Danny Brown's concerts in Toronto and Montreal this week were the most highly-anticipated rap shows in recent memory, and not just because of his fantastic new album, Old. After being turned away at the border yet again for the first Canadian section of the 2 High 2 Die tour with Action Bronson in Calgary last month, nobody could say whether he'd ever make it over the border ever again. Least of all, him:
Sorry Canada .. I tried
— Danny Brown (@XDannyXBrownX) September 10, 2013
That's so fucked up ... Did all this paperwork .. Paid all this money and still got denied .. I'm so sorry — Danny Brown (@XDannyXBrownX) September 10, 2013
I know I'm not trying again .. It's a wrap on Canada bruh bruh — Danny Brown (@XDannyXBrownX) September 10, 2013
My past continues to haunt me
— Danny Brown (@XDannyXBrownX) September 10, 2013
So what changed between Calgary and Toronto to finally allow Brown to enter the country? Sure, the name of this particular tour probably didn't help when talking to border officials – not to mention Brown's age-old drug convictions - but other performers have overcome prior criminal records and hard-partying images to play in Canada. So what exactly is the secret? Well, it really is a secret.
When we reached out to Embrace (the promoters of the Toronto show) last week they were very reticent to discuss the details of what was involved. It was only after Brown had safely made it into the country and performed his Toronto show for them to pass us off to Andrew Pupolin of the booking agency Substance Group, who offered only three words of explanation: “very good lawyers.”
Booking agents and promoters not involved in this particular show were equally cautious about discussing the subject. That’s partly because they don't want to jinx their good relationships with immigration officials, but also because their ability to navigate the process is what separates them from the smaller players in the live music industry. When it comes to artists with criminal records, getting them into Canada isn't simple, and it definitely isn't something you want to attempt without some professionals helping out. Lawyers may be expensive, but it’s better to pay those fees now than be denied entry later.
“I've been touring artists in Canada for about 18 years, but when it comes to artists with serious criminal issues, I still always hire a lawyer to assist with the process,” admits Chris McKee, booking agent for artists such as Akon and the Roots. “I think it adds legitimacy to the artist in the eyes of whoever makes the decision to allow them entry. It also shows due diligence on behalf of the artist that they are trying to make some sort of effort to disclose what their past indiscretions are through their attorney, and that they're making an attempt to not enter Canada under false terms." Full disclosure is important; McKee had G-Unit’s Young Buck turned away in 2007 because he packed more people onto his bus than were on his permit.
While fans tend to blame border guards when musicians are blocked from performing, or in some cases lash out against the local promoter, often the artists themselves are to blame. According to Jeff Cohen of Collective Concerts, the most common reasons for artists getting denied are concealed criminal convictions or missing passports.
“Usually the main reasons for being turned back relate to something in the artist’s or their entourage’s past that they have been hiding that gets discovered by the border officials,” explains Jacob Smid, VP of Talent and Marketing at Live Nation. “But often what happens is the crime is a misdemeanor in the US but a felony in Canada, which causes a wide set of problems from preparation to resolution.”
Even when the promoters and booking agents have finessed every detail and double-checked every bit of paperwork, artists themselves can still find ways to sabotage it all at the last minute. While border guards do ultimately have the power to turn a performer away (even if all paperwork is in order) at that point there are still options for musicians, although not all of them may be aware of them.
“If the border guard has a problem with someone and their criminal conviction, then that person can request to see the shift supervisor and ask for a 'discretionary entry,' which costs $200,” says independent rock promoter Dan Burke. “Refusal of entry doesn't necessarily mean a continual refusal. You just try again, and have everything in order.”
And though they rarely do it (and even then, usually only once), border officials can offer a special “Minister’s Permit” to allow someone with a criminal record to enter Canada on a single occasion (with a warning to get it resolved before the next visit). It often comes down to how much money the artist will generate for the Canadian economy, which favours big-name rappers over underdogs like Danny Brown. It also favours big promoters and booking agents; independents don’t necessarily have the money or experience for paperwork or lawyer fees.
“When it comes to hip-hop in Toronto, if it’s not Union Events, Embrace or Substance Group promoting the show, I wouldn't even buy a ticket until the artist uploads of a picture of themselves actually in Canada,” says McKee.
And like all most things in life, a little charm can go a long way. After getting Wu Tang's Ghostface Killah in after 15 years of denied entry in 2011, McKee can attest to that.
“I actually drove to the Peace Bridge to meet Ghostface and his management with some documentation one week in advance of his tour starting to make sure there would be no issues when him and his full entourage came through,” he recalls. “Ghost was really friendly to all the border officials, and in return they couldn't have been more friendly to us.”
Still, as careful as the industry is about pointing the finger at border guards when it comes to artists being denied entry, it's unsettling how much more trouble rappers seem to have crossing into Canada compared to other musicians. Promoters who deal primarily with white rock bands had few complaints about the system, while most of the industry players who deal with hip-hop and electronic music were unwilling to speak on the record about the issue at all.
“Well, you rarely hear stories of rock or jazz acts being turned away,” agrees McKee. “Vince Neil has a previous conviction for killing a man while he was drunk driving, and has been in prison numerous times since then. Yet Mötley Crüe tours in Canada often, and you never hear of any issues of them being turned away and concert dates being cancelled."
"How many DUI's, drug possessions or domestic assaults have been accumulated by members of your favourite rock band? Ever hear a story of a well-known rock band being turned away?”