Lido Pimienta, the Colombian-Canadian musician and human rights advocate whose La Papessa album won the 2017 Polaris Music Prize, was at the center of controversy this month at her Halifax Pop Explosion performance Oct. 19 at the Marquee Ballroom.
During Pimienta’s show, she asked people of color to move to the front of the room and white people to move to the back -- a request that is often part of her sets -- when a white volunteer, reportedly there to photograph the show, along with several other white people in the audience reacted to Pimienta’s invitation to relocate “brown girls to the front” of the room with overt racism.
The response on social media to this incident has been mixed. Some understood Pimienta’s view and her right as an artist to conduct her performance any way that advances her art and agenda, while others called it “reverse racism” and countered with “what ifs.”
The key issue, however, was not Pimienta’s request, but the response to it by some audience members, which the HPX festival described as “aggressive and racist” in a lengthy apology to the artist.
“We will not accept this behavior and neither should you,” the statement reads in part. “Be responsible for your friends -- talk to them and support them as they move towards unpacking their racism. People of Color deserve safe spaces and it is your responsibility to help. It is also ours.” (The full statement can be found at the bottom of this post.)
In the days since, questions have arisen about the volunteer who sparked the controversy. Some have suggested that since she was there photographing the show, she should’ve been exempt from the request to move back and perhaps was young and got out of hand. Details of her “aggressive and racist” response have not been disclosed. An email to HPX asking for additional information about the volunteer’s role at the festival was not returned.
“I never asked white folks to leave my show, I would never do that,” Pimienta said in an email Q&A with Billboard about the incident. “I never ask men to leave my show, I ask them to share the space in a more significant manner as an act of love and solidarity with people who, outside of the music show bubble, have to constantly justify their existence to the world.”
Here, Pimienta discusses the show and the fallout from the incident that resulted in an emailed response to Billboard’s questions. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity, but all emphasis and capitalization is her own.
Billboard: Why do you ask people of color to move to the front of the room and how long has this been part of your show?
Lido Pimienta: I started asking men specifically to go to the back of the room because in my 15+ years of attending shows, both on stage and in the audience, men make it unsafe for me to be in such spaces.
From the audience’s point of view, [men] for the most part will not think twice before they put themselves right in front of you. I am a short woman, so I always have to show up very early to be able to enjoy the music, to see the acts... From the stage point of view, I noticed how most men who plant themselves at the front, they tend to overpower ME. Their presence usually at my own show is a threatening one and I have had men grab me, grab my hands, grab my waist, scream "TE AMO MAMACITA." My show is all about high energy and high feminine power, so I can see for some men, my energy reads "sexual" and they feel like my show is FOR THEM, when in fact, my show if anything, is for WOMXN.
When I started asking womxn to the front, I noticed how white women were usually at the front and brown girls would be behind the white girls, a bit more shy, a bit more restrained. Even at HPX, I had to call out a few black girls who were "too shocked" and felt I was "putting them on the spot" by saying, "Girl come to the front! This is for you!" As an immigrant, as an Afro-Indigenous person, as an intersectional feminist, as a mother and all of the other signifiers that qualify me as "other," I understand what it is like to not see yourself in the media, to not see yourself in institutions and to not see yourself represented or reflected at a music show, because the "artist of colour" (and I put that in quotation marks because even that term is extremely problematic), we don’t get to see each other at that level.
My being on stage in an otherwise mainly white folk artist bill, in Nova Scotia, a province famous for the segregation and mistreatment of African Nova Scotians, was not meant to be an act of HATE AGAINST WHITE PEOPLE. It was meant, as it has always been to me, [as] an act of love for the children of these African Nova Scotians, the children of Somalian refugees who ended up somehow in Halifax, and for the children of the many immigrant and migrant folks who, just like my mother, one day arrived in Canada with a specific narrative but the same story of "hoping for a better future." But still for us, the children of these immigrants, it is still quite strange, the act of enjoying ourselves uninterrupted by a white person who feels threatened by our presence.
This is why I do what I do, because I understand the feeling of oppression and exclusion. I never asked white folks to leave my show, I would never do that. I never ask men to leave my show, I ask them to share the space in a more significant manner as an act of love and solidarity with people who, outside of the music show bubble, have to constantly justify their existence to the world.
How do other audiences typically react?
Ninety percent of people who attend my shows and get the "Lido Pimienta reconfigures the room" experience LOVE IT. The outpouring of [comments like] "thank you for allowing me to see how brown folks at [these] shows are clearly a minority" outgrow the comments of hate. I would like to give you my twitter password so that you can see the racist comments and then the counterparts who will shut them down. It is a beautiful thing!
What is your view of the response from George Dudka of the Halifax Pop Explosion to what happened and their direct apology, calling you a role model and praising you for your “thoughtful example”?
