This year’s Oscars were full of pointed criticism, awkward jokes, and Stacey Dash, but the most powerful moment came halfway through the show when Lady Gaga took the stage. Seated at a white piano, Gaga performed a heart-wrenching rendition of “Til It Happens To You,” the Oscar-nominated song she co-wrote with Diane Warren for The Hunting Ground, the 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses.
Introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, Gaga, who is herself a survivor of sexual assault, breathed deep and let loose and she sang lyrics like “Till it happens to you, you don’t know how I feel.” As she opened into the last two minutes of the song, a wall rose behind her and out walked 50 survivors of sexual assault. They wore plain clothes and bore messages like “Unbreakable” on their arms.
“It was an idea that the music supervisor Bonnie Greenberg, me, Lady Gaga, and Diane Warren all had,” The Hunting Ground producer Amy Ziering tells EW of the special guests. “Wouldn’t it be powerful if the survivors in the film performed?”
After about 22 people from the doc signed on and agreed to appear, Ziering, her team, the activist organization It’s On Us, and local allies assembled the final group of survivors who would appear on stage.
“I had never been surrounded by so many survivors before,” Kirat Sandhu, 21, a survivor of sexual assault and a student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, tells EW. She became involved with It’s On Us after she got to college and had been contacted by the organization Thursday. She flew out to Los Angeles the same day and the group began rehearsals Friday.
“We were with Gaga’s choreographer when she showed up to rehearse and we were just so surprised,” Sandhu says. “She pushed her production team aside and spoke to us. She told us we were not just bodies on a stage. We were there as a support system to her.”
The tremendous, emotional moment was felt inside the Dolby Theater and to millions worldwide as soon as they took the stage. “Right before we went on, Gaga came over and talked to us again,” Sandhu says. “It was her show but she made a point to say, ‘It’s our show.’ She wanted this to be something where we healed.”
Ziering, who sat in the theater next to Warren and Greenberg, says the audience was speechless. “People were sobbing. You could hear a pin drop. It was the only song that got a standing ovation.”
Sandhu says the group of survivors didn’t fully realize the impact the performance would have during rehearsals. It wasn’t until she stood on stage (with the words “Not Your Fault” written on her arm) that she realized what the message would mean to viewers. “So many survivors never come forward and the way society’s structured, it’s so hard to speak out. A lot of us were talking about the work we do on campuses and hoped to connect with each other about it after the show.”
The reaction was swift: Pop star Kesha tweeted her support and Brie Larson – who won an Oscar for her role as sexual assault survivor in Room – hugged every person as they came off the stage. Following the telecast, “Til It Happens To You” spiked in streams on Spotify – peaking between midnight ET and 1 a.m. ET, with 1,689 percent more streams than the same hour the day before, according to the streaming service.
For Sandhu and the rest of the survivors, the night didn’t end after the performance. Biden asked the group to stick around after the ceremony so he could meet each of them in person. “He made personal phone calls to people’s parents, called people’s friends,” says Sandhu. “When he got to me, we talked about why he’s involved with this fight and he said he wants to combat when power is in the wrong hands.”
Gaga may not have won the Oscar for Best Original Song – that honor went to Sam Smith’s Spectre theme, “Writing’s On The Wall” – but Ziering is confident the performance is another step forward in raising awareness about the problem of sexual assault.
“For an amazing moment the world actually had to focus on the reality and horror of rape in our society,” she says. “That’s not something we want to think about very long. For survivors to feel supported, believed and part of the community, validated – that’s huge.”