Last year, when I was invited to sing “O Canada” at the NBA All-Star Game, I was happy for the opportunity to represent the city I live in, Toronto, as it hosted the world’s largest celebration of one of my favorite sports.
It wasn’t my first time. I had sung the anthem at the 2004 All-Star Game in LA, and hadn’t been happy with my performance. I attempted to sing some of the words in French but flubbed them; luckily this was pre-social media so any critique was limited to a few morning radio chuckles.
I vowed to myself that this time I would sing the anthem in English, and that I would make it memorable. I talked with the NBA about performing with a First Nations artist. Ultimately, I ended up booking Tony Duncan, a Native American hoop dancer and flute player with whom I’ve been collaborating since 2012. I began studying past anthems and created a rendition that felt authentic to my own patriotism, rather than a display of vocal histrionics or an impotent, beer-can-singalong version.
During camera rehearsals at The Air Canada Centre, I made sure that Tony and I were both visible at center stage. We were a team delivering an anthem that had recently been in the news because of a potential lyric change, from the line “in all our sons command” to the gender-neutral “in all of us command.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had just appointed a gender-equal cabinet. Change was in the air.
As I stood courtside, my performance minutes away, female dancers gyrated beside each All-Star on the makeshift stage. My face burned at the old-school display of misogyny, and I had the sudden urge to expedite the gender-neutral “O Canada.” Instead, I steadied my mind for my performance. In my pantsuit and shorn hair, I walked out calmly and sang “O Canada” from the bottom of my Canadian Portuguese heart. The arena erupted as Tony and I left the court, and we were showered with praise from peers and friends. After the game, I ended up at a friend’s 40th birthday party and stayed past 3 a.m.
On my way home, I checked Twitter and noticed my name was trending. Tens of thousands of tweets from strangers poured into my feed: words of hostility, praise, ignorance, kindness, and nothing in between. Annoyed and tired, I went home to bed, but woke up the next morning trying to make sense of the frenzy. I noticed that a semi-famous male sportscaster had sent out a sexist and mental-health marginalizing tweet which started the windfall. In his tweet, he wondered if I was having a “breakdown” and said that it was the “worst anthem he had ever heard.” I was mortified and angry—until it got worse. As I read the feed, I realized that my performance had become some kind of lightning rod. 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:
@NellyFurtado GO BACK TO PORTUGAL
The words stung like salt.
When I read this hateful tweet, I realized that my “Child of Immigrants Citizenship” was somehow less Canadian.
I relied on grace, resisted the urge for rebuttal, and posted a simple note thanking the NBA and Tony Duncan for helping me represent our home “on native land.” Deep down, I 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, I was at Canadian Music Week, minutes away from receiving the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Award. My manager Rose handed me an envelope, and my eyes froze on the sender’s address: Kiwetin School, Timiskaming First Nation, Notre Dame du Nord, Quebec.
Inside 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. 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.
Dear Nelly and Tony,
Some people are not kind and some people are kind! I hope you feel better!
I broke into tears of relief and promised myself and my daughter that I would visit those students and thank them in person. My manager discreetly contacted the school principal to set aside a date. 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 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.
I sang a few of my songs while Tony danced and played flute, and Sean played guitar. Tony shared some stories and songs and got us all dancing a traditional friendship dance together, hand in hand. We took questions and played a game of basketball. We shared a warmth and joy that cannot be found behind the coldness of a screen or hardness of a keypad. We connected.
The greatest moment 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.
Today, one year later, I thank the people who used their social media megaphones to send vitriol my way. Thanks to them, I made some new friends IRL at Timiskaming First Nation, who reminded me that IRL connections are the only ones that matter.
Xenophobia, which is rooted in ignorance, has an enemy called love, which is truly intelligent. This experience galvanized my belief that compassion lives inside each and every one of us. “GO BACK TO PORTUGAL” hit me where it hurt. It spiraled me right back to my kindergarten playground where I was the only ethnic minority in my entire class. I never thought that a few wise, beautiful children at another playground some 30 years later would end up healing that wound completely.
Nelly Furtado is a Canadian-born singer, songwriter, actress, philanthropist, and Grammy-Award winning superstar. Her new album, The Ride, will be released March 31. Listen to “Flatline,” out today.