THE DECISION A rap symphony by Euphonia about the Jian Ghomeshi ruling, at Array Space (155 Walnut), Friday (March 24), 8 pm. $20, students $15. euphonia.ca.
A rap symphony based on the Jian Ghomeshi verdict – performed in Toronto on the one-year anniversary of the ruling – certainly grabs attention. But it also raises questions.
Namely, what are the intentions of its creators, Jordan O’Connor, artistic director of local symphonic group Euphonia, and hip-hop musician Bobby McIntosh?
In addition to raps by McIntosh, the three-movement symphony consensually incorporates pre-recorded voices of six women interviewed by O’Connor as they read and reacted to excerpts from the ruling and shared their own stories of sexual violence.
Another question: how does somebody who was directly involved in the court proceedings but not in the musical production feel about it?
To find out, we set up a conversation between O’Connor, McIntosh and Lucy DeCoutere, one of the women to allege sexual assault by Ghomeshi, and the first to publicly identity herself. It lasted 90 minutes. This is compressed.
Also, “content warning: sexual violence” goes without saying (both for this story and the performance).
DeCoutere: I want to dive in and ask you some questions. Carla told me you were doing this, and I was like, “Why didn’t they fucking call me?” [laughs] I’m the easiest person in the world to find because of social media. So, yeah, why didn’t you call me [as part of the interviews], cuz I could explain some shit, for sure. Or maybe it’s because you were looking at a wider reach?
O’Connor: It’s funny – it didn’t occur to me to call you, in a way, because I didn’t want to bother you. Which perhaps sounds silly….
DeCoutere: Well, that sounds like it did occur to you….
O’Connor: Let me backtrack. I didn’t know anything about Jian. I didn’t listen to his show, I didn’t know his band, I didn’t know anything about him. The most I’d heard about him was when Billy Bob Thornton was on the show. Then all of a sudden there was this Facebook release by him saying whatever it was he said [about the initial allegations and his firing from CBC]. And I thought, “Wow, that’s a classic misinformation campaign.”
Then as the trial started to happen, and as you and the others were attacked, I thought there was a brutality that we were accepting toward women. And when the decision came down, many women I knew were very upset and depressed.
I was bothered because the media coverage was focused on minute details in the testimony, and I thought, “We need to just stop and listen to women.” So the idea for the project was that: to sit down with women I knew to read excerpts of the decision and react to it and just listen. I was like, how does this feel for some of the women I know? How are they reacting and why aren’t we listening to them? The amount of hate, aggression, ugliness was overwhelming. How those reactions became acceptable was just fucking ridiculous. So I got pissed off.
I sat down with six women, and as they read excerpts from the court’s ruling, they had answers for everything. They knew why a woman would say what she did, or how it happened the way it did, they had personal stories, stories of friends of friends, more connections to Jian than I realized. And I thought, “Fuck, we just didn’t listen.” We just did not listen. So The Decision to me is about listening to women. But I apologize. It didn’t occur to me to talk to you…. I’m an artist. I was off doing my own thing and wasn’t really thinking in those terms. I’m in my world and in this community.
The ensemble who is performing it is mostly women, the executive director is a woman, a lot of the people involved are women. So it made sense to talk about it as an organization, as a little chamber ensemble.
John Reed Hryszkiewicz
The Decision creators Jordan O’Connor (left) and Bobby McIntosh.
DeCoutere: It’s interesting that you used as a springboard for [the women’s] experiences the words of a dude. The judge, who is a dude, interpreting the actions, interpreting this whole thing. It’s an interesting sort of paradox, right?
O’Connor: I didn’t like the tone, so I could imagine a woman would like the tone even less.
DeCoutere: The tone left some shit to be desired, for sure. [laughs] I can tell you that sitting in the courtroom listening to his ruling was fascinating. I was sitting next to a friend, and just before he started to read his verdict, I turned to her and said, “He looks like a nice man.”
DeCoutere: Then not too long into it, every time he took a drink of water, I leaned over to my friend and said, “Gin.” We just decided he was getting hammered. That was the only way we could really go through that.
But tell me more stuff. It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this, and the people in your life who inspired you to make this project.
O’Connor: One of the women I interviewed talked about the idea of consent and told a story about a friend who was on a date, having sex with somebody. During intercourse she was uncomfortable, and the guy said to her, “I’m not finished,” and then finished. And then my friend wondered what she should tell her friend – that she had been sexually assaulted? Because her friend didn’t realize it.
