Sitting in front of a blank page, its stark white space gleaming with possibilities, Yolanda Wisher ’98 summons words that are unplanned and unpredictable. Lyrics come to life as she ponders what best to say to the future: When her son’s generation, and his children’s generation, listen to her song, what will they need to hear from this time and this moment?
Wisher, the 2016-2017 Philadelphia Poet Laureate, was tasked with a rare assignment to create the newest song for the College’s musical catalog. The Lafayette Alumni Chorus (LAC), which commissioned the project last fall, trusted that Wisher could help bring that vision to life. “Since its founding in 1826, there have been songs written for and about the Lafayette experience,” says Jennifer Kelly, associate professor of music and director of choral activities. But the school’s collection was due for a revisit: Some of the songs are more than a century old—the “Alma Mater,” for example, was written in 1884 by Walter C. Stier—and the last new Lafayette song was created in the ’60s, when the College was still an all-male institution.
Composer Tom DiGiovanni ’96 created the sound while conductor Jennifer Kelly brought the song alive on stage.
Listen to “Why Not?”
So this Lafayette song had to meet many challenges. It had to be able to stand the test of time; be able to adapt, rearrange, and expand as musical styles evolve over the years; and to make an impression while also building on Lafayette’s long legacy of song and singing. While doing all of that, Wisher also wanted to consider the impact and deeper meaning of the song’s message.
To get there, Wisher embraced the “craft of community” throughout the process. Choir students and Kaleidoscope social justice peer educators were invited to take part in a focus group to discuss potential ideas for the song’s message. “We definitely did not want to do this in a silo,” says Sheena Seopaul ’11, president of the LAC.
But another step was essential too. While Wisher was chosen to be the lyricist, Tom DiGiovanni ’96, who is trained as both a conductor and jazz pianist, took the lead on composing. “I lived with Yolanda’s beautiful and daring lyrics for a few days before I tried to put them to music,” DiGiovanni recalls. “The lyrics hit that perfect space of saying so much while shining a spotlight on the space between the words and the phrases.”
As the song structure began to take shape, the composer sang various lyrics in different tempi—repeating, assessing, evaluating, and repeating again. (“This part of the process is sloppy and ugly,” DiGiovanni says.) After a rough draft of the song was complete, he and Kelly met a few times to discuss what would make the piece, as DiGiovanni observes, “sing off the page” with minimal struggle for the performers.
Finally, the LAC, Concert Choir, and Chamber Singers came together for several rehearsals to test out the music and lyrics through performances. “When it all came together and we heard the song for the first time, we were thrilled,” Seopaul says. She notes that the lyrics represent today’s Lafayette, with something to offer for everyone. Wisher’s song, titled “Why Not?”, officially debuted in April at the 2023 Lafayette Choral Reunion.
Ethan Coffin ’25, who is a baritone in the choir, said it was wonderful to have a chance to sing it alongside many other Lafayette alumni and describes the song as both catchy and endearing. Says Coffin: “It was really nice knowing that this was the first instance of what is later going to become a long-standing tradition.”
After a rough draft of the song was complete, DiGiovanni and Kelly met a few times to discuss what would make the piece “sing off the page” with minimal struggle for the performers.
“Over the past few years, the board of the LAC had been discussing how to update the Lafayette songbook to be more inclusive,” Kelly explains. Unfortunately, during the process of these conversations, in 2019 the alumni group lost a dedicated member who served on its board, David Vilcek ’78. His wife, HelenBeth Vilcek ’79—also a member of the LAC—wanted to honor David through the organization; she offered to support a project for the Choral Reunion. But the LAC director, Kelly, and the board suggested another way to remember him: to commission a new Lafayette song that would be dedicated in his name.
Creating a heritage piece through music is a special tribute—and no easy feat. “To sing a song is a pretty intimate act,” Wisher says. “I’ve always been one to choose my words on paper pretty carefully.” The lyrics are born of Wisher’s desire to say something she believes will also represent the Lafayette communities of past, present, and future. “How do I hold the people who have been helped by all the songs in the past,” she says, “but also the Black and the brown folks, the queer folks, and women—folks who weren’t necessarily thought of when those other songs were written?”
Wisher says lyrics like “Why not dream it together, a Lafayette of ever,” which draw upon her fond memories of the physical campus and her own experiences of “feeling like an outsider” at Lafayette by way of her race and class, make up a song “folks can find themselves in and that serves as a call to imagine the edges of what’s possible.”
“How do I hold the people who have been helped by all the songs in the past, but also the Black and the brown folks, the queer folks, and women?”
he adds that the decision to commission a Black woman poet as the author of this new song points toward progress and vision. “It makes me hopeful about the College’s future and growth,” she says. “With so many great poets who have come out of Lafayette, I’m honored that I was chosen to write these words.”
Seopaul is moved by the theme of inspiration in the song and especially in lyrics like, “Spark the fire and rally the wind, why not shake the sky and move the hill.” “‘Why Not?’ reminds you that you can make a difference where you are today,” she says. “Everyday change is change.” She suggests there is still more to be learned about the song: “We’ll continue to discover new meaning as we perform it and as it becomes part of Lafayette’s history.”
Kelly, who also conducts the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers, is working to put together a comprehensive edition of all the Lafayette songs from the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. “Times change, and we wanted a song that embraces our students of today,” she says. “Embracing ‘Why Not?’ connects us to the important legacy of Lafayette songs while also welcoming our growth into the present times.”
In April, student singers joined Lafayette Alumni Chorus members onstage at the Williams Center for the Arts to perform “Why Not?” for the first time. The song was part of a joyful 75-minute concert highlighting music and poetry from around the world.