Berklee Students Demand Accountability for Racism, Transphobia and Culture of Abuse On Campus

By Taraneh Azar

June 7, 2021

“Today I went to my professor’s office hours for help,” tweeted Berklee student Randy King on April 5. “Out of NOWHERE she says, ‘I assume you didn’t grow up with a father and you had a rough life growing up.’”


The Tweet was re-posted on Instagram by fourth-semester Berklee music business major Jackson Speller in a thread compiling the testimony of students decrying racism, transphobia and general discrimination at the hands of Berklee’s administration and faculty. The professor in question, Sally Blazer, is white and King is Black.


The post received thousands of likes, bringing renewed attention to a longstanding problem of pervasive racism on Berklee’s campus. Students at Berklee are fed up and have come together to amplify voices and demand accountability.


“Berklee is one of the big names, and they’ve got all these pictures of Black students [in advertisements]. And then you get there and when you're in class, you're the only one in classes [who’s Black],” explained Bobby Hall, a graduating contemporary writing and production major at Berklee. “I still feel like the minority and it doesn't feel good when my identity is being commodified. It makes me feel like a statistic — it makes me feel like another way to make money.”


Hall and Speller are among a group of students who have been demanding action from Berklee’s administration with little compliance. Last year, they brought a list of demands to president Roger Brown — demands which, according to students, are just now being acknowledged following an organized walkout on April 14. The demonstration was in response to Blazar’s conduct but also to the other instances of discrimination that were chronicled in the original Instagram post and the flurry of submissions reposted by @aminext_berklee, an account created by the core organizers to facilitate discussion surrounding the needed change at Berklee.


Blazar could not be reached for comment. Berklee’s administration could not be reached for comment.


While Blazar’s rhetoric was central to the current outrage, students make it clear that this is not just about one racist professor. This is about an administration that excuses unacceptable conduct and deflects demands for accountability. This is about a broken culture of pervasive prejudice that is not only present but also tolerated.


“Berkee does thrive off of a very toxic culture and a very toxic community,” explained Zora Robinson, a former student at Berklee. Robinson was featured on the Am I Next Berklee Instagram account where they shared their experience navigating not only sexual harassment and assault at Berklee but also transphobia and homophobia at the hands of Berklee students, faculty and administrators. They ultimately left the college to care for their mental health after administrators failed to provide appropriate services and protection. “I've gone to administration, I've gone to the faculty. And the thing is that the same people that perpetuate these kinds of phobias and these kinds of assaults — the people who are fully abusers at that school — are the same ones who are in the shows and performing every single show because they're good musicians.”


It’s important to note that Berklee has a history of excusing and protecting rapists and abusers, some of whom have been professors.


In the Am I Next post they wrote: “Experiencing Berklee as a Black trans woman is not for the faint of heart. We are overlooked, isolated and made to believe that we do not matter.”


Universities operate as businesses above all else, privy to the culture and politics of capitalist exploitation that cannot exist without the presence of racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of discrimination. But when it comes to a global standard of music education built on the praxis of jazz — an artform of resistance and historic pillar of Black culture in the U.S. — many would not think Berklee School of Music to be beholden to a broken culture of prejudice, gaslighting, toxic masculinity and public relations stunts that exist to protect an image rather than students in their care.


“The system is the white man. So obviously, it's going to protect them,” explained Margot Silva, a seventh-semester film score major at Berklee and one of countless students who has been failed by the systems set up to supposedly protect them. Following assault and abuse at the hands of another Berklee student, the college’s Center for Diversity Equity and Inclusion failed to provide Silva with appropriate services and, according to Silva, seemed more interested in protecting abusers than supporting survivors.


“Berklee is literally a machine for pumping sexist men and misogynistic men and racist men into the music industry. It protects them,” explained Silva.


Student review boards, more comprehensive mental health services, mandatory comprehensive diversity and inclusion training for professors and fair trials for professors with allegations of discriminatory behavior in line with restorative justice tactics are a few of the demands brought forward by Berklee students to the administration.


“I think the way we got so many people to come out, it's just momentum, like, straight up,” explained Speller, who hopes to expand the Am I Next account framework to be a platform for students around the Boston area. “I think if we get the press on [the administration], and continually have the press on them, that's cool. That's what we need to do. And I think we have the power to do that.”


Check out all the art and columns of June's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass