** Editor’s Note: Though mentioned for her participation in this event, The Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Claire Hao was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Last week, “Michigan’s Got Talent: A Talent Show Celebrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Arts!” premiered on YouTube. The pre-recorded talent show was curated and presented by Music Matters, a non-profit student organization that uses music to advocate for social causes — their most notable event being SpringFest, an annual philanthropic concert series.
The evening began with an introduction by host Adam Seltzer, University of Michigan class of 2020 alum and former Music Matters DEI chairman.
“As an organization that’s devoted to making a social impact in the community,” Seltzer began, “it’s extra important that we look internally, inside ourselves, and think: Do we embody the values we’re trying to put out in the world?”
“Michigan’s Got Talent” (MGT) was a program of at-home performances; undergraduate and graduate students broadcasted their talents from living room couches, bedroom desks, classrooms and several campus locations.
Contestants performed covers of Frank Ocean and Nina Simone, Bandari and hip-hop dance routines, a seven-part a cappella arrangement of Jill Scott’s “He Loves Me” and even some original music: a nostalgic singer-songwriter piece, a satirical musical theater number and some forward-thinking rap. Between acts were brief cameos by Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, Claire Hao, The Michigan Daily’s Editor in Chief and Tiffany Porter, University alum and two-time track and field Olympian, all answering the question: What does DEI mean to you?
After a quick 35 minutes, the program came to a close, and viewers were directed to a Google Form for “Superlative Voting” to determine the most unique, creative, entertaining, impactful and most-likely-to-watch-in-concert MGT acts. At the end of the evening, these artists and performers had undeniably been given a new platform to display their work and their passions. But was it a stage genuinely rooted in DEI values?
While it indeed initiated a much-needed celebration of diverse, distinctive talent on the University’s campus, MGT fell flat in actually addressing the DEI work under which it was branded. Rather than energize productive, intentional dialogue surrounding the importance of DEI on the University’s campus, MGT hardly scratched the surface of the issue and, in doing so, felt notably performative.
The whole program felt unnecessarily rushed, such that when Seltzer announced, “Wow, that was such an awesome show,” in the past tense, I felt startled by an abrupt conclusion. The acts themselves were quite brief and presented in an oddly nonuniform way. Most acts were just over a minute long, although a select few were closer to three or four minutes. Some students took time to introduce themselves and their talent, others didn’t. Some gave written introductions, but their words were displayed quickly, giving us hardly enough time to read and get acquainted with the artist. Such inconsistent, hurried presentations of the acts were a shame, not only because the acts themselves were impressive and entertaining, but also because it felt at odds with Music Matters’s goal of equity.
To the viewer, watching MGT felt like being whisked through a museum filled with gorgeous art, without time to appreciate each individual piece. Considering that it was a pre-edited event, this was probably avoidable.
Maybe the brevity of the program was purposeful, its fast pace intended to capture and hold the attention of an audience situated within the digital age. Yet, whether or not this was the case, the show felt like a cursory glance-over, when DEI itself is deep, long-term work.
If MGT’s goal was to honor these artists and their talents, to create space for what they have to offer, why rush them? Instead, they might have given acts more generous performance windows, more time to explain who they are and why their music matters, and perhaps even why DEI is important to them. By not fully engaging with their acts, MGT risked putting their contestants up for display, like colleges frantically proclaiming their diversity initiatives with pictures of token minority students on admissions pamphlets.
MGT also lacked a crucial component: an intentional definition of its titular DEI principle. MGT asked, “What does DEI mean to you?” when most Americans haven’t yet asked, “What does DEI mean?” Without an answer to the latter, more fundamental question, any answer to the former is nearly meaningless.
Harmon said, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is truly achieved when it’s infused in everyday life, when it’s a part of who we are, when we don’t have to specifically call it out, because we know it, it’s how we live.” Although he speaks of a beautiful sentiment, the meaning of his statement evaporates to any audience member who isn’t really sure what “it” is.
In her cameo, Porter, an alum and Olympian, gave the closest thing to a definition of DEI. She made the distinction between inclusion, which means “to give people opportunities to have a seat at the table,” and equity, which aims “to allow people to have a level playing field.”
If it weren’t for Porter, Music Matters would have left DEI fully nebulous and undefined. But even then, Porter’s partial definition came in the last ten minutes of the show, after viewers had already been “celebrating” undefined DEI for 25 minutes. As a result, the audience received the message that “DEI is important!” without actually engaging with DEI itself.
MGT’s hurried, surface-level execution was not enough to be considered conscientious, comprehensive DEI work. However, the 227 people who tuned in live to MGT may think it’s enough. They might be misled to believe that this version of activism is good enough, that this is a place to settle in their own individual DEI work, or even that, by tuning in, they’ve taken action. Music Matters had a real opportunity to lead by example, to show what it looks like to truly engage in DEI work. Instead, they perpetuated the harmful ambiguity surrounding DEI, which so often leads to sanctified inaction and a sense of satisfactory performative action.
However, Music Matters is vocal about its commitment to positive change. The group even recognizes the long-term nature of true DEI work and the importance of “collectively recognizing and embracing this challenge rather than avoiding it.” It is important that we invite Music Matters to pursue their DEI goals, but not without holding them accountable for surface-level performativity and challenging them to make sincere, deep-seated change.
So, let’s return to Seltzer’s initial question: Do we embody the values we put out into the world? In the case of “Michigan’s Got Talent,” the answer Music Matters is looking for is no.
But can they? And will they in the future? Yes, they can, with our support.
Daily Arts Contributor Gigi Guida can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.