The vibrant voices harmonizing with beats made by hands clapping on the body and feet stomping on the pavement, near the flagpoles, was a new and bewildering sight to many UC Irvine students two weeks ago. However, to others, this performance marked a traditional event that recognizes the achievements of African-Americans for over 50 years.
On Feb. 6, 2008, the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity held its annual Yard Show, which included performances from UCI’s historically African-American sororities and fraternities. One performance included a form of dancing known as ‘Stepping.’ This type of dance uses the entire human body as an instrument to produce intricate rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, handclaps and occasional props. It originated with African-American college Greeks, and is said to have been influenced by many African tribal dances. However, it did not appear in sorority and fraternity performances until the mid-20th century when the step routines from ’50s R&B groups such as the Temptations and The Four Tops became popular.
The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), which consists of the ‘Divine Nine’ African-American sororities and fraternities in the United States, popularized stepping in local and national competitions. It has been depicted in movies such as ‘Stomp the Yard,’ and Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze.’ Each sorority and fraternity in the NPHC has its own unique way of stepping, chanting and using symbols. One such fraternity who performed at UCI’s Yard Show is the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
Ten Christian African-American men founded Kappa Alpha Psi, commonly known as the Kappas, in 1911 at Indiana University. Blake Brown, a fourth-year biological sciences major and the current Polemarch (president) of the Lambda Beta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, explained that these men founded the fraternity to create a support group for black students, so that they would not drop out of school.
‘[The year] 1911 was the peak of lynching [in the country]. … Indiana was one of the most racist states [at the time],’ Brown said. This made it hard for African-Americans to live normally, let alone attend college.
‘They couldn’t sit in rooms with white women, so they would sit in the hallways,’ Brown added to explain why black men needed motivation to stay in school. He also said that ‘Kappa Alpha Psi was created to keep black men in [school] … [to] form that bond,’ encouraging them to excel in school. Today, the Kappas continue to mentor black men in order to motivate them to stay in school. They even have chapters in graduate schools ‘to keep the mentoring going,’ Brown said. Some famous members of Kappa Alpha Psi include the late Johnnie Cochran, best known as the lawyer of O.J. Simpson, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and the founder of Black Entertainment Television, Bob Johnson.
The members of Kappa Alpha Psi use canes in their step performances, which Brown explained is ‘a symbol of a gentleman.’ The cane is always referred to as the ‘J cane,’ the ‘J’ standing for Jesus Christ. Brown added, ‘The cane is red and white (as are the colors of the fraternity) to represent the body and the blood [of Christ].’
Kappa Alpha Psi, which is not part of the UCI Greek community, inducts new members differently from many other fraternities on campus.
‘A lot of their rules are not conducive to our lifestyle as black Greeks. … We do things differently,’ Brown said. ‘The intake is different, [we don’t do] bids or rushing. … We take time to get to know the people,’ he remarked.
People who are interested in joining Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity are often called ‘Interests’ and accompany other Kappas to shows and events to get to know all the fraternity brothers before they commit themselves to joining. The Kappas also check to make sure that any Interest has a solid G.P.A. before becoming a Kappa man. As a result, Brown explained that most Kappas usually don’t join until their second or third year.
When an Interest does decide that he wants to become a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, he is then called a ‘Scroller,’ and must perform a number of rituals in order to be inducted. One such ritual is a written test that every Scroller must pass in order to become a Kappa. Brown stated, ‘To become a Kappa, you have to learn a lot of vital information about the Kappa’s past. We won’t say under what conditions they are in.’
The time it takes to be inducted into the fraternity varies, depending on the time needed to study all of the Kappa facts for the exam, but it takes roughly two months according to Brown. Then there is a ‘Rite of Passage’ ritual to be inducted, which is a private ceremony with only the fraternity brothers. The new inductees then learn about the meaning of Phi Nu Pi, an acronym on the Kappa Alpha Psi crest that is only known by members of the fraternity.
Now, official members of Kappa Alpha Psi called ‘Neos,’ meaning new members, are showcased to the public in what is known as a probate.
‘A probate is a ‘coming out’ show. After we have initiated people, we put on a [probate] to showcase them. We invite people from all over, like Cal State Fullerton, UCI … to introduce the new guys … and hopefully they will recognize them!’ Brown said.
The Kappa probate was held this past Jan. 29 at Cal State Fullerton. It was the first probate in four years, and the first probate for Brown, and the only other Kappa on UCI’s campus, Ayo Kairo Ogunrinola, a third-year engineering major who joined the fraternity a year ago.
‘This is my first step,’ Ogunrinola said before the big performance. Ogunrinola, Brown and the new Kappas prepared for what was going to be a memorable night.
Among those in attendance were other African-American Greeks in the NPHC, students from neighboring colleges and universities, and a host of Kappa chapters from all over California. The probate was to start at 8:11, which translates to 1911 in military time