The Spring Fling concert lineup is often the centerpiece of campus conversation in the spring, but back in 2004, students had another major April concert to look forward to — Kanye West performing over Penn Relays weekend.
The Relays concert — Social Planning Events Committee to Represent Undergraduate Minorities’ annual spring show — was a beloved tradition, just like Fling, but usually held during Penn Relays. The Penn Relays is a meet that attracts more spectators than any other track meet in the world behind the Olympics and the World Championships.
The two concerts differed in an important aspect. The Fling concert was largely attended by white students and the Relays concert by black students. The reason for this is in the music: students decided to attend either the Fling or the Relays concert based on their music tastes.
Former Assistant Director of Makuu and 1998 Wharton graduate Daina Troy said the two concerts were “segregated by music genre,” not by race. “Hip-hop had not become the pop culture music force that it is now.”
Relaying the Past
SPEC-TRUM continued to hold its spring show on the weekend of Penn Relays through 2004. According to Associate Director in the Office of Student Affairs Katie Bonner, in that year, the University expressed that it had insufficient public safety resources to host both the Relays and the concert over the same weekend. Preferring to change locations rather than dates, she said, SPEC-TRUM decided to host the concert off campus. The concert, which featured Kanye West, was held at the Electric Factory.
It was the first Relays concert to be held off campus, and it would also be the last concert to take place over Relays weekend.
A couple of years later it was moved back on campus because students felt that an off campus event did not feel “traditional,” said Bonner. Therefore, SPEC-TRUM opted to move the concert’s date rather than its location. Since then, it has never aligned with Relays weekend.
However, the reasons for the permanent shift vary depending on the source of information.
UMOJA co-chair and College sophomore Abrina Hyatt explained her understanding of why a Relays concert became impractical. These concerts were traditionally held on the last day of classes — a Friday — and finals began the following Wednesday. When the University changed the finals schedule, ending classes on Wednesday and moving the start of finals to Monday, reading days overlapped with Relays.
For policy and practical purposes, SPEC-TRUM could not hold a concert during a time when students would want to be studying. A 2005 Daily Pennsylvanian article reported on this change in schedule.
Bonner, however, said that even though she was not in her position when the switch was made, it is her understanding that safety concerns were the primary reason for moving the concert date.
Changing the date of the concert had a negative impact on the size of SPEC-TRUM’s spring shows. They were able to draw in audiences of thousands because their concerts were attended not only by students but also by the people participating in or viewing the Relays.
Additionally, former SPEC-TRUM director and 2007 College graduate Ahmed Whitt said, “We really made a concerted effort to place our event away from Fling so people could look at it as an additional event [and not an alternative to Fling].”
SPEC-TRUM’s spring concert no longer rivals Fling’s concert with regard to student attendance.
A musical divide
Before its split from Penn Relays, SPEC-TRUM’s spring concert was popular among minorities and visitors to the Relays, appealing to a different musical taste.
SPEC Concerts committee, who organizes the Fling concert, chose to invite popular musicians and alternative rock artists to perform back in the 1990s. These music genres were more mainstream at the time. SPEC-TRUM, whose role is to cater to the interest of minority students, provided a hip-hop alternative, bringing in artists like Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, the Fugees and Wu-Tang Clan — back when they were affordable.
The different genres of music appealed to different populations, leading to either predominantly white or black audiences.
Not everyone, of course, adhered to the divide. “You’d be surprised,” said Troy, in regards to how many white students attended the Relays concert. Some black students, she added, also went to the Fling concert.
This changed when in the mid 2000s, Troy said, when a shift occurred in popular culture that brought hip-hop to the mainstream.
In response to popular demand for more urban Fling artists, in 2008, SPEC-TRUM decided to forgo their spring concert and combine their funds with SPEC Concerts to bring Gym Class Heroes and Ludacris to Franklin Field.
“They worked together to do that show because there was a real awareness that hip-hop and rap and the genres of music that was typical to SPEC-TRUM were of biggest interest to the campus as a whole,” said Bonner . The concert sold out, confirming that hip-hop was in.
2008 was the only year that the two branches collaborated. Bonner said that having six directors, three from each committee, planning one event was impractical.
Eventually, the Fling concert brought a wider range of genres, allowing for a more diverse audience.
SPEC-TRUM’s Perspective today
Despite Fling’s popularity with minority students now, SPEC-TRUM’s concerts continue to provide a unique experience.
Current SPEC-TRUM Co-Director and Wharton senior Allison Rand said, “SPEC-TRUM surprises ourselves on capturing the artists just before they get hot,” pointing to rapper J. Cole’s and Meek Mill’s separate 2011 performances.
Some students now feel that the Concerts committee is challenged with trying to satisfy everyone’s musical tastes. This was something SPEC Concerts did not have to solve when the Relays concert rivaled Fling’s concert.
Rand said it is simply more efficient to have a Fling concert, which has traditionally catered to “rock” or “mainstream music” interests and a Relays concert to host more “urban” music.
“At the end of the day, I think it’s pretty much impossible to make everyone happy.” However, Rand added, “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize [that] as a bad thing.”
She added, “[SPEC-TRUM] tries to do things that represent the wider minority community in general, not just the black community.”
Bringing Aziz Ansari, last spring, was a “way to get everybody on campus, no matter what community [they’re from] to come and enjoy the show.”
However, Rand did say that she would “definitely” prefer to host concerts during Relays weekend.