I did not expect any comment from the festival whatsoever. This is not the first time I’ve had someone disrespect me, my band and my fans, but I have never had the venue, the bookers or any organizers in which acts of violence against me happen ever apologize. So I am deeply touched by HPX’s apology -- they know they have a long way to go to balance things out, but at least they called themselves out and I hope this doesn't end here but moves past the noise. I have a few ideas; I will probably share when I have time with them. We are all in a complicated and painful time, but we’re on a necessary path, unlearning patriarchal western "civilization" ways. If we don't speak up, we will never e v o l v e.
On Aug. 6, 2014 I played a show in Montreal presented by a collective called Jeunesse Cosmique. It was going to [be] a cute show in Montreal with a bunch of Montreal freaks, including myself and my music collaborator Mas Aya. One of the performers in one of the bands [was] a man from Laos and he "pays homage" to his homeland by including a bunch of white folks to play along [to] mor lam sounds. To me, the show -- which they later said was a band "put together to make me feel more welcomed because they would play more ethnic sounds" -- reeked of cultural appropriation.
As an Afro-Colombian I would never dream of [putting on] an Afro-Colombian music track and play[ing] my "weird music" on top and then hav[ing] a bunch of white people play whatever they wanted on top of that. These people were even wearing plastic Hawaiian [Leis] while they "paid homage to their music with more ethnic sounds." The level of obliviousness and refusal to understand how problematic the whole thing was to me, still to this day is puzzling. I would never play back a track from my culture in a show that I am getting paid at because there is no way I would ever financially benefit from my culture if the money I would earn AT THEIR EXPENSE does not end up directly in their bank accounts.
To make a long story short, one of the friends of the collective, a yoga pants-wearing white woman, approached me in [a] rage after I called them out for their weird show and racist display [and] apologized to the people who went to see my show who were offended by them. This yoga pants-wearing white woman approached me and SPAT ON MY FACE. She humiliated me and the venue asked ME to leave. She got to stay and be consoled by her friends. And do you think the venue, the collective, or even herself apologized to me? No. They did not. Instead, they kept screaming at me and my friends, crying and specifically telling me that they can perform "mor lam" music because THEY GO TO THE FESTIVAL EVERY YEAR... What festival? How does that even make sense?
In addition to spitting my face, they kept saying, "We know what oppression is like because here in Montreal we are losing our language and you have all [these] immigrants come and they wont even learn the language." Okay, so in the context of CANADA, you are trying to tell me you are offended at newcomers for not learning French? My question was, "Do you speak Cree?" In the comment section of the Facebook post in which they all complained about my show, one of the people said, "She won't have a career after this," or something along those lines. I think Jeunesse Cosmique is over now.
So yes, I am glad and pleased with [Halifax Pop Explosion's] apology. I want the white woman heckler at my show to apologize now.
FULL STATEMENT FROM HALIFAX POP EXPLOSION:
Dear attendees, fans, artists, staff, volunteers, and folks otherwise involved in the Halifax Pop Explosion. On Thursday, October 19 at the Marquee Club, a white HPX volunteer along with several other white people in the audience reacted to Lido Pimienta inviting “brown girls to the front” of the venue with overt racism. This volunteer was removed by Lido herself. They have since received notification from the festival that they are no longer welcome to volunteer with us.
We will not accept this behaviour and neither should you. Be responsible for your friends -- talk to them and support them as they move towards unpacking their racism. People of Color deserve safe spaces and it is your responsibility to help. It is also ours.
The Halifax Pop Explosion has worked hard in the past year to learn what embracing anti-racism and actively being inclusive of People of Colour and 2SLGBTQ+ folks entails. We take responsibility for missed opportunities to actively support POC artists this year and promise to build meaningful infrastructures within our festival through which to better support these communities in the future.
Halifax Pop Explosion is committing to providing our team with anti-oppression and anti-racism training. Additionally, we will be working with local organizations over the next year to create a list of local resources for our community. We also want to make this list available to those who create unsafe and uncomfortable space at our shows and venues by demonstrating racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and other discriminatory behaviours, so they too can begin unpacking their discriminatory behaviour. As a festival, we will also spend the next several months addressing ways we can make our festival spaces safer for women, POC, and 2SLGBTQ+ folks.
To Lido Pimienta: we are sorry that one of our volunteers interrupted your art, your show, and your audience by being aggressive and racist. We have so much respect for the art and music you create and the space you make for women, people of colour, transgender, and non-binary people. The way you interact with the world acts and provides a thoughtful example. You are a role model to us and many people in our community. We see it. We feel it. We hope you will work with us again.
To the POC in the audience on Thursday night: we are sorry your night was interrupted, and perhaps ruined, by one of our volunteers. We are going to try our best as a festival to create ways to make our spaces safer and more accessible for you. We hope we can rebuild some trust and that you will come back to our shows.
Thanks everyone for reading. We are fielding many discussions already. If you would like to make your voice heard in these discussions, please don’t hesitate to contact the organization directly by emailing email@example.com. We are listening.
-- Georgie Dudka, on behalf of the Board of Directors for Halifax Pop Explosion