A Cause Worth Fighting For: 97 ensemble
Trigger warning of sexual harassment In a world where the perception of classical musicians is one of not rocking the boat, following the rules and uniformity: the daring statement of using a political issue as the focus of a classical ensemble can feel like a completely radical idea. But is it? Art has been used throughout the centuries as a way to push back against the social injustices that continue to erode our world. Whether Ethel Smyth with her March of the Women or Sibelius and his unofficial anthem of Finnish independence , Finlandia, music has always reflected the issues of the times. With so much to be angry about in the current world, it's no surprise musicians are once again turning to the political with fresh ardour. It's been hard not to notice or be affected by the headlines. Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and more recently Ashling Murphy are three of the countless women who have suffered unimaginable pains at the hands of male violence. But on the day-to-day side of the issue, women are experiencing harassment at a level that is increasing yearly. Spontaneously rearranging a route home to lose the person following you home, or sitting there in silence, facing forward to ignore unwanted advances on the tube, to wearing that skirt you've always loved as far as the front door before that nagging feeling of "am I asking for it" causes you to go upstairs and put jeans on. We all know these feelings. We've grown up with tricks and external precautions but now a new group on the music scene are screaming, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH"!
97 Ensemble is a brand new group with no intention of shying away from the important conversations. When the UN Women UK released their findings that 97% of women aged 18-24 experience sexual harassment in the UK, founder Niki Moosavi knew she could no longer sit back. She had to do something through the medium she knows best, music.
What inspired you to create the 97 Ensemble?
I was glad that the RCMSU talk was happening. I was glad that we were talking about the awful news surrounding us and not just pretending like everything was okay. Students at the talk opened up about their own experiences and it sadly seemed that many people had experiences to share. I left the meeting suddenly knowing very personal information about people I barely knew anything about. I didn’t know how to feel about that. Afterwards, I reflected on the 97% statistic. We’ve just exposed very personal information of about 2.7 million* women in the UK. Or is it not such a big deal if 97% of us are experiencing it? 97% seems like it's just something young women should accept as part of life, right? It’s never really a good time to be a woman living in the patriarchy, but March 2021 was a particularly rough time. I felt very down when I’d think about it. My sadness eventually turned into anger. How can we just accept that 97% of women aged 18-24 experience sexual harassment?! I decided to channel my anger into something productive, so I created 97 Ensemble to make noise through music.
*Taking data from the 2018 Office for National Statistics population graph, 97% of women aged 18-24 makes 2,692,872 women.
As you've said, your name is derived from the shuddering statistic that 97% of women aged 18-24 experience sexual harassment in the UK. It's a really important cause, but why was that the focus for you and how have you made it relate to the music you play? As a woman aged 18-24, I’m not too happy about that statistic. Without giving anything away, there’s a 97% chance that I have experienced sexual harassment and that this statistic affects me. 97 Ensemble champions works by underrepresented composers, but we are particularly focusing on female composers. Whilst I think we need to be aware of the facts on violence against women, we also need to be aware of the accomplishments of women. As a woman, it can get really draining to constantly be told that I’m likely to experience sexual violence and to be reminded that, at the end of the day, I am 5ft2 and not in the best position to physically defend myself against a man (generally speaking). We need to shout about women’s achievements despite the odds being against us, so I want 97 Ensemble to perform works by female composers to send the message that we can do what you do. You support Solace Women's Aid, an incredibly important charity supporting women and children in London to build safe lives and strong futures. Can you tell us a bit more about that relationship and how it came to be? In June 2021, Solace Women’s Aid reported that they had seen calls to their free advice line more than double, with a 117% rise in callers since before the pandemic. As a result, they were overwhelmed and had to create long waiting lists. I felt very frustrated by this and whilst I knew it wasn’t their fault, I couldn’t help but think ‘how is this a problem in London’? A world-leading city where you can tap a button on your phone and get organic hummus delivered to you in less than 15 minutes, yet women can’t get help on life-threatening issues? I got in touch with Solace about 97 Ensemble and asked if we could partner. A charity isn’t going to say no to you raising money for them! I wanted to do bit more than raise money and have been able to establish a relationship with Solace to allow us to give performances at their centres for their service users. That is something unique to 97 Ensemble and it’s my favourite thing about us.
It's no secret that the music industry has a troubled past with making women feel safe. What more do you think needs to be done, especially in music colleges to educate people about this issue? Violence against women is an issue anywhere, but it’s particularly bad at universities and colleges. It’s no coincidence that the percentage for women at a student age experiencing sexual harassment is 97%, yet it is 71% for all age groups. There is a vile culture at universities of older male students poaching first year female student’s who have just turned 18. Universities know it’s an issue.
I call upon music colleges to have compulsory consent talks. I mean it when I say compulsory. If it was compulsory for me to attend all the other talks in Fresher’s week, I don’t see why we can’t add this one that affects so many students. At St. Andrew’s University, students cannot complete their matriculation before completing consent training. At SOAS University, students cannot complete their registration without attending a consent talk. Even at New York University in Abu Dhabi where the topic of harassment is extremely taboo, students must attend 2 consent workshops at points throughout their degree in order to graduate. It is possible. When asking for students at RCM for their support on my campaign to staff for a compulsory consent talk, I had a student kindly message me to remind me that it is the Royal College of Music and I should focus more on music. But, I do think it is possible to have an hour of your 4-year degree taken up to be educated on consent and still have time to focus on music.
What are your plans for 97 Ensemble as you go forward? We have our debut concert on March 12th!!! We’re excited to be performing works by Erollyn Wallen and Ethel Smyth at our debut concert at St. James’s Church Sussex Gardens and to be fundraising for Solace Women’s Aid. In addition to our debut concert, we’re currently liaising with Solace Women’s Aid to give performances at their centres for their service users, which I’m really excited about. We’ve got more concerts coming soon so watch this space and save the date for July 3rd!
What is your advice for musicians, who have a cause that they want to speak out about through their music but aren't sure where to start? Pick a cause that you are really passionate about. Talk to other people you know also care about the cause and go from there! It’s difficult to do alone, especially if the cause is a sensitive topic that may also affect you. I’m very thankful to Rachele Howes, Annabel Kennedy, Lucia Polo Moreno and Emma Edwards for being there when I first thought of 97 Ensemble and helping me make sense of my idea. I’m indebted to Diana Roberts for all her support that transformed 97 Ensemble from an idea in my head to what it is today.
97 Ensemble will be making their debut on 12th March, 19:30 at St. James's Church. You can show them your support by following them on their website or social media. If you've been affected by anything we've discussed in today's article please reach out! I've attached some helpful links below but please reach out if you feel you can! You never have to deal with these situations and the feelings they create on your own!