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Musical activism earns Gilliard ’18 Monroe Prize

  • Monroe Prize:
    Monroe Prize:  Jordan Gilliard '18 is the recipient of this year's Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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When Jordan Gilliard’s high school choir teacher cued the group to start singing, silence followed.

“No one would sing because we were so scared we wouldn’t know the note,” said Gilliard. “He told us, ‘If everyone is waiting for someone else to sing, then nothing will happen.’ And I’ve just incorporated that into my life. Nothing’s going to happen if we’re all waiting for someone else … You don’t have to be the savior, just the person who starts stuff.”

During her four years at William & Mary, Gilliard ’18 has often been that person, building community by working to provide students of color more opportunities to have their voice heard, in both the university’s music scene and beyond.

For her work, Gilliard will receive this year’s Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership at the Charter Day ceremony in Kaplan Arena Feb. 9. The prize is awarded annually to a student who “has demonstrated sustained leadership of an unusual quality, leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to leveraging the assets of the William & Mary community to address the needs of our society,” according to the award description.

“Jordan Gilliard has exemplified civic leadership throughout her time at William & Mary, bringing her commitments to social justice, racial equity and community building to every aspect of her life,” said Melody Porter, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “In organizational leadership, academic inquiry, music and writing, Jordan's active citizenship has challenged injustice, spoken truth and deepened relationships in ways that are keenly needed in our society.”

During her time at the university, Gilliard, a public policy major focused on educational policy, served as the president of the W&M NAACP chapter, co-founded the Featuring Lyrics of Other Worlds music group, created the “Real Talk A Capella at W&M” video series and organized a Black Lives Matter William & Mary conference. A Sharpe Community Scholar, she also participated in a Branch Out Alternative Break trip to Philadelphia that focused on criminal justice and mass incarceration.

Gilliard began singing in her church choir when she was just 3 years old. Growing up in a military family, she moved often during her childhood, but music remained a constant in her life. At W&M, she found ways to combine that affinity with her love of community organizing, becoming a musical activist.

“That’s the place in activism I’d like to have because there are tons of greats like Mahalia Jackson who was a great friend of Dr. King and was a great singer who just sort of set the tone for the Civil Rights movement when it came to the musical aspects of it,” said Gilliard.

As a member of the a capella community, Gilliard noticed a lack of diversity in both the membership and musical selections of the university’s groups.

“I was vice president of NAACP at the time and especially focusing on racial justice issues,” she said. “Everything had been building, and I just realized there were some inequities and implicit racial biases going on in the musical community.”

She began talking with other students of color within the a capella community, and those discussions turned into the “Real Talk” video series. During the filming of the series, Gilliard and the other students involved decided to keep the video interviews confidential, which was difficult but important, she said.

“We had to keep it secret for a while because of the tradition of when [people of color] bring issues to white audiences, there’s tension and a tendency for white audiences to quell what’s going on,” Gilliard said. “But we wanted to make sure our voice was being heard, our raw feelings were being heard.”

Although Gilliard organized the filming and did most of the editing, she emphasizes that the series was a grassroots effort. When the videos came out last spring, they prompted some groups to review and change their practices, Gilliard said. Other students voiced their interest in being involved to include perspectives from students of additional cultural backgrounds.

Gilliard is continuing work on the series as an independent music project this semester but with a more academic focus on the difference between Western and Afro-American music performance standards. That topic dovetails with her interest in educational policy as it can lead to academic and social repercussions for students who have different cultural approaches to music.

For instance, those differences can lead to a capella groups at predominantly white institutions not selecting students of color who learned music through call-and-response in church choirs as Gilliard did instead of scales.

“I know I’ve made beautiful music with my gospel groups where I was just crying, so it’s possible,” Gilliard said. “You don’t have to have those skills to make music. It’s because of the demographics and background of most of the people in the a capella community that they don’t realize they are turning people away who can make as beautiful of music.”

Those people who are being turned away still deserve a place to make music, Gilliard said, and that’s why she co-founded FLOW.

“They shouldn’t feel like they can’t make music, that they can’t express themselves,” she said.

The first night the group met, they created a song together, and they have since been invited to perform at a number of events, including one hosted by the African Cultural Society.

Gilliard plans on taking a gap year after graduation in order to focus on her music and find her sound. After that, she plans on attending graduate school for one of her passions — music and ethnomusicology or educational policy — to enhance her understanding of the subjects in a justice-related context, she said.

No matter where that takes her, she will continue to use music as a means of activism.

“I think that music in itself is very unifying. A movement can still mean different things to different people, but at least it helps people feel less alone,” she said. “It can soothe people and do all the beautiful things that music does normally but it unifies people around a common goal.”