Jazz Fest cancels SLĀV after common complaint and protests


Montreal’s International Jazz Festival has cancelled all the remaining performances of SLĀV in response to critics who have accused the show of cultural appropriation.

In a statement made public Wednesday, the festival apologized to those who were “hurt” by the show.

“Since the beginning of SLĀV performances, the festival team has been shaken and deeply touched by all the testimonials we have received,” the festival said.

It said the decision to cancel SLĀV’s remaining performances at the festival was made with the show’s lead singer, Betty Bonifassi. Nine more shows were scheduled between today and July 14.

“We would like to apologize to the people who were hurt and obviously that was not our intention at all,” the festival said.

‘Maybe some people learned’

Aly Ndiaye, a Quebec City hip-hop artist and historian who is better known as Webster, spoke out against SLĀV‘s “blatant lack of sensitivity” in an opinion piece last week.

He said Wednesday that he hopes Quebec has learned something from the whole experience. 

“To have white people play black slaves, in that context, that was the problem. Some people realized it, some not. But [if] maybe some people learned from it — then it’s a gain,’ he told CBC News.

He said the important thing when considering telling stories from outside one’s own culture is to get people from those communities involved.

“Not, ‘Oh we take the story and bring it to the whole world, but you don’t have a say in it.'”

Webster said slavery and genocide are two clear examples of topics that should be handled with extra sensitivity.

“You have some histories that still hurt people. You have some histories where you need to be careful [with] the way you talk about it,” he said.

Aly Ndiaye, a Quebec City hip-hop artist and historian, acted as a paid consultant on the history of slavery for the producers of SLĀV but resigned after viewing an early version of the piece. (CBC)

Cancellation welcomed by Montreal artist

Protests were staged last week against the show, with dozens of people gathering outside the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde on Ste-Catherine Street to voice their opposition.

SLĀV is described in its event listing as bringing together “traditional African-American slave and work songs, from cotton field plantations to railroad yards.”

However, the show’s director, Robert Lepage, is white, as is Bonifassi and much of the cast. That failure to have a more diverse lineup of performers was one of the catalysts behind the protests.

A spokesperson for Lepage’s production company, Ex Machina, told Radio-Canada the company understood the festival’s decision, but would not comment further.

Betty Bonifassi is the lead singer of SLĀV, a Robert Lepage production that was featured at the Montreal Jazz Festival based on slave songs. (Radio-Canada)

Lucas Charlie Rose, a Montreal-based musician who organized protests against the show, called its cancellation a relief.

“To be quite honest, when I organized the protests, it came out of desperation because I saw that the show was going on and there was not really a big discussion happening around it,” he told CBC News Wednesday.

He said he hoped the situation would spark a conversation in Montreal about cultural appropriation.

The issue is much bigger than this one show, Rose said, and “we don’t want the conversation to end today.”

Criticism widespread

A local collective of Montreal-area artists, musicians, academics and community organizers collected more than 1,500 online signatures against the show.

“We are alarmed by the dismissal and silencing of Black voices in the creation, development, staging, and promotion of the show SLĀV,” the petition states.

“These songs were born out of the needs of African-descended peoples while in bondage.”

Pierre Kwenders, a Congolese-Canadian musician, was also among those to speak out. “This is cultural appropriation, and we need to think twice before doing this type of thing,” Kwenders told CBC News last week.

Moses Sumney, a 28-year-old American singer and songwriter, went as far as to pull out of the festival over SLĀV , moving his Tuesday night show to another venue in Montreal instead.

Earlier this month, Bonifassi and Lepage defended the show, while also acknowledging that the history of slavery belongs “first and foremost” to the victims and their descendants.

“But this history was written by the oppressors as much as by the oppressed, by whites as well as by blacks,” they wrote in a joint statement. “And it’s necessary to continue the dialogue about this difficult period, first to bear witness, but also to avoid repeating it in the future.”


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