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We Have Voice

Call and Response

By Michelle Mercer

L to R: Ganavya Doraiswamy, Linda May Han Oh, Rajna Swaminathan, Imani Uzuri, Fay Victor, Sara Serpa, María Grand, Tamar Sella, and Jen Shyu. Not Pictured: Terri Lyne Carrington, Tia Fuller, Okkyung Lee, Nicole Mitchell, and Kavita Shah. Photo by Heather Sten

The We Have Voice Collective continues to deepen and expand the discussion around identity and power in the performing arts.

As the fall of 2017 gave way to winter, the stories kept coming. Prompted by allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement grew into a blizzard of revelations, exposing widespread workplace sexual harassment—and the performing arts were part of the reckoning. But as some musicians discussed the #MeToo movement, they discovered a common conviction that exposé wasn’t enough.

"As valuable as the stories were, after a few months it was time to shift from exposing to empowering,” says vocalist and composer Sara Serpa. “It was time to start creating changes in our unique performing arts culture that might prevent future #MeToo stories.”

Serpa and thirteen other loosely connected women musicians, mostly of the improvising variety, came together to create that change. Calling themselves We Have Voice, the collective included established bandleaders and rising stars, professors and PhD students: namely, Fay Victor, Ganavya Doraiswamy, Imani Uzuri, Jen Shyu, Kavita Shah, Linda May Han Oh, María Grand, Nicole Mitchell, Okkyung Lee, Rajna Swaminathan, Sara Serpa, Tamar Sella, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Tia Fuller.

Collaborating in person when schedules allowed, and otherwise over email and Google Hangout sessions from the far-flung places where they live and tour, the We Have Voice collective began to articulate some particular challenges of performing arts workplaces.

“Our special issue as musicians is that we can interact in very small and intimate spaces that have nothing to do with intimacy,” says vocalist and composer Fay Victor. “And that’s where I think it can cause some problems.”

Instead of traditional workplaces where harassment policies are enforced by human resources departments, performing artists operate in the lawless regions of stages, dressing rooms, hotels, recording studios, and galleries. In performers’ ambiguous work/ pleasure scenarios and typically permissive late-night cultures, boundaries can grow hazy, and the potential for misunderstanding and even abuse is high.

“Some of us had already spent twenty years of dealing with the way things are in the music world,” says Jen Shyu, a vocalist, composer, instrumentalist, and dancer. “You say to yourself, ‘As soon as I get through this it will be fine.’ But we started asking, ‘Why can’t it just be right from the beginning?’ What we saw lacking in our culture, in our creative music scene, were any guidelines for conduct.”

We Have Voice’s first public statement was a December 2017 open letter that expressed zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and called on peers, institutions, and the greater community to create more equitable conditions in the performing arts. The open letter has around 1150 signatures to date. In early 2018, We Have Voice began crafting an elaborate document to define sexual harassment and consent for the performing arts. Drawing from their range of ages, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and career trajectories, We Have Voice worked over many months, finally releasing a Code of Conduct on May 1. A one-page document in table form, it aims to offer clarity and tools for anyone who witnesses or experiences harassment.

“What we saw lacking in our culture, in our creative music scene, were any guidelines for conduct.”

We Have Voice

Back L to R: Linda May Han Oh, Imani Uzuri, Tamar Sella, Kavita Shah, Rajna Swaminathan. Front L to R: Ganavya Doraiswamy, Fay Victor, Nicole Mitchell, Okkyung Lee, Sara Serpa. Not Pictured: Jen Shyu, María Grand, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Tia Fuller. Photo by Heather Sten.

“It gives us a language and a framework to think about these issues,” says vocalist, composer, and ethnographer Kavita Shah. “So for me, another We Have Voice member, or anyone walking into these situations, we’re now equipped with a specific discourse and can look for patterns where maybe before we didn’t even know explicitly to look for them.”

The Code of Conduct’s implementation ultimately depends on self-governance within venues and organizations. So far around 50 institutions have committed to observing and posting the code, including major clubs, festivals, and music education programs. “This Code of Conduct spells out what should be baseline respect for women,” says Vision Festival founder and artistic director Patricia Nicholson Parker, one of the code’s first adoptees. We Have Voice has also held panel discussions at the New School, Harvard, and the Vision Festival, with more planned for the future.

Elaborating on the code in these panel discussions facilitates deeper understanding. “Many people at the Vision Fest shared that they loved how nuanced the code was,” says Victor, who’s performed at the festival for years. “I think some people may have assumed the code was a black and white document. But they felt that the Vision Fest roundtable kind of really drove home how it’s not a women against men scenario at all. It’s actually a tool for everyone, for their own awareness and for making others aware when the situation warrants it.”

