by NICK BUCHANAN
Protesters lined East 21st and Prospect outside of Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center on the night of Sept. 10, unaffected by the rain in their makeshift garbage bag ponchos.
“THIS IS MURDER,” one of them equipped with a megaphone yelled as a few of her comrades chanted in the distance. Others stood idly, leaned against concrete posts with their body-length poster boards on sticks and a stack of wet pamphlets on their agenda.
Most of us paid them no mind as we headed into the arena for All Access 2016, a free live entertainment event headlined by pop singer-songwriter Sia meant to raise advocacy for a bold cause that unsurprisingly drew all of the protesters: the demand for equal access to abortion
Once inside, we were met with a much more peaceful environment: smiling college-aged kids already donning free “This is what an abortion access supporter looks like” tee-shirts, a statuesque drag queen dressed as Sia, and most importantly, lines of booths from all of the All Access coalition agencies. The likes of Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, and Women’s Whole Health provided literature, insight, and support.
After my friend and I perused the booths and took our seats, I took a look at the demographic surrounding me in the arena as the lights dimmed for the show. Seats were filled predominately by women – mothers with their young daughters and college-aged gaggles of friends – but a good handful of enthusiastic gay men and reluctant, already bored boyfriends were scattered throughout.
Truth be told, I was afraid that the promise of a free concert would attract more super fans than abortion access advocates. Admittedly, although I researched the event and was glad to support the cause, Sia was my primary drive to go. However, as I looked at the people around me and the first speaker of the night stepped on stage, I realized it was much more than a concert.
A young woman dressed in black took the stage, telling us her story: her name was MJ Flores, a young woman who had been in a steady relationship and working in Kenya, where abortion is criminalized. When her contraceptive failed, she jumped through hurdles to make it back to the United States in time to have an abortion before she carried her pregnancy too far into its term. She was one day away from being too far along, and her state’s mandatory one-day waiting period almost put her in jeopardy.
“While abortion is legal in the United States, it sure doesn’t feel that way,” she said.
Between featured guest performances from Grammy and Latin Grammy winner Natalia Lafourcade, whose performance was broadcast from Mexico City due to an illness, and singer-dancer Teyana Taylor (of Kanye West’s “Fade” video fame) that followed, more women who have had abortions were brought to the stage to tell their stories and spread awareness on the barriers to the procedure.
Main touchstones of the women’s presentations included religious influences on legislation, the situation of abortion clinics in only metropolitan areas, the ban on Medicaid coverage for abortions, crisis pregnancy centers that disguise themselves as abortion clinics, parental consent for minors to abort a pregnancy, and state-level restrictions on abortion.
According to the night’s emcee, former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams, 70 percent of voters support abortion. (It's important to note, however, that the Pew Research Center lists that statistic as 56 percent of all voters – 70 percent of Democratic voters.) Even still, she stated 87 percent of counties in the United States do not have nearby abortion clinics – a statistic that jumps to 97 percent in some rural areas.
For example, the National Abortion Federation lists the clinic nearest to Tiffin that offers abortion services to be in Cleveland – nearly two hours and 100 miles away. Moreover, current Ohio state legislation requires a 24 hour waiting period, meaning that a woman must visit a clinic once for a consultation and counseling session, wait one day, and then go back to have an abortion performed.
Williams continued, saying that one in four low-income women who want an abortion cannot afford one due to the lack of Medicaid coverage. Such women know that carrying an unexpected pregnancy full-term would mean bringing a child into a world of poverty, yet they have no other options.
In Ohio, latest reports show that poverty levels have reached 23 percent of all children below the age of 12 – and 45.4 percent of female single-parent households.
TED Talk presenter and former Nevada politician Lucy Flores, the true keynote speaker of the night, attributed her current success to her decision to have an abortion in her poverty-struck teen years. A juvenile delinquent in a single-parent household of 13 children, she was involved in gangs and dropped out of high school. After she became pregnant at 16, she chose to have an abortion and to make a change for the better under the guidance of an influential parole officer.
“I don’t regret it,” she said. “I’ll say it again: I don’t regret having an abortion.”
Since then, she received her GED, earned bachelor’s and juris doctorate degrees, and became a representative in the Nevada Assembly for the same district in which she was once incarcerated as a teen. Today, she is an advocate for comprehensive sex education to prevent teen pregnancies.
As for the biggest names of the night, Saturday Night Live comedienne Leslie Jones and Sia brought the atmosphere from introspective to celebrative.
Jones’ appearance came in the wake of a few turbulent months: in July, a widespread racist tirade was deployed against her on Twitter, and just a month later, her personal website was hacked and its contents were replaced with Jones’ nude photographs, scans of her passport and driver’s license, and a video tribute to Harambe, the infamous gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this year.
Even still, she delivered a short but wildly successful set in high spirits that included material about how she once swung her fake ponytail off in front of the late Prince in an effort to seduce him at a club, how much white people love her, and how much she despises the irreversible consequences of brash text messages sent amid a fight. She even made mention to her latest attack, cracking a quick joke about her leaked nude photographs.
While Jones was given rightful standing ovations before and after her set, it was Sia who had the crowd on their feet throughout her time on the stage. Although she is woman of few words, doing no more than giggling into the microphone between songs and thanking the audience at the end of her set, Sia knows how to impress a crowd – most people were screaming in anticipation before the first beats of “Cheap Thrills” hit the speakers.
Her portion of the show, a six-song set, was quintessential post-2013 Sia: she stood in the back corner of her own stage with her face buried under an overgrown bobbed wig as a cast of dancers (also in the wigs, sans the giant bow that Sia donned, and in one case, in rabbit and panda masks) recreated choreographed films that played on each side of the stage. From my seat, I saw no more than part of her oversized bow for a good part of the show thanks to an ill-placed banner.
But by no means did her lack of physical presence equate to it being any less of a Sia show. Spare the performance of “Unstoppable,” when her voice was drowned in an extra stem of horns in need of some equalization, her voice was front and center – especially during “Bird Set Free,” as her voice cracked like a worn record under her projection, and a stripped rendition of her David Guetta collaboration “Titanium,” which ended with a sustained note to end all sustained notes.
And with Sia’s last utter of “I’m just holding on for tonight” at the end of her closing number (her mainstream solo breakthrough, “Chandelier”), those who came just for the concert realized that they had gotten what they came for. But those of us who came for the concert with an open mind for a bit of education? We received even more than expected that night.