Marching in a maligned culture

Trojan Marching Band has been accused of using derogatory and racist rhetoric. Current and former band members allege harassment and toxicity. (Photo courtesy of Ling Luo) 

When “The Spirit of Troy,” the Trojan Marching Band, shared a blackout post on its Instagram account in June in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests breaking out across the nation, conversations sparked regarding several areas of toxicity within the organization. The social media activism didn’t sit well with some students and alumni, who said they felt they’d been wronged by the culture created within the band. They cited decades of racial favoritism, hazing, harassment and microaggressive behavior in the organization.

One alumnus, who graduated in 2011 and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of affecting the friendships they’d made while in the program, said the culture they’d witnessed in the program could be shocking at times.

“There is no ‘line’ in the band,” they said. “People have been known to get called racial slurs, height/weight/appearance-related obscenities or overall offensive terms, and, of course, names attacking one’s social or geographic background.”

A post eventually surfaced on the @black_at_usc Instagram account in July, detailing a program affected by “countless instances of prejudice.” It alleged blatant favoritism of white students by director Arthur Bartner. Additionally, it revealed that the alto saxophone section, as recently as 2016, would number its Black students and give them nicknames based on those numbers, and said the flute section gave students of color nicknames based around syrup and pancakes in a nod to the racially-stereotyped branding of Aunt Jemima. The anonymous alumnus who authored the post graduated in 2016.

Current band members confirmed these instances but said that they view them as a relic of the past. 

Ashwin Bhumbla, a senior majoring in computer science and narrative studies, is one of the section leaders for the alto saxophones. He said the stories are entirely valid, but they don’t represent the current values of the organization.

“When I came in as a freshman, what the post was talking about applied to one older member,” Bhumbla said, in reference to the numbering of Black students that had previously occurred within the section. “Once I learned about it — and once everybody in my class learned about it — it was with an attitude of, ‘OK, that’s terrible. We’re not going to do that.’”

The post, however, also questioned those within the organization that have allowed such an environment to persist. 

“The admin, TAs, staff and student leaders/seniors allow this prejudice and insolent behavior to run rampant and unchecked,” it read. 

Then in early August, a letter questioning the same culture was drafted and signed by 135 current and former marching band members. It detailed sexual assault allegations from three anonymous sources directed toward a tenor sax player who graduated in 2020, as well as the sexual assault-permitting culture they said was pervasive in the organization. The letter also alleged a “failure to effectively address cases of … toxic band culture” as a whole.

“We want to reiterate that we love the band,” read a note sent alongside the letter. “This letter and its message are about more than just one person, more than one case. We chose to participate because of the band’s mission of spirit and inclusion. What we are asking, in this letter, is that they prove us right.”

The letter was sent to the band’s administration, where it was then turned over to the USC Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX, who subsequently launched an investigation into the sexual assault allegations. 

The Office also began an overall climate assessment for the band which included harassment education sessions and consent workshops throughout the semester. Attendance was mandatory, with the sessions aiming to comprehensively educate all members in the problematic areas brought up by the concerned party. The band also formed the Trojan Marching Band Equity and Inclusion Committee to oversee efforts to address toxicity within the group moving forward.

Bartner, who celebrated 50 years as director of the program in 2019, has been a USC mainstay and, according to his students, has one of the largest salaries of any University employee. His retirement is planned for January 2021.

Many of those students revere him — they describe him as “larger than life,” “an institution” and “a giant of contemporary marching band music.” The actual interaction students have with Bartner is somewhat limited; he appears for some full-band rehearsals and the games, but the majority of teaching is handled by the four assistant directors, the associate director/arranger and one of the instrumental specialists hired by the program.

Several students said they consider Bartner’s demeanor notorious.

“He was just all in,” said alumnus Anshu Siripurapu, who played with the marching band in 2012 during his freshman year. “My impression of him is him up there on the podium just yelling his head off about anything. I don’t think he ever spoke at less than a yell.”

