The documentary Racing Extinction, directed by Louie Psihoyos – whose previous film The Cove, which investigated Japanese dolphin hunting, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010 – looks at the ongoing mass extinction of species at the hands of human beings, considering global warming and the acidification of the seas as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, the illegal wildlife trade and examples of overfishing, the spread of disease, and the efforts of scientists, photographers, and activists to raise awareness and protect the endangered. Racing Extinction premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and after a limited release in theatres was broadcast worldwide on The Discovery Channel last 2 December.
Part of the film involves an investigation into the shark fin and manta ray gill trades in Honk Kong and mainland China, which implicates their use in Chinese traditional medicines. In March 2013, after the 16th Conference of the Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), five shark species and all manta rays were included in the CITES Appendix II list of protected species. Racing Extinction views particularly how this protection helped to transform the Indonesian village of Lamakera, which was previously considered the world’s largest manta fishing site.
The lead single from the Racing Extinction soundtrack was called ‘Manta Ray’, a song composed by J. Ralph and Anohni and performed by Anohni. It was inspired by the mating call of the final male Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a bird endemic to the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i which was last heard in 1987 and has since been declared extinct. Ralph noted of the mating call, ‘He’s singing for a female that would never come. They mate for life and so it was incredibly harrowing to see this bird singing this song fully unaware that he’s the last of his species’.
After devising the melody of ‘Manta Ray’, Ralph called Anohni, saying ‘If I had one voice to represent the fate of humanity, it would be you’. The result of their collaboration was nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song. But today – after ‘Manta Ray’ and ‘Simple Song #3’, from the film Youth by composer David Lang and South Korean soprano Sumi Jo, were both cut from the performance schedule – Anohni published an open letter on her Facebook page explaining why she will not be attending this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony:
‘WHY I AM NOT ATTENDING THE ACADEMY AWARDS
by Anohni, Oscar Nominee for best song (“Manta Ray” with composer J. Ralph)
I am the only transgendered performer ever to have been nominated for an Academy Award, and for that I thank the artists who nominated me. (There was a trans songwriter nominee named Angela Morley in the early 70’s who did some great work behind the scenes.) I was in Asia when I found out the news. I rushed home to prepare something, in case the music nominees would be asked to perform. Everyone was calling with excited congratulations. A week later, Sam Smith, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd were rolled out as the evening’s entertainment with more performers “soon to be announced”. Confused, I sat and waited. Would someone be in touch? But as time bore on I heard nothing. I was besieged with people asking me if I was going to perform.
My anxiety increased as weeks passed. I slowly realized that the positive implication of this nomination was being retracted. The producers seemed to have decided to stage performances only by the singers who were deemed commercially viable. Composer David Lang’s song “Simple Song #3” performed by South Korean soprano Sumi Jo was also omitted.
It was degrading to watch the articles in Variety, The Daily Telegraph, Pitchfork, Stereogum, etc. start to appear. Eclipsing earlier notices of congratulations, now the papers were naming me as one of two artists to have been “cut” by the Academy due to “time constraints”. In the next sentence it was announced that Dave Grohl, not nominated in any category, had been added to the list of performers.
Everyone told me that I still ought to attend, that a walk down the red carpet would still be “good for my career”.
Last night I tried to force myself to get on the plane to fly to LA for all the nominee events, but the feelings of embarrassment and anger knocked me back, and I couldn’t get on the plane. I imagined how it would feel for me to sit amongst all those Hollywood stars, some of the brave ones approaching me with sad faces and condolences. There I was, feeling a sting of shame that reminded me of America’s earliest affirmations of my inadequacy as a transperson. I turned around at the airport and went back home.
As if to rub salt into the wound, the next morning the Oscars added that I was transgendered to the trivia page of their website.
I want to be clear — I know that I wasn’t excluded from the performance directly because I am transgendered. I was not invited to perform because I am relatively unknown in the U.S., singing a song about ecocide, and that might not sell advertising space. It is not me that is picking the performers for the night, and I know that I don’t have an automatic right to be asked.
But if you trace the trail of breadcrumbs, the deeper truth of it is impossible to ignore. Like global warming, it is not one isolated event, but a series of events that occur over years to create a system that has sought to undermine me, at first as a feminine child, and later as an androgynous transwoman. It is a system of social oppression and diminished opportunities for transpeople that has been employed by capitalism in the US to crush our dreams and our collective spirit.
I was told during my 20s and 30s there was no chance that someone like me could have a career in music, and this perspective was reiterated by so many industry “professionals” and media outlets that I lost count. I almost gave up. Thankfully, fellow artists like Lou Reed advocated for me so intensely that I got a foothold despite the worst intentions of others. In that sense, I am one of the luckiest people in the world.
I enjoy that wild and reckless exhilaration that comes from naming my truth as best as I can; it is what Nina Simone might have called a “boon”. The truth is that I was not groomed for stardom and watered down for your enjoyment. As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream. I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy.
At the age of 35 I was awarded the UK’s Mercury Prize. All the nominees were invited to perform that night. They lifted me from obscurity and celebrated me, setting off a chain of events that changed my life forever.
Now ten years later, I have sung for millions of people in some of the most beautiful theaters in the world, from the Royal Opera House in London to a tiny shed full of Aboriginal women elders in the Western Australian desert. I have accomplished so many of my dreams. I have collaborated with musicians and artists whom I deeply respect. I have held space for feminism, eco-consciousness, and trans advocacy for 2 decades. I have been afforded a platform to participate in the cultural conversation.
I brought my earnings from around the world home to New York City and paid my taxes. That money was spent by the U.S. government on Guantanamo Bay, drone bombs, surveillance, capital punishment, prisons for whistleblowers, corporate subsidies and bank bailouts.
In the United States it is all about money: those who have it and those who don’t. Identity politics are often used as a smokescreen to distract us from this viral culture of wealth extraction. When we are not extracting wealth from nature, we are extracting it from the working and middle classes.
So I have decided not to attend the Academy Awards this election year. I will not be lulled into submission with a few more well manufactured, feel-good ballads and a bit of good old fashioned T. and A. They are going to try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart by waving flags for identity politics and fake moral issues. But don’t forget that many of these celebrities are the trophies of billionaire corporations whose only intention it is to manipulate you into giving them your consent and the last of your money. They have been paid to do a little tap dance to occupy you while Rome burns. These are the last days of a great American fake-out sponsored by Exxon Mobile, Walmart, Amazon, Google and Phillip Morris. America, a country that is no longer contained by physical borders, aspires only for more power and control. I want to maximize my usefulness and advocate for the preservation of biodiversity and the pursuit of human decency within my sphere of influence.’
Last November, Anohni previewed the first track from her upcoming album Hopelessness. A protest song, the release of ‘4 Degrees’ was timed to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, which concluded with world leaders agreeing steps to halt the rise in global temperatures to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels.