundbite clips of students that spoke.

Amidst institutional changes and the evolving interests of prospective members, BMCP is looking to diversify their recruitment efforts. The development of their new podcast is one way that members are hopeful to regain normal recruitment levels.

The podcast explores topics such as the intersection between mental health and music,  hip hop conspiracy theories and student involvement. With roots from BMCP’s past, Fortune pitched the idea after working on an independent study with a professor and his additional involvement in Day by Day University, a separate podcast dedicated to promoting conversations about mental health among students of color.

“We had a podcast back in the ‘70s, decades later what happened to it?” Ayala said. “It had a lot of conversations and I want that to kind of carry on after me. We have a lot of conversations about stuff on campus engagement, mental health, Black mental health…we collab with other RSO’s to kind of just not only promote us, because we’re all struggling here…let’s talk about it, let’s have a good conversation.”

Olivia Capriotti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X at @capriottiolivia.

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