On Reclaiming Women’s Bodies, Voices, and Lives

Date and time
Friday, August 23, 2019

On Reclaiming Women’s Bodies, Voices, and Lives

Qu’est-ce que DONZELLE a à voir avec «Give Peace a Chance»? The question was in the minds and on the tongues of many, including the band, as they opened their set on June 12 at the Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain. Yoko Ono and John Lennon recorded the original in 1969 at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, during their Bed-In for Peace. DONZELLE’s performance was the first of a three-part series called Music to Give Peace a Chance. The series, conceived by the Fondation Phi’s Managing Director and Curator, Cheryl Sim, invites local musical artists to perform songs from their personal projects, and end their sets with updated versions of "Give Peace a Chance"—a song John Lennon originally co-credited to Paul McCartney, but later acknowledged as a joint creation of Yoko Ono and himself. [1, 2]

I asked Sim earlier that day about her programming of DONZELLE, the stage name of singer and rapper Roxanne Arsenault, who is no stranger to the Montreal art scene as General and Artistic Coordinator of local gallery space Centre Clark. DONZELLE is also the name of Arsenault’s band, a hip-hop act featuring a dynamic set of stage dancers and DJ Tignasse, Arsenault’s sister. Sim replied that Ono and Arsenault are linked by virtue of both being strong women and strong feminists. Sim’s perception of Ono as a force to be reckoned with is such that she has suggested (though not directed—in keeping with the exhibition’s theme of Growing Freedom) that visitors unfamiliar with Ono’s œuvre explore her solo work before exploring the memorabilia and media related to her collaboration with Lennon. Why? Perhaps to be jolted out of the deeply entrenched (and, arguably, racist and sexist) popular views that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles; that she wasn’t an artist of any real calibre in her own right; and that rather than inspire John, she was a hanger-on, who hampered his creativity and dragged down his career.

The original lyrics of the song, and the stance on life and art that Ono cultivated after living through WWII in Japan and that inspired Lennon throughout their time together, take a pared-down approach to achieving peace. Inflected with a Zen minimalism found in many Fluxus-aligned works, Ono’s instructions are simple, as one ebullient visitor to the gallery put it, but never facile. A few epigrammatic words can unleash layers of meaning once the audience’s action and imagination are brought to bear on the work, which Ono conceived of as always inherently unfinished prior to their participation.

Clockwise from top: A copy of the lyrics Lennon and Ono held up at the Montreal Bed-In, for participants to sing during the recording; the original vinyl 45 of the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” (on display at Fondation Phi in the André Perry listening room); a sign held up by DONZELLE during the sing-along from the show.

For DONZELLE, for her guest performers and collaborators, and for the audience gathered Wednesday evening, one idea of peace that emerged was the idea of giving a chance to the next generation. Family, motherhood, and feminism were on display as guest rapper giselle numba one handed off her infant from the stage in order to take the microphone. Children of various performers played tambourine as part of the show and later danced by the stage; a baby watched from the front row, nestled in a mother’s front carrier and wearing noise-blocking headphones. Motherhood was a highlight, but perhaps more prominent in the act’s feminism were sex positivity and body positivity, embodied not just in onstage twerking, and in the lyrics of the band’s own songs, but also in their wardrobe changes. Black spandex leggings underpinned most costumes, appliquéd with words and phrases such as “slap tes lèvres” (a reference to the track “Jalousie,” in which the chorus runs “slap the lèvres ensemble, pussy clap pour DONZELLE, fille”), and the name of the artist’s recent video album, Presse-jus.

As it happens, the Fondation Phi’s Department of Education and Public Engagement has engaged local artist karen elaine spencer to design The World is Full of Everything It Needs, an art workshop run in tandem with the exhibition and inspired by Ono’s work. spencer has devised an imagination exercise that ends with the juicing of the fruit Ono chose early on as emblematic of her own hybrid identity: the grapefruit. Somewhere between a lemon and an orange lies the grapefruit, just as Ono saw herself as existing somewhere along the human spectrum from American to Japanese. Grapefruit is also the title of her 1964 collection of interactive “instruction” works, and in spencer’s activity, extracting the juice can feel like accessing the essence of Ono’s creative process in order to nourish our own imagination. So the coincidence of “presse-jus” is striking, even if these leggings have peaches emblazoned on the crotch, not grapefruits.

The visual language DONZELLE has developed [3] evokes a pro-sex feminism that has been around for decades, familiar to 80s and 90s North American college students through writers like Susie Bright. But in a hip-hop band like DONZELLE, sex- and body-positive messages also bear clear ties to a lineage of unapologetic, in-your-face, women-led hip-hop, with early roots in pioneers like Salt-N-Pepa. This lineage is perhaps best exemplified among hip-hop legends in the iconic Missy Elliot, recently finds expression in the mainstream in Cardi B and Lizzo, and realizes a distinct, “flawless” celebration of the pleasures of feminized [4] genitalia in the gleefully explicit lyrics of more under-the-radar artists such as Junglepussy, Princess Vitarah, and CupcakKe. It is hard to deny that the cultural import of these artists’ contributions lies not just in removing the shame associated with women’s bodies, but much more crucially, of fighting the marginalization of Black women’s bodies and voices, reclaiming them, and lifting them up.

