“Pulling a Kanye” at the Oscars?

By Amy Gibson

I like watching the Academy Awards as well as anybody. There’s the glamour of the Red Carpet, the Oscar predictions about “Who Should” and “Who Will” win, and the wild unpredictability of live television. This year’s telecast did not disappoint.

When Music by Prudence won the Oscar for Documentary Short Film, a woman “pulled a Kanye” – rushing onstage, grabbing the microphone from Director Roger Ross Williams and launching into a speech of her own.

I was horrified. This was the only Oscar award I actually cared about. I had heard Prudence sing last January when DMA helped bring the band Liyana to Stanford University. In 2009, through its partnership with The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, the Digital Media Academy hosted and sponsored a Liyana concert at the Stanford Bookstore.  I found both their music and their story uplifting. I hoped this Oscar nomination would draw attention to Liyana and the plight of the disabled in developing countries. Instead, Liyana’s 45 seconds in the spotlight was hijacked by an unidentified woman in purple.

Liyana is a musical group from Zimbabwe that started as a class project. Each member of the band faces extreme physical challenges. They met at the King George VI School & Center for Children with Disabilities in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. King George is a haven for disabled youth in a country where disability is misunderstood and despised. The school’s life-changing work is funded largely by donations from abroad.

The HBO documentary chose to focus on lead singer, Prudence, the only female band member. But each member of the band – Marvelous, Tapiwa, Farai, Energy, Honest, Vusani, and Goodwell – has an inspiring story. Each has overcome discrimination. Each testifies to the beauty of the human spirit. Each proves that giftedness defies disability.

Liyana means “it’s raining.” According to Williams, in Zimbabwe, rain is considered a gift from God. When the band is on stage, they’re “raining,” sharing that gift with the world.

By now, much has been written about the woman who stormed the stage. No doubt there are two sides to every story, and this story is a colorful one. Elinor Burkett is the film’s co-producer. She says she came across Liyana in Zimbabwe and introduced Director Roger Williams to the project. They later had a falling out over creative direction of the film.

She takes umbrage at the reference to Kanye West, saying her name was called as an Oscar recipient, and she felt entitled to speak. She claimed the director’s mother tried to impede her progress to the stage with her cane. Burkett has adamantly defended her actions, explaining that she only stepped in when the director failed to properly acknowledge the subjects of the film.

Ironically, it was her rudeness, rather than her speech, that has drawn attention to the band. This unfortunate producer-squabble-gone-public has become a blessing in disguise.

Roger Ross Williams was given a chance to repeat his acceptance speech on Larry King Live. Exposure for the film has increased exponentially. Many more people will now tune in to the May 12 debut of Music by Prudence debut on HBO2.

So here’s to Academy Awards show drama. Bring on the cane-blocking and microphone-grabbing antics. May the hubbub draw greater attention to Liyana and bring an outpouring of support for the King George VI School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.