An alumni-run Facebook page, “Dr. Bartner’s Quotable Quotes,” contains some of the more outlandish comments allegedly made by Bartner, including one conversation from about five years ago. 

Bartner: “What’s this guys name?”

Student: “Varun.” 

Bartner: “VerOON? What happened to names like Sam?? You know… NORMAL names?!”

According to one of the posts on the Facebook page, during a leadership meeting, Bartner allegedly said, “I had to take a harassment test. I flunked it all three times I took it.”

Other quotes shared on the page include Bartner allegedly saying, “KELDRICK IS HERE! Everyone loves keldrick, everyone loves the one black drummer!!!” Additionally, he allegedly said, “You know what the problem with women is? They don’t forget!”

The @black_at_usc post referenced an occasion where Bartner asked a student of color why they couldn’t have a “normal name” after struggling with the pronunciation. A 2007 alum, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claimed Bartner had gone to anger management during their time with the band. When asked about that claim, the University stated, “personnel matters are confidential, so we are unable to discuss details.”

However, since Bartner works directly with the band in limited times, many members believe the man himself can’t be blamed directly for the instances of toxicity that crop up within it.

“He cares so much about the students,” said Sean Syed, a senior majoring in computer science who is the other alto sax section leader alongside Bhumbla. “He would never do anything to jeopardize the experience of the students in band.”

A look at band culture

What Syed and others believe to be responsible for the cultural issues is the insular nature of the marching band. The significant amount of time band members often spend together, they said, means folks are either less likely to find issues with the culture they’re so deeply entrenched in or, if they do see issues, unlikely to bring them up to the group as a whole.

“There are obviously things that will happen in any large organization that obviously shouldn’t happen, but people are too afraid to speak up because they don’t want to threaten the integrity of the organization,” Syed said. 

Of the factors that contribute to the high degree of member dedication, the weeklong intensive training camp all potential band members must go through right before the beginning of the school year is perhaps the most prominent. Syed said, for those who join as freshmen as he did, it’s very easy for the band to become a person’s entire social circle before the semester even officially begins.

“The week before classes, we’re spending like 11 hours a day together on the field or practicing music,” he said. “It’s kind of impossible not to develop bonds with those people.”

Those bonds carry beyond the practice room and field. Many band students interviewed had lived or were currently living with other band members. They often have their own parties and functions, where some of the sexual assault allegations from the letter took place. Students like Syed were aware of the potential for “groupthink” and potential normalization or downplaying of issues like the ones raised in the letter and the post.

Additionally, because sections tend to spend the majority of their time practicing on their own, the experience of students in one section can greatly differ from those of students in another. Normal activity for one section may surprise another, and each section will often acquire a reputation or personality characteristic. According to 2014 alumnus Tyler Ringer, reputations like “the trumpets are the hardest partiers” would circle throughout the band.

The areas where groupthink and dated toxic traditions overlap is the boundary the band is currently trying to outline through its work with Title IX. Certain things which were previously cultural fixtures, such as the nicknames assigned to every member of the band, have been illuminated as commonplace sources for race-based harassment. 

Beyond the numbering and pancake-based nicknaming mentioned in the Instagram post, students said there were also other nicknames that would often cross the line into the offensive. 

Because the nicknames are all based on the student’s identity, alumni like Ringer said they can involve appearance, such as height or weight but can also be based on race or economic/geographic background. 

“Some nicknames were just really wrong,” Ringer said, “Regardless of who gave them or whether you were ‘in on the joke.’”

Ringer said that while the allegations didn’t shock him, he was disappointed to see the same issues plaguing the band years later that he had believed were on their way out when he was a member. 

“There was this concept of the ‘old band,’ which was kind of like pre-#MeToo or even pre-internet, where they were much more wild and doing far more offensive things,” he said, comparing the newer iteration of the band he’d participated in with the band of the past. “You’d meet an alumni at a tailgate, and they might pressure you to drink or something, and you could get an idea of what the culture used to be like.”

Certainly, the band has changed drastically during Bartner’s tenure as director. Bartner was the first at USC to allow women into the band in 1971 and elevated the program to its current status through his high degree of discipline and intensity.