Given this, and given that hip-hop has burst forth as a vital social force for Black and other communities of colour in the time since Ono and Lennon’s peace initiatives, one might be given to wonder: Why, if hip-hop was chosen as a genre, were artists of colour, and specifically Black women artists, not on stage interpreting an old song for world peace for today’s political landscape? The question gains relevancy in light of the urgent Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the prevalence of Islamophobia in Western nations, the war in Yemen, and the genocide of Indigenous peoples around the globe, among other atrocities perpetrated by world colonizers.

On the other hand, DONZELLE is a québecoise artist who sang and spoke most of her set in French, a fact which brought a local particularity to a global peace project. Even if the bilingual lyrics to the reworked "Give Peace a Chance" were not always easy to make out, each verse delivered by DONZELLE or one of her guest rappers referenced hot-button political issues of today’s Quebec. Arsenault later posted the lyrics on DONZELLE’s Facebook page, with a preface written by DJ Tignasse. The post harshly indicts recently passed Law 21—the secularism legislation that bans certain public servants from wearing religious symbols, and requires citizens to uncover their faces to receive public services from bus rides to public education—pointing out that it is once again women who are being silenced and erased by the law. The preface also speaks out strongly against Bill 9, which forces approximately 16 000 mid-process immigration applicants to start over, and attempts to institute a “Quebec values” test for them—targeting certain immigrants more than others.

The lyrics of DONZELLE’s introductory verse tell of her deep physical revulsion at the direction her province is taking; belly in knots and jaw clenched, she wants to retreat from her home, for which she feels deep shame. She vacillates, she says, between utopian hopes for her community’s future, and nihilistic despondence at what she fears are unrealistic standards. She passes the mic to Frannie Holder, who laments “fake news” and the increasing worldwide social acceptability of alt-right views mainstreamed as freedom of expression. giselle numba one’s guest verse circles back to DONZELLE’s Quebec-centred themes, and makes them even more local by celebrating the immigrants in her neighbourhood of Park Extension. She calls out Canada as a colony of poorly-behaved settlers who not only disrespect Indigenous communities with fracking, but also contribute to environmental catastrophe. All of this is followed by Queen KA’s contribution, a final verse that pans out to an inclusive feminist vision of women as the ultimate citizens: incisive, brilliant business owners and heads of households, fiercely talented and sublime witches who harbour a powerful maternal force, whether or not they bear children.

In these last sentiments, the audience can discern echoes of how Yoko Ono was functionally silenced and reduced to a Beatles consort in her husband’s lifetime by popular opinion. But just as striking is that the local resonances of this contemporary version of "Give Peace a Chance" are staunchly in line with the Fondation Phi’s mandate of making international art trends—in this case, a global peace initiative—accessible and relevant to Montreal audiences. In making a territorial acknowledgment as she took the stage, in her almost entirely French lyrics and stage banter throughout the set, and in the team-written lyrics of the "Give Peace a Chance" sing-along at the end, Arsenault’s performance was in tune with place, politics, and history.

Bed-In participant Timothy Leary’s catch phrase of “turn on, tune in, drop out” came to embody the spirit of ‘60s music and art counterculture. This spirit of simplicity and of being present in the moment was echoed in the 1969 lyrics, which moved to banish thinking in “ -isms” in ways that today can read as anti-political, or at the very least seem to dispense with detailed political analysis, and certainly to dismiss government institutions. Whether this paring down is a stroke of profundity or naïve idealism is debatable. One can vacillate between utopian visions and the brink of despair, as Arsenault does, and rages about. But though the emotional tone and political specificity of the reimagined lyrics are a significant departure from the light-hearted mockery and banter of the original, the slightly reworked chorus maintains the simple plea that begins with “all we are saying.” DONZELLE and friends staged a call-and-response interactive refrain that asked for everybody to just plain give each other a chance. Like the call of Ono’s solo work, this call can’t be answered without audience participation. Styled with swear words that added emphasis and urgency while proclaiming a contemporary countercultural identity through the comparatively new, politically rich genre of hip-hop, the newly imagined lyrics and the show as a whole promote a vision of world peace that revolves around central notes of empathy and solidarity, with victims of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. It’s a shared struggle, says Arsenault; we all play a part.

Shirin Radjavi
Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain

Photos: Shirin Radjavi and Marc-Olivier Bécotte

Note: In a correspondence with the author after the article’s completion, Roxanne Arsenault revealed that the initial lineup for the peace anthem remake included Black trans rappers Lucas Charlie Rose and Backxwash, both of whom unfortunately had to cancel before the performance.

[1] Norman, Philip (2008). John Lennon: The Life. Doubleday Canada. p. 608.
[2] Songwriting credit for “Imagine” was similarly revised in 2017, when the co-credit went from McCartney to Ono. Lennon said shortly before his death in 1980 that when he wrote “Imagine,” he was “a bit more selfish, a bit more macho,” and that he “sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book.” Shea, Christopher D. (October 10, 2018). "Yoko Ono: ‘Imagine’.” The Guardian. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
Internet sources deem it probable that Lillian Piché Shirt, a Cree woman living in Alberta, contributed to the couple’s songwriting process for “Imagine” when they saw coverage of her protest in the Montreal Gazette during their stay at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. McMaster, Geoff. (December 7, 2018). “Was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ inspired by an Alberta Cree grandmother?.” Folio. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
[3] See, for example, DONZELLE’s website, with its suggestively cut peach, framed by gold bling and an immaculate long-taloned manicure—a feminine iconography tied to club culture, hip-hop, and porn.
[4] I have chosen the language of women, feminine sexuality, and feminized genitalia rather than the binary “female,” in order to create space for trans and non-binary bodies in a discussion framed by second and third wave feminisms that don’t always do so.

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