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. firstname.lastname@example.org | @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?”