Cultural appropriation – controversy show “Slāv” at Montreal Jazz festival lineup
“Slāv” at Montreal Jazz festival – The normally pleasant festival season this past summer was unexpectedly shaken by controversy when the Jazz Festival scheduled the show “Slāv” at Montreal Jazz festival lineup. At the time of the presentations, a large group of mostly black people gathered in front of the Theatre du nouveau monde, decrying the show as “racist.” The reason for the protests was the fact that despite the subject of the musical –a selection of songs created or interpreted by blacks during slavery– only two of the six performers were black. Betty Bonifassi, a white artist, was the lead singer. Eventually, after just a couple of performances, the Jazz Festival decided to cancel the show, in fact, one of the presentations had been suspended due to an accident suffered by Ms. Bonifassi, but the main reason given for the cancellation was the security issues that the whole affair had created. These security concerns were about both the performers and the public attending the show.
“Slāv” at Montreal Jazz festival
The cancellation of the show created an immediate controversy: while black activists, artists, as well as cultural and political commentators, especially in the English and allophone milieus generally supported the protests and the suspension of the show, Robert Lepage, creator and artistic director of the show, protested what he characterized as “censorship.” Many of the cultural and political commentators on the French side aligned themselves with Lepage.
The issue was what has been called “cultural appropriation,” a concept difficult to define in the abstract, but in a context where there are dominant and dominated cultures, at least for those who partake in the dominated side, it is easy to understand. Cultural appropriation could be seen then as an act by which members of the dominant or colonial culture make use of elements or images of a dominated culture (e.g. black, indigenous) for their own interpretation, without participation or consultation with the members of the historically subjugated group.
The issue was amply debated this past Monday at Concordia University during a debate titled “Cause or Consequence—Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Hegemony” organized by Teesri Duniya Theatre and the Theatre Department of Concordia University. The panelists were Xavier Huard, a francophone actor, member of the Menuentakuan Theatre; Rahul Varma, artistic director of Teesri Duniya Theatre, playwright; Floyd P. Favel, an indigenous playwright; and the anthropological researcher and art critic, James Oscar. Community activist and artist Deborah Forde was the moderator.
Huard titled his presentation “Reflections on the French Cultural Micro-System of Quebec” which focused on the role of the francophone artistic community regarding this issue and the fact that this community itself was the subject of domination at one point. Varma for his part in an address called “It is Cultural Hegemony, and it is Systematic” delivered a strong criticism of Lepage’s “Slāv” making also references to “Kanata,” another controversial work by the renowned Quebec playwright in which the subject was indigenous history, but without the indigenous people. Varma reaffirmed the systematic character of this approach on the part of some authors from the hegemonic culture. Favel made an illustrative reference to his own experience as an indigenous playwright and the vicissitudes he had to endure in his work. He stated that indigenous theatre should be an artistic genre with its own methods. James Oscar for his part approached the subject addressing issues of “good” and “common good” and how these notions relate to the discussion of cultural appropriation and identity.
The evening was enlightening and probably a new chapter in a debate still open.
Feature image: “Salv” was created by renowned Quebec author and director Robert Lepage