Vivek Shraya and The Queer Songbook Orchestra were out, proud and shining at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre this week. In an evening celebrating International Women’s Day and the end of Brock Pride week, Shraya and the orchestra tackled the subjects of shame, pride and fear that queer people know all too well.
The audience was captivated from the moment Shraya took the stage to perform her critically acclaimed album Part Time Woman, which she originally recorded with the QSO in 2017. She opened her set with “Sweetie,” a bittersweet song with a swinging sound that also showcased Shraya’s pop sensibilities. The song gently laments the people in her life, calling into question the societal tendency to use infantilizing language to refer to girls and women.
“I’m Afraid Of Men” details Shraya’s fears of violence that stems from her very existence, which she is more likely to face as a trans woman of colour. The emotions bled through into her singing; anger, and exhaustion and love for who she is when she’s alone, but deep sadness that she has to hide that self when she goes out in public. It is a delicate balancing act that queer people know all too well. Shut up, smile, do everything right, hide who you are and maybe you’ll be safe.
No one was hiding that night, however. From the moment Shraya and the orchestra took the stage, it was known that no one would be hiding their queerness. Wearing a black dress, red lipstick, and silver bangles that gently jingled as she sang, her femininity was on full display. The bindi on her forehead sealed the deal. Everybody was safe to be themselves, including the orchestra, many of whom had shed the traditional all black ensemble to make way for shimmering gold vests or floral patterned scarves. The audience, a good majority of whom were members of the St. Catharines LGBTQ2 community, were at ease. Queerness was not something to be punished, but rather, celebrated, embraced and serenaded. “The stage is the only place that people will applaud you for being trans,” Shraya said after sharing her story and receiving numerous cheers.
Her other songs included “Part Time Woman,” a catchy number with a deeper meaning about what makes a woman a woman, as well as the expectations placed on her to be feminine enough to be so. “Hari Nef” and “Brown Girls” were love letters with vulnerabilities woven into the lyrics. On “Hari Nef” she sings about her insecurities as a woman, and wonders if the beautiful women she sees share those same feelings. “Brown Girls” was an ode to sisterhood and solidarity as Shraya urged fellow “brown girls” to stop hiding the things that western culture has taught them to be ashamed of: their hair, their darkness and their beauty.
She finished with “Girl, It’s Your Time”, an anthem of sorts, which she dedicated to the transgender women and transfeminine people in the audience. It was a song of resilience that transcended any individual experience and united the concert hall. It signified a refusal to give up and the embracing of queer identity. It was a celebration of herself and her community and the perfect way to finish a set about fear and insecurity. It was the perfect thing to say to an audience of queer people who return to an unfriendly world after the show. Living your truth is worth it even though it is dangerous, and scary, loving yourself is worth it.
After a brief intermission, the Queer Songbook Orchestra took centre stage. They paired stories submitted by real individuals about their queer identities and songs that had particular relevance to that experience. They invited St. Catharines artists to give voice to these stories and then they performed the songs.
The stories gave the music new meaning, they breathed new life into pop songs, all written by women on this particular occasion, in honour of International Women’s Day. “Constant Craving” by KD Lang suddenly became deeply intertwined in the story of a young boy from the maritimes who was searching for representation, and although she wasn’t openly gay at the time, everyone kind of just knew that she was a lesbian, and to him that meant the world. “Fast Car” became the story of a 15 year old girl, falling deeply, and strangely in love with an older girl, her 18 year old Wendy’s manager, who she spent nights cruising around town with.
“Could I be Your Girl,” by Jann Arden became about a boy’s first experience loving and touching another boy. “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco, about a woman who had always known she loved women but settled down with a man and had children nonetheless, only to find herself falling in love with a friend as her children grew up.
The concert was a retreat, a haven away from a heteronormative society. Queer people and allies alike found themselves moved and touched and uplifted, and by the time the performers took their final bows, not a single person was not on their feet. Shraya and the QSO provided something hard to come by: space. Space to be openly and visibly queer, to celebrate and sing. I think we all came away from it just a little bit more optimistic, just a little bit more hopeful, and a little bit less afraid.