afrofest 2016

Save Afrofest! shows just how far Toronto Music City still has to go

How the city responds to the outcry over Afrofest's shortening will have major ramifications for Toronto's music scene at large.

- Mar 17, 2016

Afrofest, Canada’s largest African music festival, has been the subject of controversy this week. Festival organizers released a statement on Monday saying that the city of Toronto has restricted the two day event to just one.

Afrofest’s President Peter Toh called the treatment of the festival discriminatory, and noted in a press release that out of all of the festivals to take place this year in Woodbine Park, Afrofest is the only one to face such punitive measures. All the festivals there employ the same sound company.

The city, via city councillor Mary Margaret McMahon (Beaches/East York), argued that the festival has faced numerous noise and curfew violations and is being restricted due to their inability to adhere to the rules.

In an interview with NOW Magazine, McMahon indicated that the city would be planning to revisit and review the status of the festival next year, but after an uproar on social media, substantive media coverage, and the circulation of a petition titled “Save Afrofest!” Mayor John Tory has stepped in, contacting Toh directly.

If there’s a noise complaint, there’s no way of knowing which area it’s coming from. If someone complains about the placement of a garbage can, there’s no way of knowing if moving it three feet will fix the problem.

Afrofest's Michael Stohr
Toh notes in the festival’s original press release that the treatment of Afrofest by the city and Councillor McMahon flies in the face of Toronto’s newfound “Music City” initiative, which could account for why Tory is taking this so seriously (he also intervened last year in the controversy over Action Bronson at NXNE). But the restrictions on Afrofest have a greater impact outside of the immediate music scene or Toronto’s branding.

In a column detailing how the shortening of the festival impacts the greater African community, Toronto Star writer Desmond Cole pointed out that the city’s punitive tone and approach to dealing with the festival thus far does nothing to help Afrofest correct their supposed mistakes. Cole notes that what the festival needs is an ally, and that “officials should restore the full program and keep working with Music Africa out of respect for the bounty the festival brings to Toronto every summer.”

Indeed, the time seems right for Toronto’s Music Officer to step in and offer some assistance.

When reached for comment on Wednesday, Music Officer Mike Tanner directed Chart Attack to Shane Gerard in Strategic Communications who then directed us to Matthew Cutler from Parks, Forestry and Recreation who could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

But that same day, Coun. McMahon told CBC News that she was now planning on meeting with festival organizers as well as “city staff, the mayor's office and members of the Toronto Music Advisory Council” next Wednesday, a meeting which the Toronto Music Advisory Council confirmed later that night would include Tanner.

Next week’s meeting won’t be the first time that organizers of Afrofest have voiced their concerns about city policy with the Music Officer. Last year, during a town hall held by Tanner at the Garrison, Afrofest’s Michael Stohr was one of speakers who took issue with the “adversarial” relationship between neighbourhoods and music festivals.

Stohr was speaking from a wealth of experience. Afrofest used to take place at Queen’s Park, and did so for 23 years before being forced out and relocating to Woodbine Park. The festival proudly touts this move as a result of outgrowing the space, attracting around 120,000 people each year, but they were also forced to move after the city denied them a permit, citing noise, curfew and damage to the Queen’s Park lawns as reasons for the decision.

Stohr said that there wasn’t any way for festivals presented with complaints to deal with them in any concrete way: “If there’s a noise complaint, there’s no way of knowing which area it’s coming from. If someone complains about the placement of a garbage can, there’s no way of knowing if moving it three feet will fix the problem.”

To his credit, Tanner agreed, saying that his office would best serve constituents and the music community if it worked as a conduit, helping to moderate and resolve conflicts. But what good is that role if the city’s councillors don’t use it?

afrofest crowd

It’s hard to tell if the belated involvement of the Toronto Music Advisory Council, Tanner and Mayor Tory are the result of a lack of communication at City Hall, or an effort to save face after being confronted with an issue that wholly undermines the city’s “Music City” initiative.

This conflict comes just days before the TMAC presents its Music Strategy to city council for approval. In the strategy, TMAC recommends that “noise regulations must balance the interests of residents and other businesses with those of venues and concert promoters, ensuring the well-being of the music industry as well as the wider public interest without unnecessary restrictions and fines.”

How the city has handled issues surrounding Afrofest provides a very real example of how not to constructively deal with the challenges of operating a festival in a residential area. Cutting Afrofest in half does nothing to address the problems, much less give the festival a real concrete way to deal with them.

How the city moves forward will not only determine the fate of Afrofest, but will have huge ramifications for Toronto's music scene at large.

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