‘WE HAVE VOICE’
The Female Collective Behind Jazz’s #MeToo Movement
A collective fights bias in the performing arts with a Code of Conduct that goes beyond sexual harassment and gender to flexibly target bias of all sorts while promoting respect.
The nine female musicians who took the stage Monday at the Glass Box Theater of Manhattan’s New School would have made a formidable band. They represented several strands of jazz and other improvised forms and ranged from notable up-and-coming players to established stars. Had they made music, the performance would have contained several backstories.
One involves the fact that only recently, belatedly, and still less than adequately, has the jazz world begun to shine appropriate spotlights on musicians as leaders based solely on artistry and without regard to gender. Another backstory reveals—as have the open secrets and normalized abuse brought to light through the #MeToo movement—the ways in which gender bias and sexual harassment have inhibited, impeded, and complicated the lives and careers of improvising musicians at all career levels.
At the Glass Box Theater, there were no instruments in sight. The musicians sat at a long table. Their microphones were meant for conversation. Here were nine of the 14 members—a diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, cultural lineage, and sexual orientation—that have formed a collective, We Have Voice. They began in December with an open letter, now bearing nearly 1,000 signatures, inspired by #MeToo but prompted also by articles in The Boston Globe and elsewhere detailing sexual harassment within the jazz community. The letter set forth a “commitment to creating a culture of equity in our professional world.”
The collective took a first concrete step toward realizing that goal with its Code of Conduct to Promote SAFE(R) Workplaces in the Performing Arts, released last week. The code offers clarity for identifying harassment and tools with which to address it, all stemming from a basic question: “How can we commit to creating safe(r) spaces in the performing arts?”
The members of the collective—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, Tia Fuller—came together gradually over the past several months, at first via intersecting email exchanges and, later, through focused Google Hangout sessions, crafting its code, “word by word, and very carefully,” said Sara Serpa, a singer and composer, at the New School roundtable. “That process gave names to things I have thought and felt for a long time.”
María Grand, a saxophonist and composer, said, “Things that we thought were isolated were not isolated. Everyone had gone through a range of experiences, from mild to traumatic, from derogatory statements to physical abuse.”
On one level, the Code of Conduct serves as method of formal agreement and announcement. As flutist, composer, and collective member Nicole Mitchell said in an interview, “We’re hoping the code can be a stamp or pedigree for venues and organizations, a way to declare their own commitment to these principles.”
Already, more than two dozen organizations—from music labels to universities, jazz clubs to festivals—have signed on. “But the code is just a first step,” she said. The collective hopes they will also display the code prominently on their physical premises and websites and that its substance can be written into artist contracts.
“The code is our effort to create a new paradigm and new standards,” said Jen Shyu, a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer. “It’s a way for us to state in clear terms what is acceptable and not acceptable in our workplace and to transform our culture into a respectful and safe world, rather than perpetuating any dysfunction that has been an understood and unspoken reality. It’s not about constricting people’s behavior. It’s about widening people’s awareness of what it means to completely respect one another.”
In one sense, the code is consistent with rules that might govern any workplace. At the roundtable, collective members talked about how the workplace for a performing artist is often not so easily defined—it can be backstage or a hotel room—and how the environment in a band or other performing situation rarely involves the clear lines of authority that might be drawn up by a company’s human resources department.
Fay Victor, a singer and composer, said, “We’re trying to make a statement and make a stand. But we don’t want to be police. We’d like to set it up to interact and have a conversation that we’re all a part of.” The New School roundtable was one such effort, along with a May 9 discussion at Harvard University. Similar discussions are planned on May 24 at the annual Vision Festival in Brooklyn, N.Y., and May 27 in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We can’t emphasize enough that this goes beyond gender and beyond sexual harassment,” said Tamar Sella, a singer and ethnomusicologist. “If you say this is simply a group of women talking about sexual harassment, we’ve failed to express ourselves. We’re helping to define ways to interact, to explore power dynamics. None of this is prescriptive and momentary—it’s meant to explore important questions.”
