Soul Session Verzuz Retains Community Through Virtual Performance


Courtesy of the Office of Communications

For fifty years, Afrikan Heritage House’s in-person Soul Sessions have been filled with energy as the community comes together to perform, express themselves, and support each other. Now, virtual Soul Sessions share the same goal.

With much of the Afrikan Heritage House community off-campus, and others socially distancing on-campus, residents have to take concerted steps to build Umoja. The Black community at Oberlin College did just that by translating the 50-year tradition of Soul Session to the digital space, sharing Black expression and creativity both on and off-campus.

In June, a Soul Session was held completely via Zoom and despite some technical complications, it was a successful start. After arriving on campus, A-House’s Resident Assistants College second-year Jillian Sanford and College second-year Fafa Nutor collaborated with Program Assistants College fourth-year Nia Lewis and College second-year Kari Allen, to discuss creating a safe space for residents that retained the communal atmosphere.  

“Making sure that community is still together is part of my job,” Allen said. “Knowing how important community is and knowing how fragile everything is because we are so separated right now makes it difficult.” 

The A-House team overcame these difficulties to pull together the first digital Soul Session of the fall semester. Soul Session Verzuz — named after the Verzuz series by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland — takes advantage of the COVID-era restrictions and the Zoom platform to present something entirely new to the community. 

The off-campus community members had the opportunity to take a stage of their own via Zoom while students on campus used the Lord lounge space. College second-year Nicolas Zamora and College third-year Benjamin Collado, A-House residents, worked with RAs and program assistants to stream the on-campus performances. 

“Being in the lounge with the performers was really nice,” Allen said. “It was like we had our own mini Soul Session. We were all in there to make sure things went smoothly.” 

College first-year A-House resident, Diacos Love, took the virtual stage to croon “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. As his voice reverberated through the dorm, it really felt like Soul Session — even at a distance. It has always been special when first-year students decide to share their voices at Soul Session, showcasing their works and passions among their community. 

Love’s performance held particular gravity at a time when joining the community looks so different for the class of 2024.  

“Me personally, it was about breaking out of my shell,” Love said. “Although I’m not a closed and mysterious-type person, I’m not a singer.”

While Love doesn’t identify as a singer, by no means does he limit himself or his talent. 

“As far as personal growth, I feel like I can do anything,” Love said. “I just know that I’m capable.” 

That energy of confidence and capability is how the community has continued to grow despite the pandemic. In pre-pandemic Soul Sessions, production was fluid. Performers would arrive and sign up on the night of the event. This year, there was considerable planning among the A-House team and Director and Faculty-in-Residence of Afrikan Heritage House Dr. Candice Raynor to make sure that guidelines were followed and everyone had the physical space and time they needed to perform. After years of experiencing the traditional Soul Session’s close crowd, shoe-throwing, call-and-response, and Kuumba, Verzuz was undoubtedly a shift for everyone. 

“It went about as well as it could,” Lewis said. “It’s still a little different — the feel of everybody being in one space together, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, listening to somebody, hearing the music and the words in that space. But at the same time, it was special because there were people on that Zoom call that I hadn’t seen in six months. … Having that connection with people who are at home right now who wouldn’t be able to participate were able to — it felt special.”

After months of separation, Soul Session Verzuz provided members of the Black community at Oberlin College an opportunity not to just see each other, but gather familial energy. Everyone was able to experience Umoja, without technical difficulties, for the first time since March. Soul Session Verzuz represents the continuity and resilience of the Black community and Black expression.

Check out @afrikanheritagehouse on Instagram to look forward to future digital Soul Sessions.