by Jasmine Williams

Without question, NXNE festival is a staple event in Toronto’s summer music scene. Long before Field Trip and Wayhome, there was NXNE. When it comes to music festivals, it’s the OG.  

One of the best parts about it is that even if you’re not able to score a wristband, you can still often catch the headliners free of charge at Yonge-Dundas Square. The incredible feeling of being one of the many supporting Alexis Krauss as she jumped into the crowd at the end of Sleigh Bells set last year is high up on my list of best concert experiences. 

Rapper Action Bronson was one of the headliners at this year’s festival until Toronto music fan Erica Shiner started an online petition to “Stop Action Bronson from Performing at Yonge and Dundas Square.” “Action Bronson glorifies gang-raping and murdering women,” writes Shiner on the petition, and calls it “an insult” to Torontonians to feature the artist on public property. A serious accusation but not unfounded for the rapper who has a laundry list of misogynistic acts to his name. Some highlights include: A song, titled “Consensual Rape,” with lyrics like “stuff her lunchbox and burn her with the candle.”

This lovely Instagram photo. And this cover art: 

After some hemming and hawing on the part of NXNE organizers, they eventually pulled Action Bronson from the line-up, choosing to comply with, “the strong wishes of the community.”

The controversy is an example of an archetypal debate. Which offensive acts qualify as freedom of expression, and which fall under the category of hate speech? 

It’s the kind of debate that launches a thousand Facebook post comment wars. The fact that this was a free show in the middle of a city like Toronto, sponsored by the city of Toronto, further complicates matters. Those on the side of free speech believe something along the lines of “if you don’t like it, don’t see it!”

But Yonge-Dundas Square is a major tourist destination located across from another major tourist destination - the Eaton Centre. If you live or work anywhere near the venue, it would be hard to avoid and even more difficult to ignore.  The government has a moral responsibility to its citizens, a promise to protect and provide a safe space for its people. What message does hosting Action Bronson send? 

Mayor John Tory agreed.

“It’s not my place to decide sort of what is art and what is music in the city — I’m very encouraging of artists and musicians to come here — but I did say that this kind of performance to take place certainly in a public space was not consistent with our policies,” said Tory, speaking to reporters at City Hall. 

 

And what does Bronson have to say about all of this?

Of course, Action Bronson isn’t the first rapper to which this has happened. In 2013, Carleton University cancelled a concert by rapper Rick Ross over a protest of his song “U.O.E.N.O.” which was argued to be “a blatant celebration of rape,” by the protest organizers. 

Ultimately, when these situations arise, I think to myself,

why is there a need for rappers to use misogynistic language? Why do they feel it is something that is okay to include in their songs? Is an offensive lyric just a lyric, or a symptom of a much bigger problem?

The fact that these protests keep happening and garner enough support to effect change is inspiring, but also disheartening for the fact that they are needed in the first place. I had an amazing time at the free Sleigh Bells concert, but even more importantly, surrounded by hundreds of strangers, I felt safe. Despite an aching back and pounding ear drums, as a single woman, I felt comfortable.

Yes, art is mean to titillate and is often controversial, but when art is used as an excuse to express violent feelings and even go as far as promote violence, can we really brand it as “entertainment” and leave it at that? 

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