Last week, we reported on “Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign: Celebrating the Legacies of David Bowie and Prince,” the four-day conference dedicated to the lives and work of David Bowie and Prince held here at Yale. The event featured screenings, panels, “critical deejay sessions,” and a TV on the Radio concert. Among those included in the festivities were pioneering filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, cultural critic Greg Tate, former Prince collaborator Sheila E., and, Solange (!!!). It was a blockbuster event, filling venues all over campus. But the conference’s main venue was the recently renamed Schwarzman Center—the 88,300-square-foot complex comprised of Memorial Hall and Commons Dining Hall that will become a student center in 2020—and its chief financier was the eponymous donor. Last weekend’s conference was the second of three events funded by and partially held at the Center during the 2016-2017 academic year. October’s “Food Conversations” brought four world-renowned chefs to campus, and “Jazz: A Celebration of America’s Sound” will be headlined by Wynton Marsalis in March. It’s pretty exciting stuff, the type of stuff that might prompt you to look up from your laptop, turn to your roommate, and say, “Wait, the Schwarzman Center is actually kind of dope,” to which your roommate might reply, “Yeah, but isn’t Stephen Schwarzman a Trump advisor or something?… Also can you Venmo $12 for the gas bill?”
As of Feb. 3, Stephen A. Schwarzman, DC ’69, has an estimated net worth of $11.5 billion, a figure that likely played a role in his being number 52 on Forbes’s “The World’s Most Powerful People” list last year. He is the CEO of Blackstone Group, a private equity firm that specializes in buying and selling high-profile public companies for astronomical sums. Schwarzman founded the company with business partner Peter Peterson in 1985 after leaving Lehman Brothers. In 2007, Schwarzman’s 23 percent stake in the business was worth an estimated $7.7 billion. Blackstone has come under fire for some of its business practices, most notably after a 2014 SEC examination into its “monitoring-termination fees,” a loophole through which the company collected an extra consulting fee when selling or taking public companies. In regard to his business decorum, Schwarzman was quoted in 2007 as saying, “I want war, not a series of skirmishes.… I always think about what will kill off the other bidder.”
Schwarzman has made a name for himself as a poster-boy for Wall Street’s “greed and conspicuous consumption,” as James B. Stewart described it in his 2008 New Yorker profile of the billionaire. Schwarzman lives in a $37 million, thirty-five room triplex on Manhattan’s Upper East side—the most expensive apartment in New York’s most expensive building. Despite his exorbitant wealth, he has shown aversion to the possibility of it diminishing even slightly. In 2010, while addressing the board members of a non-profit organization, Schwarzman famously likened President Obama’s plan to increase taxes on wealthy private equity firms like his to Nazi Germany, saying it was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
Schwarzman also likes having his name on things. In 2008, he made a $100 million donation to the New York Public Library. In 2011, the library renamed its historic midtown main branch the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.” He actually attempted to name Commons after himself in the late 90s, but failed after the university realized that the $17 million he proposed would only be an investment on Yale’s behalf, not a direct donation.
Schwarzman is a conservative Republican. He voted for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. In December, he was selected to head then-President-elect Donald Trump’s “Strategic and Policy Forum,” a group of sixteen prominent CEO’s—including the heads of Disney, Walmart, and General Motors—that will “provide direct input to the President from many of the best and brightest in the business world.” So yes, he is a “Trump advisor.”
But what exactly does all this mean? What bearing might this have on me, a student sitting in the “Commons at Schwarzman Center,” listening to Questlove talk about Purple Rain? By going to an event that he funded in his building, am I somehow complicit in, as Eva Branson, DC ’18, once argued, Yale’s burdening yet another campus edifice with the legacy of a white benefactor of ill repute? Or, did “Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign” show us a way to employ these “dirty funds” to noble, perhaps radical, ends?
“This weekend we welcome all in attendance to use the lessons and sonic wisdom of two pathbreaking artists,” said Daphne Brooks, Professor of African American Studies and Theater Studies and the chief organizer of “Blackstar Rising,” as she addressed a groggy crowd in the auditorium of the Yale University Art Gallery last Fri., Jan. 27. In this welcome address, she referenced Prince and Bowie’s ability to empower “the strange,” “the “powerless,” and “the dispossessed.” To Brooks, the weekend’s events were meant to come in direct conversation with our current political moment.
In an email, Brooks explained that she began organizing what became “Blackstar Rising” when Susan Cahan, Associate Dean for the Arts, “generously offered [her] the opportunity to put together an event under the aegis of the new Schwarzman Center.” She explained that the conference was originally meant to be a smaller celebration of Bowie’s legacy; Brooks and her colleagues had even “thought of Prince as the perfect headliner… [but] you know how that ends.” Brooks, who often invokes the word “radical” to describe the artists she discusses in her lectures, is one of the more visible organizers of high-profile arts events on campus. Since her arrival in 2014, she has arranged an advanced screening of an award-winning Nina Simone documentary, a Gina Prince-Bythewood film screening, and a discussion with former White Stripes frontman Jack White. Brooks, however, was unaware of the “political affiliations of certain figures associated with the Center” until she was well into the yearlong process of planning this event. The conference’s mission to recognize the cultural legacy of two artists who redrew the lines of gender and sexuality sits in a disturbing juxtaposition with the banner it falls under––Schwarzman, and all he represents, on the one hand, and Brooks’s love of the Purple One and Ziggy Stardust on the other.
This star-filled event was no small undertaking. Though the Schwarzman Center was the most significant donor for the event, ample funding flowed from many other sources as well. There are 17 Yale academic departments and study centers listed as co-sponsors in the program, including the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Studies Program; the Yale Center for British Art; and the Program in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies.
With “Blackstar Rising,” the Schwarzman Center seems to offer an opportunity for members of the Yale community to put on events that spring from their own interests and reflect the rich, kaleidoscopic world that Yale occupies. But as valiant an endeavor as it was, “Blackstar Rising” did not come without its hiccups. The Tuesday before the conference began, the New Haven Register ran an article in which Trey Moore, a New Haven resident, chastised Yale for the lack of publicity the event received in the Greater New Haven Area. He also lamented his inability to get tickets to Thursday night’s keynote with Solange. For her part, Brooks said that she was “moved by Trey Moore’s comments,” and that she truly hopes “that Yale will keep its doors open to our neighbors so that our scholarly work can spread and… improve by way of engaging with our local world.” She was also quick to note that “all of us need to stay curious (and ‘woke’) to events other than the ones featuring particular celebrities,” and that there were more than a few events featuring notable, though lower-profile, guests that were wide open to the public and easy to get into.
Brooks closed out the conference’s welcome address by coming back to the example set by NEXT YALE, the “multiracial, multi-ethnic, crossgender coalition of students” who demanded institutional change in the wake of the events of the fall of 2015: “[They are] bold, rigorous and creative thinkers who keep pushing this institution forward toward a more inclusive horizon.” Like Prince, NEXT YALE decided to free themselves of the shackles of a name, christening “The College Formerly Known as Calhoun” last spring. It was a timely reference for a moment when the inner-workings of universities around this country have come under increased scrutiny. It is well-documented that Yale’s labyrinth of institutional funding is essentially an ethical minefield. And the effort to right that ship is ongoing. With “Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign,” Brooks and the Schwarzman Center have shown that for now, we can take that cash and invest it.