Penn State alum Chen Lo: Art is vehicle for transformation

Soul Science Lab emcee sees return to campus as healing and teaching moment


By Heather Longley

Chenits Pettigrew arrived at Penn State in 1997 to study journalism, but he graduated as Chen Lo in 2001 with a degree in media studies and an eye for the future of African Americans and other people of color.

Leading into Lo’s senior year, what started out as people coming together to discuss concerns relevant to the Penn State BIPOC community turned into open advocacy. It became peaceful activism after Penn State students, athletes and administration started to receive racist threats.

In December, Penn State installed a plaque in the HUB-Robeson Center to commemorate “The Village.” The 10-day sit-in at the student union was a response to concerns about inadequate treatment of and safety for people of color at Penn State.

“That experience of resistance for me, as a student, to put it bluntly, was traumatic. To be a college student and to be involved in that kind of frontline activism in the midst of death threats and threatening letters, it was definitely difficult,” Lo said. “I know when I left Penn State, it wasn’t joyful for me. My graduation ceremony actually had metal detectors.”

Because of this, Lo’s return to University Park with his creative partner Asante Amin and their hip-hop ensemble Soul Science Lab on March 23 will be extra meaningful. He said he hopes to be able to reconcile his final year at Penn State with the positive and progressive energy of his group’s multimedia event “Make a Joyful Noize.”

After his college experience, Lo said, he dedicated his life to frontline activism in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. His motivational, inspirational tone lead him back to a life of meaningful, intentional creativity and partnerships.

“There are a number of ways for us to make sure that people can hold space and have empathy for communities, and ways that can actually bring about transformation and change that really impact lives in the long term, and I’ve turned to my art.”

As part of the poetic force behind Soul Science Lab, Lo drops truth bombs that point to perseverance, self-actualization and growth; the power to overcome and thrive starts within. The duo’s most recent project “Make a Joyful Noize,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall, tells the stories of Black joy and “illuminates our experience as a reflection of the human condition, as a reflection of humanity,” Lo said.

His energy is infectious, just like Soul Science Lab’s songs are earworms. In that vein, Lo said he hopes that the sentiments of “Make a Joyful Noize” rub off on people.

“Hopefully, when you leave, you leave transformed, being yourself in that place, and hopefully asking yourself what you can do in your own sphere of influence to create some sort of things that will impact people in that area and beyond,” he said. “So it’s an honor to come back with this mindset.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.