Imani Uzuri, a vocalist, composer, and librettist, emphasized the intersectional orientation of We Have Voice, making reference to the work of law professor Kimberle Crenshaw and the theory that the overlap of various social identities (race, gender, sexuality, and class) contributes to the specific types of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual. “We’re not simply talking about male and female because not everyone identifies as one or the other,” she said. “We’re trying to complicate the narrative to match the reality of our situations.” She pointed to the use of the word “equity” as opposed to “equality.” The Code of Conduct’s reference to “safe(r) spaces” is a meant to reflect that intersectionality, in that notions of “safe” shift according to race, class, and gender and their interdependent systems.
“Dealing with racism has been part of my whole life,” the collective’s Terri Lyne Carrington, a Grammy Award-winning drummer and composer, told me in an interview. “But as a woman in the jazz field, I had pushed away that part of my identity for a long time. Racism was always the first conversation, always the priority. But I’m not able to prioritize that more so than sexism anymore.”
At the New School roundtable, Carrington described a process of soul-searching that forced her to reflect on her work, mostly with men, during the past 30 years. “It’s important for us to look at our own biases,” she said. “If I’d had these conversations a long time ago, I probably would have fostered diversity in my music much sooner.”
“If I would have known that I could reach out to an older woman musician, who would tell me that I didn’t have to do or put up with certain things in order to become a fully formed artist, I would have done things differently,” said Jen Shyu. “So we are making a concerted effort to reach out to these young artists and musicians who may feel marginalized.” We Have Voice plans to have more roundtable discussions in the future, and to initiate mentorship programs.
Jazz has long been characterized not only by the contributions of male musicians but also in terms that speak of men’s identities (think “cutting contests”). We Have Voice questions that pose as well—not just for the good of its members but for the benefit of artistic fullness and honesty.
“Being a bassist,” wrote the collective’s Linda May Han Oh in an email, “a lot of my education and upbringing heavily emphasized the need to be strong and supportive many times in a masculine sort of way, but I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable in embracing that strength without needing some sort of a masculine mask. In the past, bringing attention to my feminine self seemed at times to be detrimental to my career, almost invalidating what I had to offer, but with this collective of intelligent, forward-thinking women I feel at ease with being who I am.”
“There hasn’t been a space where music is created in which you don’t have to worry about your gender,” said María Grand. “I don’t know what a woman sounds like, but I’d like to explore all the aspects of what I sound like and what my colleagues sound like without inhibitions. If there’s a whole side of yourself that you’re holding back, that can’t be good for the music.”
The efforts of We Have Voice toward collective action to empower artists has strong precedents, perhaps most notably in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was formed more than a half century ago in Chicago and has grown in influence in the decades since. For Nicole Mitchell, a past president of the AACM, “We are trying to work in a similar way. We have a common goal and a true practice, which means something that you keep working at. And like the AACM, we are focused on things that you can do more powerfully as a collective than on your own, but in ways that support your individuality.” The AACM’s brilliance lay not just in the numerous aesthetic achievements of its members, but also in the ways in which the organization fostered a reframing of ideas about African American culture, for instance, and the ways in which we refer to composition and improvisation. We Have Voice seems similarly focused on empowering changes in perspective.
Such changes affect the very context for a performance, and the terms of engagement for producers and audiences as well as performers. At the Vision Festival, which has signed on to the Code of Conduct and will host a We Have Voice roundtable, choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker, who is artistic director, said, “The issues raised by this collective are integral to what the Vision Festival has always been about. It’s not so much that I want to support this movement, it’s that I feel supported by this movement.”
“Music heals,” said Sara Serpa. “We all feel and talk about that. But if there are people who feel discriminated against and excluded from the conversation, we need to bring them in. The best thing is that change is within anyone's reach. It might be slow, but it will happen.”