Many of those hired to the band’s administration are former members themselves. To some, this could represent a reinforcement of the same cultural norms that have been creating issues for the band. Other marching band members, however, believe the degree of devotion these people have to the band also carries over into their desire to make the band a safe space for all interested in joining.

“How can you change an organization if everybody that you hire that stays on for these full-time positions comes from within the band?” Bhumbla said. “I think what we’re seeing right now is that all this change is being started by people in the band. If you love something, you want it to be the best version of itself that it can be.”

Open to change

For the most part, the marching band members welcome the efforts regardless of the mandatory nature of the education sessions and workshops on topics like affirmative consent and bystander intervention. The workshops often involve role-playing and conversations about lived experiences in hopes of realigning the culture moving forward. The nicknames of the entire band were evaluated, and the potentially problematic ones were flagged for change.  

Niven Jayanthi, a tenor sax section leader who works in the band’s office, said the storied legacy which has made the band widely renowned is also the root cause for many of the issues currently being addressed. 

“One of the negative elements of that great tradition is the fact that there are still those lingering elements of the psychology and the culture of a ’70s or ’80s band in which it’s mostly white, male, cis people,” said Jayanthi, a junior majoring in business administration and mathematics. “That, I do not think, is surprising at all.”

The Trojan Marching Band is considered one of the premier collegiate marching band programs in the nation and has performed at events such as the Olympics and the Grammys and has shared the stage with artists such as Radiohead and Beyoncé. The band also appeared on two platinum Fleetwood Mac albums (“Tusk” in 1979 and “The Dance” in 1997).

The band has been in hot water before, notably in 2000 when members were accused of stealing $30,000 worth of equipment from the UCLA band equipment truck and writing a hate message on a saxophone case. No charges were brought, however. Other, more recent instances alleged include a student being allowed to wear a confederate flag at a Halloween event and an alleged anti-BLM post appearing on the Facebook page of Liz Jenkins, wife of assistant director Sean Jenkins, who works with the colorguard. Still, students like Bhumbla praise the staff for immediately taking action once the letter had been delivered. 

“They’ve approached it very well,” he said about the band’s leadership. “They’ve been very open and transparent and available on this.”

It seems that not everyone in the band, however, is comfortable with the way in which those changes are being implemented. One student interviewed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared being targeted, said she fears that the work may cross over from productive to destructive.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of change from [the Trojan Marching Band Equity and Inclusion Committee], and I don’t think it’s going to be something that everyone wants,” she said. “I mean, they’re coming after our traditions.”

“I think it’s being spearheaded by a vocal minority of people.” 

She also said she had concerns about the methods of the committee.

“Some of the topics can be triggering … You might have a history with someone, and then you’re put in a breakout room with them and be talking about like, boundaries with that person.”

The band’s administration said it welcomes the changes. 

“The TMB is looking forward to participating in a Climate Assessment to improve the organization’s environment,” said the band’s leadership when asked for a statement. “The health and well-being of our members is our top priority, and the senior leadership of the program is working ardently to make the necessary changes.”

Bartner said that the University would not permit him to speak beyond the band’s official statement. However, as recently as earlier this year, Bartner has prided himself on the diversity of his organization. 

Bartner told Halftime Magazine in February, “We’re an urban band; we’re a melting pot band. You’ll find every major, every race, religion, ethnicity in this band, and that’s been the most important thing to me … I would reach out to different ethnic groups and include them.”

The Title IX climate assessment, according to the University, is “still ongoing.” The Title IX office itself chose not to comment beyond its official statement to band members, written by Vice President for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX Catherine Spear and Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp.

“We are grateful that you have made university leadership aware of these concerns, so that we have the opportunity to engage with current and former members of the band on these critical issues and to partner to identify a positive path forward,” the statement read.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the tenor sax player accused of sexual assault graduated in 2019. The individual graduated in 2020. The article also erroneously stated that a student wore a confederate flag at training camp. The student wore the flag at a Halloween event. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.