DeCoutere: Sure, that’s a weird muddy grey thing. In the verdict, the judge did say that sometimes in cases of sexual assault women will have memory gaps, and some may sometimes act in a way that will be particular. But not these three women. These three women fucking lied. He let us be the exception to the rule that he was saying was a possibility.
O’Connor: There are grey areas, but in my mind there’s something simpler: don’t hit women. Ever. Period. Stop. That’s it.
DeCoutere: Or anybody else.
O’Connor: Or anybody. But we’re greying this line because we’re a society that’s misogynistic. We’re not addressing that men should just never hit women, period. That’s not fucking clear. They should be taught that from an early age. That’s why me and Bobby felt we needed to make this work.
DeCoutere: Really? You’re saying in society, it’s not clear to not hit women?
O’Connor: I mean, I sound naive, I admit. I think based upon the women I’ve talked to and their experiences on dates with boyfriends, people they trusted, they were not safe. They were assaulted, in some cases raped. They wanted to normalize it afterwards, felt it was their responsibility to make it okay. They felt it was their obligation. They carried that burden, often alone. And that is wrong, obviously. It’s completely wrong. The message that became clear to Bobby and me was, “How the fuck is violence against women a women’s issue when it’s men assaulting women?”
O’Connor: That is the underlying message that needs to be repeated. “Oh well, she did this, she did that.” I don’t give a fuck. Don’t hit women. The mantra is, don’t hit women. And we’re coming up with excuses about why a man did that. There is no point at which we can say this is acceptable. Somehow we blurred the line, and that’s what made me want to throw up in my mouth.
DeCoutere: In your mouth?
O’Connor: A little bit. We’ll work on that for a second piece. The throw-up piece. The throw-up symphony,
DeCoutere: My dad plays French horn. He could come and jam with you.
O’Connor: That’s perfect.
DeCoutere: So it sounds like it was a surprise to you, and I’m sorry about that. Those are hard conversations to have and know about. For me, I didn’t realize that all of my friends had been raped. I didn’t know that. Now I do. I was okay with not knowing.
I was sitting with a friend at Saving Grace, and there were a lot of women in there, and I looked around and said, “I wonder what these chicks have been through?” And my friend silently nodded and said, “And what do you do with that?”
There was this woman next to us who had the most perfect ponytail either of us had ever seen. Movie ponytail. And we both go, “You learn how to make a perfect fucking ponytail.” Of course that trivializes something that is very serious, the amount of emotional labour anyone carrying trauma carries with them in their life.
For some reason, if a dude gets punched by another guy in a fight, that’s not the same as intimate-partner violence. And men wouldn’t try to fix it in general. Some would. But there’s something about the way women come through the world where they feel like if something’s broken, they gotta fix it. Not them getting broken, that’s not what needs fixing. The device that breaks them needs to get fixed. And I don’t know what that is, but I think you guys might agree that these stories are lousy with it.
O’Connor: Yeah, I agree that women are made to feel that they need to reconcile the situation. And we’re talking about rape, assault, things nobody should have to reconcile.
DeCoutere: And emotional abuse, too, falls into that realm. Which is very subtle and hard to identify and then come through.
O’Connor: I don’t think there’s a lot of listening going on. There needs to be more of a conversation. It seems productive to get people to sit in a room and listen to women talk for 30 minutes without somebody cutting in and saying, “This is what you’re supposed to think about what they think.”
DeCoutere: So after your gig, are you going to have a chat with the audience?
McIntosh: Hi, it’s Bobby.
DeCoutere: Finally, he speaks. Are you quiet because you’re always listening, Bobby? Huh? [laughs]
McIntosh: I’m a good listener. But, yeah, Array Space is a smaller venue. We wanted an intimate vibe. Our hope was that people would stay after the show, not just to talk about the performance but about their feelings. What ended up happening [after the debut performance in November] was a lot of people stayed. A lot of people stood up and hugged. A lot of people cried.
DeCoutere: Uhhhhh, my god, kill me. Wow.
McIntosh: We all congregated, talked about our feelings. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’ve never had an experience where I sat in a room with perfect strangers and talked like we knew each other and divulged intimate details, right? So that was an incredibly moving thing.
DeCoutere: That’s beautiful. How often is it that you make something and then it works! I’m glad that you had that feedback. Really productive.
