Why no hip-hop at the CNE?

The “show­case of the na­tion” is over­whelm­ingly white and male


The Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion has re­cently be­come as known for its death-de­fy­ing junk food as its car­ni­val rides, but the last few years have seen the an­nual sum­mer fair re-em­pha­size its Band­shell concert se­ries – the cen­tral mu­si­cal stage with a his­tory that’s spanned from Louis Arm­strong to a nascent ver­sion of Bach­man-Turner Over­drive.

This year’s Band­shell lineup, which con­tin­ues un­til Septem­ber 3, spans reg­gae (Jay Dou­glas), CanRock (I Mother Earth & the Watch­men, Sam Roberts Band, the Sheep­dogs), clas­sic rock (John Kay & Step­pen­wolf, Bur­ton Cum­mings) and, for some rea­son, Kiefer Suther­land. What it doesn’t have, dis­ap­point­ingly, is a sin­gle hip-hop act.

How is that pos­si­ble? Hip-hop has been des­ig­nated the most pop­u­lar genre in the United States, over­tak­ing rock and R&B, for the first time in the coun­try’s his­tory, and Toronto has been a hip-hop city for decades, long be­fore Drake. There’s a wealth of tal­ent here, from NAV to Roy Woods and Sean Leon, just to name a few. It’s not like it’s a niche genre.

With a few ex­cep­tions – most no­tably Indige­nous artists A Tribe Called Red, whose mu­sic skirts the lines of hip-hop and elec­tronic – the lineup is over­whelm­ingly white and male.

How could an 18-day show­case of Cana­dian cul­ture leave out so much of our di­verse scene?

To try to find out, I con­tacted CNE Di­rec­tor of Pro­grams, Zis Par­ras. “Our goal is to sat­isfy as much of the [CNE] au­di­ence as pos­si­ble,” he says. “We want mu­sic ap­peal­ing to every­one.”

But if the man­date is pri­mar­ily about pro­gram­ming mu­sic that is “ap­peal­ing to every­one,” then it might as well mir­ror what’s on hit ra­dio. Vis­it­ing the CNE is a more en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when you are not just en­ter­tained but, in line with its self-pro­claimed “dis­tin­guished his­tory as a show­case of the na­tion,” when you learn some­thing you didn’t know com­ing in. But the pro­gram­ming is both risk-averse and fails to meet the bare min­i­mum of in­clu­sion.

Last year, the stage came un­der fire for its lack of fe­male artists, which spawned an open let­ter and a bunch of on­line back­lash. This year, be­yond a few ex­cep­tions, the lineup still over­whelm­ingly skews male. Par­ras says they’re work­ing on it. “I have of­fered to host a meet­ing with Women In Mu­sic [Canada] so they can come down to the CNE, do a walk about, look at all the dif­fer­ent stages and we can work with them to put to­gether a guide­line or a strat­egy to move for­ward,” he says, while ad­mit­ting that this step wasn’t com­pleted in time for this sum­mer’s Ex. “We were hop­ing to meet them in the spring and un­for­tu­nately things got busy, but maybe that’s my mea culpa.”

That ges­ture, how­ever small, does not seem to have a hip-hop coun­ter­part. When I asked Par­ras about in­clud­ing more hip-hop in the fu­ture, his an­swer was not en­cour­ag­ing.

“We’ve tried in the past to book hiphop but it hasn’t re­ally gone very well,” he says. “We’ve had com­plaints from fam­ily au­di­ences say­ing they didn’t think it was ap­pro­pri­ate for them. I re­mem­ber the last time we had a hip-hop per­former, I can’t re­mem­ber who it was, we asked him to just con­trol the lan­guage. Ev­ery other song had fbombs in it.”

There’s some re­cent prece­dent for that kind of ap­pre­hen­sion – a re­cent free Canada 150 per­for­mance by Belly at Nathan Phillips Square led to the city re­leas­ing an of­fi­cial apol­ogy for his lan­guage – it’s still un­fair and mis­lead­ing to stereo­type the whole genre as “in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” the same way oth­ers cat­e­gor­i­cally dis­miss it as vi­o­lent and crim­i­nal.

As Brown Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and hip-hop scholar Tri­cia Rose notes, “Speak­ing truth to power serves to unify peo­ple who feel that their points of view and life ex­pe­ri­ences are be­ing over­looked, de­nied, and ig­nored. Hiphop comes out of this tra­di­tion, and de­spite the cur­rent state of com­mer­cial hip-hop, many young fans, less vis­i­ble artists and ac­tivists are work­ing to keep it alive.”

The CNE, and other mu­sic venues that have pulled the plug on hip-hop, should bear this in mind: in say­ing “no” to hip-hop, they are com­plicit in the si­lenc­ing of marginal­ized voices.

Toronto’s “hip-hop mayor” Addi “Mind­ben­der” Ste­wart echoes this sen­ti­ment. “It’s a great dis­ser­vice and even dis­re­spect to the cre­ative community to not se­lect any hip-hop per­former or any el­e­ment of the cul­ture,” he tells me. “Toronto is cur­rently home to the world’s big­gest hip-hop artist, yet the CNE doesn’t un­der­stand the value of of­fer­ing any hip-hop artists in their lineup?”

When I ask Mind­ben­der about Par­ras ref­er­enc­ing the “lan­guage” in­ci­dent from last year, he cor­rectly points out, “[The CNE] can’t blame rap, be­cause not ev­ery rap­per swears in ev­ery song. Shad is a Juno-win­ning Cana­dian MC with no swear words in his en­tire cat­a­logue. I can’t be­lieve they think they can jus­tify this kind of cul­tural blind­ness in this day and age.”

Were the CNE ac­tu­ally plugged into hip-hop cul­ture, as it is with many other gen­res, their ex­pe­ri­ence with the un­named hip-hop artist may not have so eas­ily dis­suaded them from look­ing for more fam­ily-friendly artists. Like­wise, if the CNE were more aware of the abun­dant di­ver­sity that makes up the Cana­dian mu­si­cal land­scape, they may have had a truly in­clu­sive Band­shell lineup this year.

The ques­tion re­mains, how­ever, as to whether the CNE cares. mu­sic@now­toronto.com | @IAmSal­va­tori

“Toronto is cur­rently home to the world’s big­gest hip-hop artist, yet the CNE doesn’t un­der­stand the value of of­fer­ing any hip-hop in their lineup?”


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