How Folk Music Can Help Survivors Of Sexual Violence

In the summer of 2012, I was finishing up my degree in Music Theatre at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and trying to answer one simple question with my thesis: What is folk opera? As a part of my investigation, I set out to write my own. And though it may seem unlikely, through my master's dissertation The Folkland, a digital art gallery dedicated to the works of sexual violence survivors and their loved ones, was born. 

My folk opera developed in the most organic way I can imagine. There was very little premeditation to my work because, after all, when I started writing it, I had yet to decide what exactly a “folk opera” should be. I began with a small collection of songs that I had written recently and in quick succession; I recognized a connection between these original four songs, but it was a through-line that, at the time, I couldn’t quite name.

As the rest of my research progressed — exploring the separate dialogues around “folk” and “opera” to find their point of intersection and surveying folk opera traditions from Ghana, Nigeria, Tibet, Hungary, and the U.S.A. — I arrived at a preliminary definition of “folk opera”: music drama as a living, social practice. In other words, what separates folk opera from other forms of music drama is its inherent social consciousness. I came to believe that the most authentic folk operas cannot be defined by sound but rather by the degree to which they become a social necessity, an organic part of everyday life, for the folk group that created them.

But with one question answered, another question appeared: Who would be the folk for my folk opera? 

One song in particular revealed my folk identity to me. “You Don’t Know the Night” was an unusual piece for me. I had certainly written very personal songs before, but few had ever been quite so bluntly autobiographical. Truthfully, the song just came out of me one night. I never intended to write it. “You Don’t Know the Night” was the first anything that I ever wrote from my experience as a survivor of sexual violence.

I remember telling my sister, in the early stages of writing the opera, that I didn’t want to write a “rape” play. Well, whatever I wanted to begin with, a survivor of sexual violence became the title character of The Girl from Bare Cove, and other survivors like me became my folk. Looking back on my resistance to the subject, I am forced to look back also upon my years of silence and shame. For years I convinced myself that what happened to me was a bad dream, a mis-remembrance, and I firmly believed that I would take the memories of this experience with me to my grave.

It was through writing this show and through finding my folk that I realized I was not alone in my silence. Survivors are systematically silenced everyday. We are made to feel ashamed, and we are forced to take on our attackers’ guilt. I realized that survivors of sexual violence have all that makings of a folk group: a shared history of marginalization and the potential to create a shared body of arts and artifacts out of our shared experience. For too long our silence has divided us. For too long the boundaries of space, fear, oppression, and social propriety have kept us from uniting, from forming a true folk community.

This is why I started The Folkland. With all of the power of the internet to bring people together, it is my hope to use my folk opera and to use The Folkland to initiate a grass-roots folk art movement and, in doing so, to create a real community for survivors. I started The Folkland because I wanted to break my silence. Because I wanted to create a space where survivors never have to feel ashamed. Because I wanted to help other survivors tell their stories in their own ways. Because I believe that our experiences have just as much power to bring us together as they do to keep us apart. You can read The Folkland’s mission statement here.

To all survivors, to anyone who loves a survivor, to anyone who has been intimately affected by an involuntary sexual act: I invite you to join me. I invite you to break your silence on your own terms and to claim your folk identity. I invite you to build a community with me. The Folkland wants to display your work. You can submit anonymously, pseudonymously, or in any way that you feel comfortable. You can submit a piece of macaroni art, a mural, a marble sculpture, a poem, a short film — whatever piece of art you have created from your experience we will accept.

This week the inaugural work from The Folkland — The Girl from Bare Cove — has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a small-scale concert production in New York City. In less than 48 hours, we have already raised 20% of our total goal.

To every reader of this story: Please share it. Please take a look at The Folkland and pass our message on. We are trying to build a grass-roots movement, and we are continuously working to get the word out. You can help by sharing our project with others via the internet, word of mouth, press articles, etc. We invite you to email us any and all of your ideas for how we can continue to grow and ways in which you think you could help.