The Code of Conduct’s definition of harassment includes key factors that impact consent, like psychological or emotional force and power dynamics. Instead of established management structures, performing artists work within the nebulous power dynamics of mentor-mentee and bandleader-collaborator relationships.

Interactions can be particularly fraught on tour, for example, when a young musician might play in a celebrated bandleader’s group at a club and then continue on to a hotel room for a midnight jam session with the band.

“We're talking about systems of power... and understanding how it works in various situations.”

“Since the code came out, there have been several men who came up to me and started conversations I wasn’t having before,” says saxophonist and composer María Grand. “They’ve said they’re rethinking the way they use language, like avoiding the term ‘guys’ to refer to musicians. I’ve also had people say they regretted hitting on a musician when that person was not in a position of equality with them.”

“Even the quote-unquote ‘haters’ of the code, I welcome them, too!” says Victor. “Because we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, and there are some big issues to sort through.” Complicating the code’s reception is the ever-shifting nature of power dynamics, with even the most successful improvising musicians often sitting at an intersection of privilege and discrimination themselves.

“Some of the backlash to the code comes from people assuming they don’t have power,” says Grand. “The way Bird and Dizzy Gillespie expressed black masculinity opposed racist culture, and that expression brought about positive change. In this music now, some people still have things going against them, and at the same time they might find themselves in a position of power within the industry. So they think, I don’t have much power, how could I be abusing my power? It can be hard to reflect on or understand.”

Still, collective members see all reaction to the code as progress, a vital conversation that’s long overdue. And while creating spaces free of sexual harassment was the code’s original impetus, the collective’s ongoing work addresses other subtle forms of discrimination. For example, Patricia Nicholson Parker believes the code’s harassment guidelines are simple enough to observe at her festival, though she says agency and authority are harder to come by. “The sexism that I personally experienced is that people had a very hard time accepting the fact that I was the one who started and ran the festival,” she says.

This atmospheric bias is harder to define, and can be difficult and draining to confront. About half of We Have Voice’s members work as vocalists. In jazz’s instrumental culture, vocalists can be met with a grudging tolerance that’s often intertwined with gender politics. Most vocalists have stories of being excluded from musical conversations during rehearsal, or skating over a band’s icy disdain in performance.

“It’s these subtle, small moments that over time can erode a lot of our confidence,” says Shah. “Female musicians are constantly in this position of having to fight for something, fight to be taken seriously. And that effort diverts our attention away from performance.”

We Have Voice

L to R: Jen Shyu, Tamar Sella, Terri Lyne Carrington, Sara Serpa, Imani Uzuri, Fay Victor, Kavita Shah, María Grand, Tia Fuller. Not pictured: Ganavya Doraiswamy, Linda May Han Oh, Nicole Mitchell, Okkyung Lee, an Rajna Swaminathan. Photo by Heather Sten

Alongside representation initiatives like Keychange, which encourages festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022, We Have Voice is discussing issues of power that can impact an artist’s experience once he or she gets a place onstage. Like all its work, We Have Voice’s conception of agency is informed by the collective’s broad range of experience. Shah, a native New Yorker, has performed and conducted fieldwork in Brazil, Cape Verde, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Turkey, and India.

“In many traditional music cultures in the world, the vocalist has a lot of power,” says Shah. “People really listen to what you have to say or what you want, because it’s embedded in the musical culture. Of course there are other gender issues in these places. But having had that experience where I’m really being respected makes me know what’s possible in jazz and other settings.”

Scholar and vocalist Tamar Sella even questions the power dynamic inherent in jazz’s traditional instrumentation of a lone singer among a group of instrumentalists. “That combo maintains a certain power structure,” Sella says. “I’ve learned from Imani Uzuri the idea of having multiple singers in a teaching ensemble. What would it mean if that were the case? If that structure were changed, the whole approach to vocalists could change. This is basically one of the ideas of diversity initiatives. The more people come from different and specifically marginalized backgrounds, the greater the understanding of how music itself can exist in the world . . . and the more changes will take place.”

From sexual harassment to ensemble structures, We Have Voice is challenging business as usual in the performing arts. That’s how Sella describes We Have Voice’s continuing work: deepening and expanding the discussion around identity and power in the arts. “We’re thinking and talking about systems of power, power dynamics, and understanding how it works in various situations. And then there’s understanding where we as individuals and institutions stand in relation to it. So we can avoid abusing power if we have it, and step into power if we don’t.”


Michelle Mercer is a New York Times bestselling author and a regular commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.


© 2018 Chamber Music America