O’Connor: Initially I thought we were just going to do [the performance once] and move on, but some of the women involved became advocates. I thought that was important. I was ready to let the work be what it was and move on to the next thing, but [McIntosh’s partner] Ryley [Murray] thought we should do it again. So I’ve sort of been following their lead on where this work should go, partly because I’m really hesitant about being a man pushing this as an agenda. I want to support it in every way I can, and fortunately there’s been some women who support the work and want it to be heard. I’m in service of other people.
What I’ve found in this process is that women wanted to talk and were okay with it presented in public as long as it was respectful.
DeCoutere: Have you been following the case in Halifax with the cab driver? He picked up a fare at a bar. Ten minutes later, when the police approached, the woman was in the back seat, undressed below the waist with her shirt up and her shoe in the front seat, her pants were in the console, she’d peed herself, she was unconscious, and the cab driver had his pants down. And they were like, “Hmm. Not guilty of sexual assault,” and it wasn’t even suggested that it was attempted sexual assault. The judge said, “Sure, she was unconscious when she was found, but maybe she’d given consent before she was unconscious.” Now she’s been on the stand once, testifying for a crime she has no knowledge of… and she has to do it again.
The Criminal Code is set up for people who steal cars, not for people who steal dignity. And it’s a fucking gong show. Men who are assaulted and go through these trials, I don’t know if they have the same experience or have an easier time letting things go and just saying fuck it. But it seems like women who come to trial feel like they have accountability – sorry we got assaulted, let’s fix the problem. It’s a thing I’ve noticed.
O’Connor: I agree that the way we treat women in this society is just different: equal pay, etc. All sorts of things women are made or obliged to do, forcibly or passive-aggressively or whatever it is, mean they have to act and live a different life. And that includes trials. The hate, the contempt, the amount of negative comments – it says something about society, nothing about the women, but about society. And the fact that we can accept it on any level is the underlying fundamental problem I have.
DeCoutere: Okay. There’s all this doom and gloom and it’s all shitty, but there are good things that come from this. One is that you and I are strangers – we’re having this conversation that is fairly heavy about stuff that’s fairly abstract, but we’re on the same page. I’m hypersensitive or tweaked to this stuff because I’ve lost two years of my life to this. But I think people talk about sexual assault much more candidly, possibly because I do.
But as a person who’s not me, who’s just a person hanging out in the world, is that something that you as a dude who makes French horn fucking concertos has noticed? Or am I high?
O’Connor: I think you’re absolutely right. The women I interviewed felt safe enough, felt inspired and strengthened by the decisions you made. They felt like they wanted to stand with Lucy and with each other. You’re actually giving people the language. As more women feel empowered, the conversation grows. The piece only exists because six women talked to me. Bobby’s verses exist because women talked to him, and that’s because of what you did, Lucy. You and the other women in this case and other women who stood up have said this is what “no” looks like.
DeCoutere: Can I give you another sidebar? I have a niece who’s 14 and was talking to her about whether she wanted to hang out with me, and I said, “Can I consensually kidnap you?” And she was like, “Totally.” There was a time right after the trial – I live with two cats – and I was like, “Should I ask them if I can pick them up?” I do kind of joke about consent a lot with people. Like, can I consensually eat half of your sandwich. [laughs]
I don’t want to eat up the rest of your life and I also want to find a Pollyanna spin to end this conversation. Do you have kids that you know of?
McIntosh: I have a wonderful nephew who is 13. I was having one of the first conversations I’ve had with him about sexual violence against women, and like a kid does, he had really fantastic questions. I think one of the things that’s important to me is that sexual violence is not just about the perpetrators. It’s about men who don’t stand up and don’t stop other men from doing it. They’re perpetuating sexual violence. That’s a fucking problem, right? I think at the end of the day, it’s very important to keep this conversation going with older men and younger men. Just like you going public. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but, I’m sure you wanted other women to follow suit.
DeCoutere: No. No, I didn’t. That’s not why I came forward. I came forward because I didn’t want Jian to choke out anybody else. It was a warning to other women. It wasn’t an invitation for them to tell what had happened publicly. But… so you talked to this kid about this in an age-appropriate way and it became a dialogue?
McIntosh: Yeah. He’s a young kid who will hopefully grow up to be a wonderful man. I think men have to talk about this and put the onus on themselves. If they see this happening, they need to step up.
DeCoutere: Great. I think that’s how we can wrap this up. It’s the circle of life, motherfucker.
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