Over 700 friends, family and community members gathered Tuesday night in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom to honor the life of Victor McElhaney, a senior who died March 10. McElhaney died of a gunshot wound to the head, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
As people entered the auditorium, a slideshow of videos and photos played, set to the jazz tune “Live at the BlackHawk” by Miles Davis.
In the back of the ballroom, attendees were encouraged to sign a USC flag and write letters to put in a drumstick case for McElhaney’s family.
McElhaney studied jazz and drumset studies at the Thornton School of Music, and was actively involved in the black community at USC through the Center for Black and Cultural Student Affairs and the organization Brothers Breaking B.R.E.A.D. (Barriers, Regrets, Egos, Animosity and Doubt), which aimed to empower black men on campus. At the beginning of this semester, McElhaney served as the co-president of the organization.
To begin the memorial, several administrators and faculty spoke about McElhaney’s impact on their life.
“It wasn’t a question of whether Vic wanted to be a leader,” CBCSA Assistant Director Theo Fowles said. “It was a statement that Vic was a leader we needed … With Vic, there were no barriers, there were only intersections.”
Peter Erskine, the director of drumset studies at the Thornton school, privately taught McElhaney for a year.
“He was quiet, but he spoke up,” Erskine said. “He was proud, but he was humble. He was serious, but he would smile too.”
Black Alumni Association Executive Director Michelle Turner announced that BAA would create a student scholarship named and awarded in McElhaney’s honor.
“He held the idea and concept of community dearly,” Turner said. “He was an exemplar of black pride and excellence.”
Other faculty and administrators, including Thornton Dean Rob Cutietta, Senior Associate Dean of Religious Life Jim Burklo and McElhaney’s academic advisor, Viet Bui, also spoke.
The memorial also included performances by Thornton faculty and students.
Kathleen Grace, a Thornton adjunct instructor, performed “This is Always,” by Betty Carter. Grace said Carter was one of McElhaney’s favorite artists.
“Vic lives on in the sound of every musician he ever played with,” Grace said.
Thornton jazz studies percussion lecturer Aaron Serfaty led McElhaney’s Jazz Combo class in performing McElhaney’s own arrangement of the Jackson 5 song “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
“I never can say goodbye,” the song goes. “Even though the pain and heartache / Seem to follow me wherever I go.”
McElhaney’s parents, Oakland District 3 Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Clarence McElhaney, were at the memorial. Clarence McElhaney spoke briefly about his son.
“His first drumset, we had to call ‘night-night drums,’ because he would play them through midnight,” Clarence McElhaney said. “His love was for African drums, the root of all American music … [once], he said he played the drums until his ancestors talked to him.”
Kirk Franklin, a prominent gospel singer, came to the event to speak after being informed that he was one of McElhaney’s musical idols.
“These are difficult, painful times,” Franklin said. “When you go to the symphony, at the beginning, the musicians are making a bunch of mess … only when the conductor takes the stage, the mess turns into melody … I still believe all of this is happening because the conductor is about to take stage.”
Students who knew McElhaney were invited to take the stage to talk about their memories of him.
David “LAMI” Friebe, who served as co-president of BBB with McElhaney and was also a student at Thornton, described how McElhaney changed the culture of the organization through his leadership.
Friebe said McElhaney organized events like a screening of the film “Moonlight,” and was unafraid to speak out about his beliefs — McElhaney challenged conservative speaker Ben Shapiro during the Q&A portion of Shapiro’s appearance at USC.
“He had so much impact on our organization,” Friebe said. “He pushed me to be the best person I could be.”
After speaking, Friebe performed his and McElhaney’s band’s original song “The Circle,” which he had performed with McElhaney in an unreleased music video.
Circles were a theme throughout the event. Speakers mentioned the circles of community created around McElhaney, the representation of drums as circles and the circle of life McElhaney was a part of.
Nia Warren, co-director of the Black Student Assembly, was a childhood friend of McElhaney, whom she reconnected with seven years later when they both ended up at the same university.
“You were supposed to be a part of my family forever,” Warren said. “No one challenged me the way Vic did.”
Sarah Toutant, a CBCSA graduate assistant, performed a spoken word poem she wrote, “The Definition of Drums,” at the memorial.
“You’re probably in this room right now, critiquing this very gathering because we should’ve worn more color or something,” Toutant said in her poem.
Fowles and Burklo ended the event by encouraging attendees to speak to people in the room outside of their ‘circles’ about their memories and relationships with McElhaney.
Senior Director of Student Equity and Inclusion Programs Naddia Palacios helped organize the event, with support from CBCSA, BAA, BSA and the Thornton School. She said she served to collect information from the various organizations to create a communal event honoring McElhaney.
“We wanted to make sure to celebrate him through his music and provide a space for students to come together,” Palacios said.
McElhaney was 21 when he died March 10. He was approached by three to four suspects around 12:24 a.m. during a possible failed robbery attempt on Maple Avenue and Adams Boulevard, the Los Angeles Police Department said. One of the suspects shot McElhaney, and the suspects fled the scene in a vehicle. An LAPD investigation into the matter is ongoing, and no suspects have been arrested.
Berkeley-based organization Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency created a GoFundMe fundraising page on behalf of McElhaney’s family. As of Tuesday night, the page has raised over $73,000, surpassing its original $30,000 fundraising goal and its $50,000 stretch goal.
“The light Vic brought into this community meant the community was changed forever,” Warren said.