Rockapellas continue to examine social justice through song

by Rohail Premjee | 11/27/11 11:00pm

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a four-part series profiling the origins of several student performance groups on campus.

Dartmouth students know how to turn the sting of rejection into something powerful, creative and positive just ask Stephanie Wood-Garnett '92, one of two original founders of the Dartmouth Rockapellas. In Fall 1988, Wood-Garnett and Debbie Gartner '92 founded the Rockapellas, an all-female a cappella group devoted to sharing a love of singing and examining issues of social justice through song.

Wood-Garnett and Gartner came up with the idea during their freshman Fall after trying out for and being rejected from the then-existing campus a cappella groups. Over a conversation in the Mid-Fayerweather common lounge, the pair hatched the idea to form their own group instead.

"We posted signs across campus that we were starting a new group and conducted tryouts," Wood-Garnett said.

The two found enough interest among their peers and soon had eight women who would comprise the first lineup of the Rockapellas.

John Ramspacher '91, a friend of the founders, came up with the name "Rockapellas," according to Wood-Garnett. The name is derived from the all-women, African-American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. The Grammy-award winning group has been known since its inception in 1973 for conveying group members' history as women of color through song.

Musical direction came from Larissa Roesch '88, who had already graduated but was working at the Hopkins Center. Roesch arranged the group's music and conducted rehearsals. After rehearsing throughout Fall term, the Rockapellas had their first performance in early Winter 1989.

The road to success was not easy, though, according to some of the inaugural members.

"We were the baby group," Tricia Paik '91, one of the original eight, said. "We weren't automatically welcomed."

It would be a few years before the group gained widespread recognition in the a cappella community.

"Slowly we built a following," Wood-Garnett said. "It took us three years to get invited to the Spring Fling a cappella concert."

Today, the Rockapellas continue to devote a part of each show to raising awareness about social issues by performing "freedom songs."

"We recognized that [freedom songs] were something we believe in, something which would distinguish us from other groups," Wood-Garnett said.

This concept originated from Paik, who discovered the Swedish choral group Fjedur, which performed reinterpretations of songs based on apartheid, while in high school.

For the original Rockapellas, the most meaningful song by Fjedur was "Oh Freedom," which still remains a significant song for the group.

"[Roesch] arranged the music for [Oh Freedom'], and it became our group song," Wood-Garnett said. "It represented our fight to keep on singing and to incorporate songs that have a social message."

Although songs like "Oh Freedom" date back to the founding of the group, the Rockapellas now update their song selection to address contemporary issues of social justice.

"These songs focus on specific issues," Rockapella Maia Matsushita '13 said. "Some are about poverty, the world's children, alcoholism. The songs are constantly being re-examined by the group's members and reflect what we think is important to the group at the time."

Rehearsals offered the group an opportunity to develop deep connections with other members but they were not always fun and games.

"Did we always love each other? We fought, but we fought like sisters," Wood-Garnett said. "We had the greatest group of women because everyone was so opinionated. Rehearsals were a combination of deep dialogue about what was important to each one of us, and sometimes we had personal conflicts."

As the group found greater success, it came to realize that it took more than good singing to draw a crowd.

"As we grew older, we recognized people with strong voices but also people with strong personalities," Wood-Garnett said. "That's how we got girls like actress Aisha Tyler '92. She could sing but was also funny."

The original Rockapellas incorporated skits and improv between songs, using humor to invite their audiences to consider social issues. Among their most famous skits was "Frat Man."

"Frat Man' was a social commentary about the fraternities on campus," Wood-Garnett said. "Tyler would play a caricature of a fraternity brother. Women would play different roles that we and other women were experiencing at the time."

In order to spread their message of social justice, the Rockapellas, both past and present, have often reached out to communities throughout New England.

"We would do concerts within the community because we felt it was important to connect with the community," Wood-Garnett said.

Once of the most satisfying aspects of the Rockapellas for previous and current members is the tight-knit nature of the group.

"[That] really is the Rockapellas for me," Matsushita said. "When my friends are off, when I'm having a bad day, they really are my Dartmouth family."

First-year Rockapellas are affectionately termed "Pebbles," while upperclassmen girls are called "Rocks." After Rockapellas graduate from the College, they are known within the Rockapellas community as "Boulders."

"It's cool that [the Pebbles] will grow into the roles of the group, continuing the tradition and continuing the message," musical director Emily Freebairn '12 said.

Paik said that she is incredibly proud that the Rockapellas have continued over the years to maintain "an organic growth of traditions," such as the freedom songs.

Others like Wood-Garnett are pleased to learn that the group continues its excellence and pursuit of social justice through song, as the Rockapellas were recently given one of Dartmouth's Social Justice Awards.

"I'm thrilled to see that the social justice message is still within the group," Wood-Garnett said. "We were fearless, and we hope the Rockapellas still are."