The atmosphere in Tommy’s Place Thursday night was somber. One after another, students performed on stage by reciting personal writing and poetry in dedication to Victor McElhaney, a senior who died earlier this month from a gunshot wound after a failed robbery attempt.
The event is part of a monthly series and is co-sponsored by the Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice, Graduate Student Government, Undergraduate Student Government, Rossier Master’s Program Office and Residential Education.
McElhaney was a musician and was an active member of the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and Brothers Breaking BREAD, a student organization founded to showcase black male leadership and excellence. He transferred to USC in Fall 2017 to pursue drumset studies at the Thornton School of Music.
A memorial was held for McElhaney on March 19, where an estimated 700 people gathered at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom.
Sarah Toutant, a CBCSA graduate assistant, led the open mic night. Before performers began, Toutant conducted a moment of silence for McElhaney. She later read a piece dedicated to McElhaney titled “The Definition of Drums,” which she also performed at his memorial.
“You were struck, and I should not be writing this poem right now. We should all not be here. Why are we here?” Toutant said in her poem. “But this poem will not answer our why, it will not bring us peace nor will it heal the open wounds filled with grief that your family feels, that your friends feel, that the world feels.”
Aside from performances dedicated to McElhaney, the event covered an assortment of topics, including gender dysmorphia, sexual assault, romantic encounters, grief and recent USC scandals. The night was open to the surrounding USC community, allowing local high school students and residents to participate.
Graduate student Diana June Greer read a piece about McElhaney with her daughter Ariel.
“If I had one wish, I would wish that humans could be bulletproof,” Greer recited. “You see everyone breaking down? Yeah, we’re going through it. So much anger in my soul, so much sadness fills up my heart … He was a leader. A young black man with big dreams.”
Students who attended the event stressed the importance of artistic expression on campus, especially through events like open mic nights.
“I think it provides a safe space for students to come and express themselves in a non-formal classroom setting,” said Zehna Gilliam, a graduate student studying social work.
Performer Edward Swan read Anthony Garcia’s poem, “I am the Time of Day and Life of All,” which he dedicated to McElhaney.
“We have a connection to people, and this space … allows people who haven’t even performed ever before an opportunity to speak on it,” Swan said. “Speak truth to power and this is one of those examples of that, where we can manifest wonderful energy by speaking on the microphone to others and having a message that is unique to ourselves.”
Toutant concluded the evening with a statement expressing gratitude to attendees and performers.
“I really appreciate you all coming out tonight to commemorate Vic,” Toutant said. “I know that the energy was a little bit lower than it usually is, and I expected that, especially because a lot of us are feeling a lot right now and that’s very, very real. But thank you so much.”