Canadian musical superstar Nelly Furtado has penned an open letter to Jezebel entitled After ‘O Canada,’ An Unexpected Letter Taught Me a Valuable Lesson About Xenophobia.
In it, she touches on the experience of being invited to sing the national anthem at the 2016 NBA all-star game in Toronto. She also talks about the subsequent fall-out that came from her decision to create – and sing – “a rendition that felt authentic to my own patriotism, rather than a display of vocal histrionics or an impotent, beer-can-singalong version.”
Furtado performed the anthem with Tony Duncan, a Native American hoop dancer and flute player with whom she had already been collaborating. However her performance didn’t go down well on social media where the singer came in for some sustained criticism.
In her letter, Furtado wrote about the online reaction and backlash she received as a result of her performance.
“I realized that my performance had become some kind of lightning rod,” she writes. “This was not just about melodies and vocals. The real buttons of hate that I had pushed seemed to stem from a veiled xenophobia in my country and beyond. As a first-generation Portuguese Canadian female, I was officially “the other,” and not entitled to express my “O Canada” with artistic nuance or intimacy.”
One Tweet that told her to “GO BACK TO PORTUGAL,” “stung like salt” the singer says.
Resisting the urge to post a rebuttal, Furtado instead posted a note that thanked “the NBA and Tony Duncan for helping me represent our home “on native land.’”
However, Furtado added that deep down, she felt “a sadness and fear about the dark and hateful hidden corners of my country, and confusion about where I belonged in it.”
A few months later, Furtado writes, she was at Canadian Music Week, about to receive the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Award, when her manager handed her an envelope.
“My eyes froze on the sender’s address: Kiwetin School, Timiskaming First Nation, Notre Dame du Nord, Quebec,” she writes.
Inside the envelope, was a letter from a Grade 6 teacher named Craig Parry.
“He had played a recording of my version of “O Canada” for the students who had not watched the game or had not heard about the controversy,” Furtado writes.
“They discussed some of the tweets and comments and they thought it was very unfair. They reflected on the comments and found them particularly “mean spirited, rude, and disrespectful.” They had made Tony and I beautiful, handmade cards to let us know that they liked our version, and to remind us not to listen to the “bullies” and the “mean” people.”
Furtado writes the letters brought tears to her eyes, and she promised her daughter she would visit the students and thank them in person.
“At the crack of dawn on a beautiful day in May, I picked up Tony, Sean and Karl, and we shared the eight-hour drive up to Timiskaming First Nation,” the singer-songwriter recalls.
“The principal quietly ushered us in as we prepared to surprise a gym full of students and teachers. I burst out of the gym closet singing my song “Powerless” with Tony hoop dancing to my right. It was one of the best days of my life. I told those children how much their kindness meant to us, and how their act of compassion had erased the sting of hate from thousands of strangers. We passed out the cards so that their peers could read them too, and I called the Grade 6 students to their feet individually so that we could all applaud and celebrate them.”
The greatest moment that day, she adds, was “when a student put her hand up and asked, “Can you please perform ‘O Canada?’” Tony and I looked at each other with hesitation — We had not brought the correctly-tuned flute. All of a sudden the room got on their feet and we sang it together, fumbling through it the Canadian way — with acceptance and goodwill.”
Now, one year after receiving backlash online for her rendition of the national anthem, Furtado has thanked the people ” who used their social media megaphones to send vitriol my way.”
Thanks to them, she adds, “I made some new friends IRL at Timiskaming First Nation, who reminded me that IRL connections are the only ones that matter.”
And while that Portugal tweet hurt, and spiralled Furtado “right back to my kindergarten playground where I was the only ethnic minority in my entire class,” she concludes the letter by saying she never thought “a few wise, beautiful children at another playground some 30 years later would end up healing that wound completely.”
Read Furtado’s full letter in Jezebel here: