More than 2,300 YouTube views in the first week is more than even Phillip “Brail” Watson expected when he recently posted a song about Washburn to his channel. But it’s the reaction from fellow Ichabods to his spiritual-sounding rap “What’s an Ichabod?” that has affected him most.
“To see people understanding it – that’s been cool to me,” said Watson, 23, who is a double major in vocal and cello performance.
The song, “What is an Ichabod? (Purificatus non Consumptus),” was his effort to answer the question. It was spurred by an Emporia State University video, released last month, in which two students ask: "What's an Ichabod anyway?"
Watson said it was important to tell the story of Washburn University’s founding principle of education for all, which the namesake, Ichabod Washburn, believed in so strongly he made the financial pledge that kept Lincoln College from closing.
Born and raised in Topeka, Watson said he didn’t know that history until well into his Washburn experience. But he believes it should be known by every Ichabod – and everyone else.
“I remember hearing Washburn had black students,” he said. But it wasn’t until much more recently that he understood it was from the University’s very founding 149 years ago. The decision to integrate “wasn’t even Civil Rights at Washburn. It was ‘This is right.’ That really touched me.”
“That’s right. Brown vs. the Board happened 89 years later. That’s this Washburn!” Watson said, recalling a conversation with a fellow student after he’d heard the song for the first time.
The song Watson wrote and video he and fellow members of the Washburn Opera Studio performed in was completely conceived of and produced by Washburn students, with financial support from the Washburn University Foundation. Watson said writing the song gave him a new sense of pride in the university.
“I’m not a team type of guy,” he said. “But this gave me a lot of pride in my school and made me want to do stuff to help it.” Although he’s involved in several music groups on campus, writing and performing this song was the first time he said he really felt connected to Washburn. He wants other Ichabods – of every race and creed – to feel that same connection.
“People need to know this, to understand this,” he said of Washburn’s founding principles. “This university was set up for people like me.”
Kathy Busch, director of communications and annual giving at the Washburn University Foundation, said a special one-time grant was awarded to rent speakers and buy time for editing and production.
“It’s an upbeat, upscale response to the question ‘What is an Ichabod?’” Busch said. “We saw it as a special student project that demonstrated Ichabod pride. It was a unique opportunity.”
Watson saw an opportunity to use the tools of rap to tell the story. The metaphors include references to Ichabod Washburn’s craft of metal work and Nintendo’s Mario Brothers video game. He also used the tools Erin Chamberlain, assistant professor, English, taught him in English 300.
“It was hard,” he said of the class. “But the way she taught us to write – to break down the exoskeleton of the paper – that made a lot of sense to me as a song writer."
Watson said Chamberlain's class was a lot of work, but it got her point across about the importance of structure and organization. It's now a natural part of his creative process.
"I’ve started working that way,” Watson said. He thought of the song’s first verse as the introduction to a paper on Washburn’s history and the second verse as the evidence. “That’s how I was able to write it in 10 minutes.”
The song is resonating with the Washburn community in powerful ways.
Monique Robins, secretary in the modern languages department, said watching the video for the first time brought her to tears.
“It was so powerful and so obviously heartfelt,” she said. “I’m just so proud of them.”