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black fraternities
Rapper Boosie Badazz received criticism for wearing a red sweater with the Greek letters of the national fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, of which he is not a member. Credit: Source: Instagram/Boosie Badazz

On January 9, 2020, the black rapper Boosie Badazz proudly posted a photograph on Instagram, taken at an Atlanta Hawks basketball game the day before. In it, he’s wearing a red sweater emblazoned with Greek letters denoting the national fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. Boosie is not a Kappa. He didn’t even go to college. But, he does have a connection of sorts to the Greek system: Boosie’s mother is member of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta and his brother is a Kappa from Southern University.* The brothers grew up in the same household, but ended up on different paths.

Boosie wearing Kappa gear may not seem like a big deal to some, but black fraternities and sororities are notoriously protective of their image and how they are represented in public by members and nonmembers alike.

Some purist frat members weren’t amused and took to social media to lambaste Boosie’s audacity in publicly wearing Kappa’s letters.

“This isn’t cool at all. Not sure if you’re doing this for a laugh or because you think you’re above order due to your celebrity status,” one Kappa member wrote, according to news site the Griot. Another stated jokingly, “The only way to get him to take it off at this point is to physically remove it.”

When Kappa members criticized Boosie for wearing their letters, they may have indirectly portrayed Kappa Alpha Psi as an elite organization, discouraging black men and boys who don’t have degreed parents from attending college and joining a frat. The organization derides elitism on its history page: “Nor would the new Fraternity seek its members in the manner of other Greek organizations — from among the sons of wealthy families or families of social prestige.”

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Boosie may not be a member, but there are ties that bind the rapper to the organization. If you’ve ever been to a party where black Greeks “stroll” — a term that refers to a line-dancing tradition particular to black fraternities and sororities — you know that Kappas have shimmied so often to Boosie’s most popular song, “Wipe Me Down,” that it’s become immortalized in their stroll.

Black fraternities and sororities offer hope for improving college completion rates because they help students establish social connections.

Taken aback by the backlash, Boosie offered a fiery rebuttal, telling Kappas to “#leavemealone,” which set social media ablaze. Boosie later apologized for disrespecting the fraternity and even compelled his brother to teach the rapper some steps. In an effort to make amends, Boosie offered a $6,000 reward to the Kappa team that can best stroll to “Wipe Me Down.”

While the spectacle of the nasty back-and-forth garnered the attention of several media outlets, some members of various frats and GDIs (God Damn Independents — what frat members call nonmembers) pointed out the conversation the rest of us need to have.

“Wouldn’t it be a twist if thousands of young Black boys see ΚΑΨ and do a Google search that leads them to realize college is the path to become a member?” wrote @iamleefuller on the post that stirred the controversy. “As much as I don’t like the action by this Rapper, he may indirectly do some good … This is an opportunity to educate.”

And, black fraternities and sororities do help educate. College completion rates are higher among members of these groups, because they help students establish social connections, building a “support system for these students [that] can prevent social isolation.” This finding, in a 2019 dissertation out of William & Mary University, is encouraging but not surprising because this is exactly what black Greek letter organizations (BGLOs) were created to do. BGLOs arose in black colleges in the early 20th century as students sought relief from the Jim Crow racism that kept them from being recognized as full citizens off-campus.

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In 2017, the college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-old black males was 33 percent, lagging behind the rate for white males, and just two points above the figure for Hispanic males, according to an analysis by the federal National Center for Education Statistics. Maybe Boosie’s wearing Kappa gear can show Greek letter organizations one way to improve those numbers.

Many of us who were first-generation college students a few decades ago were introduced to BGLOs through the hit ’80s television show, “A Different World.” The show’s characters sported mock Greek gear, which made college seem cool to those who never set foot on a campus. By wearing fraternity paraphernalia, Boosie is making more than a fashion statement. He’s validating college and the Divine Nine, the four sororities and five fraternities that are among the most famous and established black Greek programs. Fraternity members include the likes of Colin Kaepernick (who is a Kappa) Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha), Harry Belafonte (Phi Beta Sigma), Jesse Jackson, Sr. (Omega Psi Phi – co-author Rodney Sampson is also a “Que”) and Bobby Rush (Iota Phi Theta). The sororities have an equally impressive list, including notable sorors Toni Morrison (Alpha Kappa Alpha), Aretha Franklin (Delta Sigma Theta), Zora Neale Hurston (Zeta Phi Beta) and MC Lyte (Sigma Gamma Roe).

Without knowing the history of BGLOs, you may not understand why they’re more protective of their letters than their white counterparts. That protectiveness stems from their mission to let black people know there is a place for them in college. When you are a black Greek, you are saying you are black, educated and a member of a fraternity and sorority in a world that sees little value in you. Kappa Alpha Psi’s history page says, “The Fraternity would seek to raise the sights of Black youths and stimulate them to accomplishments higher than might otherwise be realized or even imagined.” Each organization has its own mentoring, service and academic support programs. The Kappas sponsor their Kappa League, which aims to expose students to colleges and careers they might not otherwise know.

If you could get past the spectacle of the recent social media spat, you’d see an opportunity to get a generation of young men and women who didn’t get to attend college, to start thinking about it and wanting to go. Black men and women like Boosie are attracted to style — to the aesthetic as well as the accomplishments of fraternity and sorority members. We should be encouraging that attraction.

Kappa Alpha Psi members and Boosie have an opportunity to “raise the sights” of black youth by educating first-generation collegians about the history of black Greek letter organizations and eventually teach them how to stroll towards a college degree.

* An earlier version misidentified Boosie’s brother as the R&B singer TQ who bears the same name.

This story about black fraternities and sororities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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