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At tribute to Liberty Medal honoree Malala, a song unsung

When Malala Yousafzai accepted the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center last week, one thing was missing from the ceremony:

From left: Alura Potamkin, Malala Yousafzai and Ayla Potamkin at the Liberty Medal ceremony.
From left: Alura Potamkin, Malala Yousafzai and Ayla Potamkin at the Liberty Medal ceremony.Read more

When Malala Yousafzai accepted the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center last week, one thing was missing from the ceremony:

A scheduled videotape performance by 14-year-old pop singer Ayla Potamkin, a Colorado girl with deep Philadelphia roots, who wrote a song to honor the 17-year-old Pakistani human-rights activist.

Advisers to Yousafzai, people familiar with the matter said, insisted that the song be struck from the event, telling Constitution Center officials that its ardently pro-America theme was offensive and insensitive to other nations.

"It was unfortunate," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, vice chairman of the center's board of trustees. "And I think it broke Ayla's heart."

He said Yousafzai - known to the world as just Malala - did not take part in the discussions. The talks occurred between her representatives and the center staff.

Efforts to contact Eason Jordan, a spokesman for the Malala Fund, were unsuccessful Tuesday. The foundation led by Malala focuses on helping girls go to school and speak up for their right to an education.

Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the Constitution Center, said excising the song, titled "America," was "absolutely" the right decision, given the objections of Yousafzai's representatives.

"The whole point of the ceremony is to honor her in a way she felt comfortable with," he said, adding that he did not find the song troubling. "We just learned from her team that they objected, and respected their wishes."

Rosen called interest in the song's cancellation "a nonstory" and "a tempest in a teapot."

The song is an Avril Lavigne-style power ballad with lyrics that describe the singer's good fortune to have been born in this country. One verse reads:

There but for the grace of God go I

When you risk your life - just to speak your mind

Yet I'm safe and it matters what I say

Here in the USA

The chorus goes:

I'm so lucky to live in America

I'm so lucky to live where I can make a change

I'm so lucky to live in America

Where the hope is free, where the kids are safe

Where I can just be me

Few people beyond Constitution Center circles were aware of the tension over the video, with its images of waving American flags and the Statue of Liberty.

But some familiar with the circumstances questioned how an institution devoted to the U.S. Constitution would allow a paean to America to be excised from its own ceremony - held in view of Independence Hall, in the city known as the cradle of liberty. Among its efforts, the center trumpets freedom of speech as a hallmark of the Constitution.

Elliott Curson, who created the music video, said he was appalled.

The president of Elliott Curson Advertising said that at first, center vice president Lesley Albanese was pleased with the film.

She shared chief operating officer Vince Stango's planned introduction of the video, during which he was to say that "one up-and-coming young performer was so moved by Malala's story that she wrote an original song in her honor."

The day of the ceremony, Curson said, Albanese asked him to recut the video, shorten it, and remove all photos of Malala. Also cut was a picture of an American soldier. After that, Curson believed the matter was settled.

Later the same day, he said, Albanese told him the video was "offensive, insensitive, politically incorrect, and made it feel like America is the only place to be."

Curson said he was stunned and told her, "This is the Constitution Center - this is what you're all about. You're 'We The People.' "

Efforts to reach Albanese were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Rosen rejected any criticism that the center shrank from its mission, saying, "We celebrate America every day at the Constitution Center, in every way."

Potamkin - in music she uses only her first name, Ayla - said in an interview before the ceremony that she was excited for Malala to hear her song.

"She's the one I did it for, mostly," she said from her home in Aspen, Colo., where she is a high school freshman. "She's someone who stands up for what she believes in."

This week, her father, the auto magnate Robert Potamkin, declined to comment on the song's removal or make his daughter available to answer questions.

He issued a statement saying "Malala is Ayla's hero," and that the video was not played "due to circumstances beyond our control."

For decades in Philadelphia, the Potamkin name was synonymous with auto sales, made familiar through vast advertising for what remains one of the nation's largest dealerships.

On Oct. 21, about 1,400 people gathered under a white tent at the Constitution Center to see Yousafzai accept the Liberty Medal, given annually to honor courageous men and women "who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe."

Malala was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman in 2012 because she worked to see that girls as well as boys get an education. Since recovering in England, she has become an international force for education and girls' rights.

A little more than a week before the Liberty Medal ceremony, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, a girl who refused to be denied an education and nearly paid for it with her life.

Ayla's performance of "America" was listed in the official Liberty Medal brochure as the evening's third event, the video to be shown on the giant screen on stage. It was never played.

By the time Malala received the gold medal, draping its red, white, and blue ribbon around her neck, many of the 20 members of the Potamkin party had already departed, upset by the course of events.

Malala took the stage to rock-star-level applause, calling for money to be spent on books, not guns, and saying she was speaking up for children caught in crises in places like India, Syria, Nigeria, and Gaza. She said she would donate the medal's $100,000 prize to improving education and support for Pakistani children.

"I thank the people, and especially the children of Philadelphia, for their warm welcome and their love and support," she said.

Touching a hand to her heart, she smiled appreciatively on a stage that included Susan Corbett, the governor's wife, and Mayor Nutter and his daughter, Olivia.

The Potamkin family learned that the song had been scratched about 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the ceremony. Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague said he was standing beside Robert Potamkin, a friend, when Rendell broke the news.

He said both men pressed for an explanation, and Rendell told them, "They say it's offensive - it's offensive to the whole world."

Sprague said it was impossible to square the Constitution Center's commitment to teaching free speech with its decision to pull the video.

"The Constitution Center, it's there to support and praise our history and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," he said. "Accepting a statement that we're not going to permit a song because it's offensive and praises America - that goes against everything that center should stand for."

In an interview, Rendell described how the song was selected and ultimately abandoned.

About a month before the ceremony, he said, he met with Robert Potamkin, who played a tape of his daughter's song and shared the lyrics. Rendell thought that the song was lovely and that the generational connection between writer and subject was powerful.

"A terrific thing to add to the ceremony," he said.

He put Potamkin in touch with Rosen, and the song became part of the event.

At some point before the medal presentation, the song was played for Malala's representatives, and they didn't like it.

"They thought it was offensive and insensitive," Rendell said.

The video was recut to remove all pictures of Malala in an effort to make it acceptable, he said. When Rendell arrived at the center for its board meeting on the day of the ceremony, "I found out they were still insisting this not be played."

Rendell had the center send Malala's advisers a copy of a recent Inquirer story on Ayla and the planned performance of the song, and alerted them that reporters were sure to inquire if the song vanished.

"I told them, somebody will get onto this, and it will be a story nobody needs," he said. "They still were adamant."

In retrospect, he said, he could understand the view of Malala's advisers that the lyrics could be viewed by some as politically insensitive.

"It wasn't meant that way. It was clearly meant as a tribute to Malala," he said. "I didn't listen carefully enough to figure out that though the song praised Malala, the parts about 'I love the USA' [could] be interpreted to say other countries in the world are less good or have less freedom."

Ayla was able to meet Malala before the ceremony and to be photographed with her. The singer's videotaped greetings to Malala were shown to the crowd with those of about 20 other people.

Rendell said that as a guest, Malala probably had a right to express thoughts on what should be in the ceremony.

"I believe the fault for this probably lies with me, because I'm the one most attuned politically," Rendell said. "Certainly not on the Potamkins. Not on Malala. . . . I should have caught this from the beginning."