This week, we'll be approaching the question of "what is Canadian music?" by looking at three distinct perspectives: the community, the critics, and the charts. First: the music community. In a year where many discussions focused on appropriation, race and misogyny, we ask: was activism a trend? Or is real change taking place?
In November, tensions at a sold out panel titled MUSIC: RACISM, POWER + PRIVILEGE 101 in Toronto were undeniable. Panelists resolutely kept the panel’s format — answering anonymous online questions of varying relevance one by one — as voices in the crowd pleaded for open dialogue on issues of racism, classism, and genre. It was uncomfortable.
Eventually, panelists and organizers admitted they were mainly there to talk about a singular issue that was close to the downtown, indie, art rock scene: the demand for Polaris Prize shortlisted band Viet Cong to change their name, which had raised ignorant but apparently unavoidable questions that had begun to circle endlessly within the scene (what about Joy Division, etc).
While the year has made me optimistic, it’s also made me deeply uncomfortable. The frustrated voices I’ve heard — and vocalized — deserve more than a slowly growing cushion of support. They deserve change, now.
If frustrations were high in the audience, it wasn’t simply due to a misnaming of one event. So often in 2015, “Music” or "Canadian Music" or “Toronto Music” has subbed in where its placement was questionable at best.
From innocuous-seeming events like the Class of 2015 photo shoot at Trinity Bellwoods Park (musicians and music peeps in the 150-heads or so end result are overwhelmingly white men), to a City of Toronto sanctioned Music City town hall meeting in April (full disclosure, I helped plan and pass mics at this event) which took place at rock venue the Garrison, on Dundas West, under Wavelength’s indie rock-centric banner.
Imperfect panels and town hall meetings aren’t necessarily unproductive, and overly ambitious photoshoot planners can be forgiven on their first go, so while embarrassing, discouraging, and frustrating to many, 2015’s events weren’t a total waste of time if the one distinct theme that’s come out of each is heeded.
Namely, that “What is Toronto music?” isn’t a fair question to ask, especially if the only people who can raise their voices loud enough to either ask or answer it are from a single demographic. The question for 2016 will not be how many more panels and special events can dominant organizers assemble, but how willing will these forces be to listen, and, more importantly, to hand over control of the narrative?
In January of 2014, Kirsten Azan, better known in Toronto as rising DJ Bambii, left a seven word comment on the Facebook page for a dance event at Double Double Land for label Awesome Tapes From Africa. “are any of the djs actually african?” she asked. None of them were.
A 40+ imgur gallery documents the online aftermath. A panel on the subject was promised and planned, but never happened. White Toronto was not ready to acknowledge segregation and appropriation, nevermind talk productively about it.
In 2015 Double Double Land’s Jon McCurley has since credited the still unresolved Awesome Tapes controversy as influencing him to refuse to book Viet Cong, and to join local figures like 101 panel organizer April Aliermo, who also authored this Exclaim! piece and spoke to us on the subject, in speaking out against the band. McCurley penned an open letter in NOW Magazine, and organized a protest outside the band’s Lee’s Palace show earlier this month.
McCurley and other Vietnamese voices explain their position in Daniel Goodbaum’s video below, and you can watch protesters gift books on racism to the band — and hear Viet Cong fans casually drop various racist slurs on Bloor Street.
As a white downtowner working under the umbrella of Toronto’s indie and lo-fi music scenes, it’s hard not to note the long running Viet Cong controversy as a key event of 2015, even though there were countless other moments of activists fighting for change within Toronto’s, and Canada's, art and music scenes.
The question for 2016 will not be how many more panels and special events can dominant organizers assemble, but how willing will these forces be to listen, and, more importantly, to hand over control of the narrative?
As #BlackLivesMatter protests strengthen in the US, and articles explaining terminology that formerly languished in the upper echelons of academia circulate constantly online, was 2015 the year that activism trended in Canadian music — or is real change taking place?
What might have happened if the Awesome Tapes happened not in January 2014, but January 2016? If the same booking happened at all (and it easily could), would the same call-out have resulted in a reformed event with an adjusted lineup, or at least an appropriate panel discussion taking place?
It’s an exciting time to be having these conversations, but I’m not sure if certain communities, if they can be called that, are ready to hand the narrative over.
Most means, modes, and centres of cultural production in Toronto are in the hands of old, white, rock-centric men — one only needs to look as far as Toronto's Music Sector Development Officer Mike Tanner and ex boss, NOW Magazine co-owner and NXNE director Michael Hollett, or, returning once again to Viet Cong, Polaris Prize founder Steve Jordan (it’s forever worth remembering, too, that Jian Ghomeshi hosted the first Polaris).
When I look at the punk fans in that Viet Cong protest video above, I imagine asking them if they think Toronto music has a segregation problem. A sexism problem. An appropriation problem. A problem with silencing victims of abuse.
“We have no opinion,” one blonde girl says of Viet Cong’s name. “We’re dead inside,” her friend adds. “It’s not really for me to agree or disagree,” another fan states.
Viet Cong protest at Lee's Palace. Photo by: Kristel Jax
While the year has made me optimistic, it’s also made me deeply uncomfortable. Which of these issues are mine? Which of these conversations are mine to help guide, and which are mine to merely facilitate, signal boost, or listen to?
After a year of observing slow change and hearing frustration from different marginalized groups — frustration born from not one or two mishandled events, but a lifetime’s worth — I don’t believe it’s a matter of Toronto’s dominant music scene being more ready than it was ten, twenty, or two, years ago to guide, to facilitate, to listen.
More ready, on a gradient of human understanding, doesn’t mean ready. And the frustrated voices I’ve heard — and vocalized — deserve more than a slowly growing cushion of support. They deserve change, now.
Music, and life, is made richer by diversity, and Toronto is in a unique position to benefit from it. In her hugely important piece about The Weeknd for the Globe and Mail, Anupa Mistry writes:
[The Weeknd]’s success is a foil for immigrant ennui in a city that hasn’t yet figured out that its competitive advantage – its superpower – is its multicultural youth. It’s a testament to the new Canadian dream, pushing back against outdated ideas of propriety and leapfrogging over the protectionism of CanCon in search of notoriety, of economic stability and a reality that isn’t held back by geography. Whether casting a heavy-lidded stare across the set of a music video or dancing amid pyrotechnics on stage, Tesfaye is transmitting a coded message to first-, second- and third-generation Canadians reared in churches, tight-knit communities and Saturday language classes.
It’s a special kind of pride... So many of us are conditioned to assume this place will never accept our dual identities, but The Weeknd’s success is a reminder that we’re here.
Progress won’t come from Toronto’s unheard and silenced waiting for, or even asking for their chance at the mic. It will come from taking it.
The conception of what constitutes "Canadian music" is shifting from industry to critics, but that isn't erasing its problems.