The Collegian
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Jepson Leadership Forum brings folk singer Dar Williams to campus

<p>Folk singer Dar Williams capped off the  Jepson Leadership Forum series Tuesday night. Photo courtesy of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.</p>

Folk singer Dar Williams capped off the  Jepson Leadership Forum series Tuesday night. Photo courtesy of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

Dar Williams came onto the stage at Camp Concert Hall carrying just a classic acoustic guitar and, without any greeting to the audience, began to sing “When I was a Boy,” a song about gender identity in today’s society.

The Jepson Leadership Forum presented Williams, an American singer-songwriter known primarily for her lyrics’ exploration of social issues. The performance was titled “Music Movements in a Capitalistic Democracy,” and her first song explored the restrictiveness of gender stereotypes in society, which set the tone for the rest of the politically charged evening.

Williams sang several socially significant pieces, including “As Cool As I Am,” a song about women getting caught up in ideas of their own inadequacies and “Buzzer,” a song about Stanley Milgrim’s experiments of the 1960s. Another song, “The Babysitter’s Here,” explored the age of adolescence from the point of view of a kid writing about her babysitter.

“When I was first beginning my career, I just wrote about what I wanted to write about because I was valued for writing what made me feel that certain tingle even if it wasn’t popular in society,” Williams said. “If I feel it, I write it.”

Williams, who was called “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” by The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, identified the three ways that music connects with social issues – identity, street music and music of affiliation. Identity is when a person hears a song and identifies with it, knowing they are not alone, whereas music of affiliation is what gets someone to stick with a cause, Williams said.

Williams said she was interested in the organic development of how a social movement grows using identity, street music and music of affiliation. She spoke about how African-Americans singing marching songs during the civil rights movement evolved into the songs that were sung during the Black Power movement of the late 1960s.

Williams uses the power of song to explore social issues that drive society apart, using lyrics with socially significant causes such as gender, sexuality, leadership and social inequities, sophomore Rachel Forsyth said in her introduction to Williams’ performance.

Sophomore Lindsay Palmisano said she had discussed the power of music in politics in her Leadership and the Humanities class at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Previous generations used music to further political actions, whereas most artists today stand beside campaigns without becoming a part of them themselves, she said.

Artists have the power of publicity on their side, so by including significant social causes in her lyrics, Williams is able to reach more people, Palmisano said.

“I see people who are actually doing things that you always dreamed somebody would do, and I can help make that a reality,” Williams said in an interview with MTV. Students in the Leadership and the Humanities class, which were required to see Williams’ performance, were supposed to think about whether the pen really is mightier than the sword, Cami Gonzalez, a sophomore student in the course, said.

In the case of Dar Williams, Gonzalez said she thought the powerful meanings behind a song’s lyrics could reach someone more easily than the threat of war. In her performance, Williams often mentioned the peaceful times of the 1960s and how the songs of Woodstock brought people together with lyrics about love and peace.

Each year, the Jepson Leadership Forum presents a series of speakers and events, all with a central theme, which are free and open to the public. The 2014-2015 Leadership Forum examines conflict across different contexts, offering fresh perspectives on arguments between those seeking positive change, according to the Jepson website.

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The event was also live streamed on Jepson’s website so students, faculty and Richmond citizens could watch Williams’ performance online if they could not attend the event.

Contact reporter Annie Blanc at

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