What kind of racism cancelled the Awesome Tapes From Africa show in Toronto?

A DJ night celebrating African music was cancelled in Toronto following an outcry over the event's all-white lineup.

- Jan 24, 2014

Tonight at Toronto’s Double Double Land, a Kensington Market venue known for its eclectic and inclusive shows, the schedule used to list a DJ night with Awesome Tapes From Africa, the popular L.A.-based blog and record label which collects tapes by small-time musicians around Africa and uploads them to the Internet. Seeing the names of the four DJs listed, an invitee and DJ named Kirsten Azan asked “are any of the DJs actually African?” None of them, including Awesome Tapes From Africa founder, Brian Shimkovitz, were.

A comment thread over 200 posts deep quickly unfurled on the party’s Facebook event page, a sprawling discussion that degenerated from heated debate into overt racism. The event was cancelled Thursday morning, and by Thursday night the entire page was deleted (the screenshots are preserved at this Imgr page).

Before the page came down, the event’s organizer Daniel Vila posted a joint statement with the other scheduled DJs that they were “appalled by the racist, sexist and violent comments” and “decided to cancel the event, rather than imply any complicity with the repulsive statements that have been made.” A tenuously defined open forum was designated to replace it: “At some point in the coming weeks, DDL will host a community talk regarding these issues, as we all feel that face-to-face dialogue is more productive than the circular trajectory of Facebook threads.”

Visible, stomach-turning racism is easy for our generation to reject. It’s very much a problem, and merits shaming every time. But it can also distract. It worries me that stopping the show and replacing it with a vaguely defined think-tank allows white allies of marginalized communities and postcolonial cultures to continue to dodge questions of their own privilege, by tut-tutting someone else's clear and present bigotry.

The thread was home to vicious statements of prejudice masked in pseudo-intellectualism, but it also housed another kind of white supremacy, the one that lives in the hearts of the kind of people who join a dozen Facebook social justice groups and weep during 12 Years A Slave. The kind of white supremacy that leads to events like this in the first place.

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Vila’s statement claimed that the hosts, as DJs of global musics, were aware of the issues, but missed the one that drew the overt racism to the event page:

“One of the founding principles of the scene is to think about what it means to play Afrodiasporic musics in the light of centuries of racism, inequality, white privilege etc. How to balance the desire to share musics that otherwise go totally ignored both within hipster culture and the mainstream, with recognition of our own race and class positions, is an issue we think about a lot...”

A lot, but evidently not enough to invite Africans to an African music night. Perhaps that’s when a change of thinking is due.

Brian Shimkovitz. Sasquatch Festival described his tape collection as a “bounty.”

Questions of appropriation are shifty. Their contexts and intricacies are as mutable as the reasons white girls have for wearing bindis. Responsible cross-cultural celebrations are not impossible. I’ve been to and heard of responsible, diverse events starring nearly translucent selectors and audiences enjoying music from outside their cultures. But sometimes you’ll find yourself at a dancehall party on Queen Street, with a white non-Jamaican audience and DJs. The air of the safe space is thick with self-congratulation, and bodies course in time with the music and the cultural cache they’re building, as long as they’re seen enjoying the music.

I can't say what kind of event the Awesome Tapes show would have been, just how it presented itself. I emailed Brian Shimkovitz for his account of the genesis of the party. His response is excerpted below:

“The event was planned extremely last-minute and the lack of African or Canadian DJs of African descent was not intentional...My guess is the lack of African DJs is because the organizers wanted someone to respond and confirm quickly. I am interested to see if anyone on the FB event page discussion can suggest any local African DJs for future events. I am well aware of the diversity of Toronto and I am surprised people have honed in on this one event, since I played here less than a year ago and the show felt quite mixed and fun. There must be some tension here that's been building for a while, I don't live here so I am not well-informed on nuances of the music scene here.”

Unfortunately, the victimization and hurt of the last two sentences of Brian's recap give it the same colour as the bulk of white male responses on the Facebook event. Despite admitting that “it would have been cooler to include a wider variety of DJs,” he cannot make the connection between that and the outcry, opting to blame the response on “tension.” Maybe no one asked the right question last time he was here? Maybe his last party could have been more “mixed and fun” if it had been?

There are ways of educating yourself to Toronto's musical communities, if inclusion is important enough. And it isn't, even for many well-meaning white people, which is kind of the point. Of course, even if the event was replaced with four African DJs, it wouldn't matter. The locus of the issue is getting to a place where their participation is an obvious, automatic, can't-do-the-show-without-it thought. Introspection is needed more than “community talks.”

With the cancellation, it's easy to feel like DDL and Awesome Tapes have abandoned the opportunity to see their colossal mistake manifested, and to sit with it. Because the show's line-up threatened to be a repudiation of everything Awesome Tapes From Africa hopes to achieve, by replacing a purported global celebration of music with an endgame of colonialism for the 21st century. It raises two crucial questions: What message does having an African music night without Africans send? And If you don't need Africans for a night of DJ'd African music, do you need Africans to make their music at all? If we can play it without you, maybe we can perform it too.

A more extreme example of a passion in need of re-evaluation.

Discovering music regardless of geography or culture is one of the Internet's enduring benefits, and race cannot dictate who listens to what. But there is an inherent risk of a white non-African distributing African music, no matter how fairly or poorly the artists released on the Awesome Tapes label are compensated (Brian told me that artists “receive 50% of any profits.”) This dynamic threatens to enforce a cultural superiority in its white, non-African audience by making them conquerors trapped in the Internet's vacuum, unwilling or unable to see the full and beautiful vista of the music's context. To do so would compromise their supremacy, manifested as their perceived ability to lightly entertain other cultures through the lens of their own dominant one, with little to no emotional attachment.

As Azan so wonderfully summarized in the thread, the DJ invitations are a symptom of a greater problem of cultural overlording. This also matters at least as much if not more so than the site's love for and entrenchment in African music and how fairly Brian's label treats the artists. What's needed is an unflinching examination and consideration of our own privileges, not just for parties and music but for every aspect of our lives:

“Really this event is a trivial and transient manifestation of a larger insidious western post and pre colonial ideology of cultural dissection. Separating product from producer...To create an event and not feel compelled to involve and EQUALLY collaborate with the producers is to further this silencing and splicing of an important and intricate narrative that involves not only oppression but triumph and self determination.”

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On Tuesday, a new video of Mayor Rob Ford surfaced. He was drunk and swearing in a Jamaican accent, clearly thinking he was doing a good job with his mangled patois, that because he'd had a few beers, some oxtail, and went to visit some communities a couple times, he'd mastered the culture.

This is the sweat-stained, hyperreal endgame of culture consumption that cares only of how it can enrich or distinguish itself. One day you're browsing R. Kelly albums ironically, the next you're gibbering incomprehensibly in a borrowed tongue for people you think your act is impressing but who are secretly recording for YouTube. The white people who would've attended the Awesome Tapes show tonight should be wary.

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