In June 2019, at Montreal’s Francofolies, you decided to open the show on which you were collaborating by playing a radio clip in which extremely hateful remarks are made about you, Safia. Why did you decide to play that clip and what was the audience’s reaction?

Safia Nolin: I think it came from a desire to regain control of the narrative and take back ownership. Many people don’t even know that this kind of discourse exists. I wanted everyone to hear just how far it can go. It was a strange moment—silent and also very powerful. I finally felt that I was taking a stand publicly, concretely, not just through social media but in a space devoted to music.

Philippe Cyr: The origin of this project is the idea of making the violence directed toward Safia real. Hearing those words with her, along with tens of thousands of people, creates a relationship that’s very different from reading them on your computer. It was remarkable to see the crowd’s discomfort and feel their growing indignation.


In your view, Safia, why are you the target of such hate?

S.N.: Apparently, there’s something in my story, in my life, that features absolutely all the characteristics that offend people. I represent change and difference. I also have the impression that I could easily have been who I am if I didn’t express it so openly; then it wouldn’t have shocked people as much. I think it’s the fact that I don’t apologize for who I am that bothers people the most.

P.C.: This is a time when people are actively asking all kinds of questions about identity, redefining gender, and community. Today, Safia’s identity seems to represent a call for revolution, for the body and individual of the future. It’s as if she scares an entire segment of the population because her way of being calls into question their way of life, their way of thinking, and, ultimately, the established order.


Your show alludes to the title of a work by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which he examines mechanisms of surveillance and punishment in prison and, by extension, contemporary western societies. How do you engage with his ideas?

P.C.: In his analysis, Foucault argues that the panopticon is the ideal means of coercing bodies because it enables constant surveillance of individuals. We put forward the hypothesis that social media can also act as a tool of coercion. The panopticon envisions a semi-circle of prisoners under surveillance from the centre.  Here, it’s a group of social media followers, the choir, which is entirely focused on one person. Through the act of commenting on all aspects of Safia’s identity, a kind of censorship takes place. We found the transposition to be very effective.

In putting insults aimed at Safia on social media into the mouths of an actual choir, we have a dual purpose: we want to both make the audience aware of how serious the situation is and take back the words to transform them. Despite the aggression conveyed by the remarks, the choir isn’t simply an enemy. It also represents a community formed around Safia. The presence of the actress Debbie Lynch-White, who serves as Safia’s alter ego in a way, establishes a sense of sisterhood that emphasizes this effect. It’s a surprising and restorative process that happens thanks to the music.


Musically, besides Safia there is the musician, sound designer, and arranger Vincent Legault (Dear Criminals, Pierre Lapointe, Salomé Leclerc). How does this collaboration work?

P.C.: Vincent Legault composed the choir’s music based on a libretto by Jean-Philippe Baril Guérard. It was a solution we found to avoid having Safia compose music for hostile remarks that were aimed at her. For her part, Safia will respond to the violence in a way with her own compositions. Reclaiming the discourse does not necessarily mean reacting directly to malice; it might simply mean choosing what you say, what you want to talk about.

S.N.: It’s a really interesting experience that allows me to unite two aspects of my life that are always opposed, at least in the eyes of the public. I often feel that the person who gets all this crap is me, not the artist in me. I get less criticism about my work; those who insult me talk more about my appearance and identity, not my music. So I believe using my craft as a weapon to oppose this violence is very redemptive.

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