The politics of music: Why the Canadian music scene lacks diversity

By Iman Sheikh - Published on Jul 25, 2016
‘Artists are the beginning of the conversation — I can only refract whatever I take in," says Shehzaad Jiwani about music and political change.



“Many people think a brown guy can’t be an indie rock frontman,” says Shehzaad Jiwani of Toronto punk band Greys. Tonight on The Agenda in the Summer, Nam Kiwanuka and Jiwani talk about cultural diversity in indie music, racism within the industry and how far musicians can affect political change. asked two prominent artists, an industry veteran and a seasoned music journalist for their thoughts on cultural representation in the Canadian music scene. Here’s what they said.

How well represented are different cultures in Canada’s music scene?

Rosina Kazi, vocalist in LAL, a Toronto-based collective of musicians representing Uganda, Bangladesh, Barbados and India: The music scene in Canada is very diverse. The music industry is not. For me, there’s a difference. I’m from the Bangladeshi community and I think the music that gets promoted, and even played on the radio, is a very particular type of music. It ends up being very white. It’s very rock and folk-based, and is played only if America has given the OK. I don’t feel like those who have the power to play the multicultural music — for example the CBC — play the music that reflects how this country is changing. There’s still a lack of representation. For me, Punjabi music, bhangra for example, or reggae … that fact that you’re not hearing that on the CBC or mainstream channels is a problem.

Richard Trapunski, editor-in-chief of online music magazine Chart Attack: It seems like the scene is becoming a better and more diverse place, but there's still a long way to go. It depends on how you define the Canadian music scene. There are more hip-hop and R&B and electronic artists that fit under the indie umbrella, that otherwise would mostly connote rock and, usually, white. But it's been rocky. Here in Toronto, the indie and punk scenes seem to be confronting their own problems with racism and sexual abuse with things like panels and shit lists and coalitions to create safer venues. With every step, it feels like there's more to climb. And a lot of that is just confronting your own privilege — myself and many other people in the scene who don't necessarily identify as people of colour. It's tough, and there's a good chance you'll step in it. But it's necessary.

David Dacks, artistic director of the Music Gallery, Toronto's Centre for Creative Music, former editor at Exclaim! magazine and past jurist for the Juno Awards and Polaris Music Prize: Yes, musicians in Canada hail from many different backgrounds and this will continue to diversify as Canada’s population does. However, the music industry is far less diverse than its artists, and the industry’s priorities are less diverse as a result. I’ve worked in music in Toronto for 30 years and this city contains multiple music scenes; it’s astonishing how little overlap there is between sizeable audiences within just one city. So I never judge a big city’s scene solely by what’s going on by media coverage of downtown events. Consequently, we usually don’t consider the sizable audiences for salsa or dancehall or bhangra when we talk about the Canadian music scene because these scenes don’t operate with a record release/advertising/publicity/downtown club date cycle the media expects in order to generate coverage. The industry has to change staffing-wise and priority-wise to consider this country's ever-expanding diversity of musicians and their varied output.

April Aliermo, political activist, bassist and vocalist in indie-rock band Hooded Fang: The Canadian music scene is not culturally diverse. In Canada, when I play with my rock band, most of the bands I play with are mostly made up of white, cis men who are straight. I think Toronto is culturally diverse, has more women playing and LGBTQ2 people playing music, but representations from these groups are mostly in small niche scenes, where people have carved out a place for themselves. If anyone tries to name the handful of artists who are from diverse backgrounds, they are still a small minority.

‘All you have to do is look at the summer festivals and see who is being represented to know that the music scene is not diverse.’

What’s the connection between music and political change?

Kazi: Popular music has always affected political change, particularly when you look at it culturally. I think it depends on what’s happening. For me, for example, Black Lives Matter and indigenous issues are coming to the forefront and pop musicians are starting to talk about these issues differently. People will criticize the fact that these people are just cashing in, but regardless if they’re making money off of it or taking over a subculture, they’re talking about something that is important.

Aliermo: M.I.A and Kendrick Lamar are two artists that come to mind, who infuse their work with political ideals.

Dacks: These days, social representation through music is more important that straight up protest music in the 1960s-‘70s mould in influencing political change. Beyoncé is the most obvious example. It’s not strictly about the lyrics of her songs being political in nature, it’s what and who she shows in her videos, plus the backstory of how’s she put it together: how she flexes her power within a system inimical to black women. Then again, “issue” songs like Prince’s “Baltimore” prove that individual works can be very timely in capturing and narrating a moment.

'Beyoncé is the most obvious example. It’s not strictly about the lyrics of her songs being political in nature, it’s what and who she shows in her videos.'

Trapunski: It’s hard to separate politics and music. The scene now is being pushed in a more explicitly political direction. Everyone has a platform in a way they didn’t even 30 years in the past. If there’s a major social issue happening like BLM, people can look straight at an artist’s Twitter page and see what they’ve said about it. If they haven’t said anything about it, that’s often glaring too.

Do you think musicians, as celebrities, feel pushed or obligated to take a stand on political issues?

Kazi: I think it’s the opposite. Until recently, a lot of artists didn’t want to take a stand on political issues. I think people were afraid because the music industry is controlled by people who want a specific story told. If you go against that narrative, you’re not going to get booked and you’re not going to get played on the radio when the major labels are involved. Now that we’ve moved more into independent arts culture, people are much more aware and more critical. Artists feel much more comfortable talking about what they need to talk about.

Aliermo: I don’t think that musicians as celebrities feel pushed to take a stand on political issues. There are a small handful of artists that do, but for the most part — probably because of the homogeneity in the scene — people do not really express their political views. A lot of the time, they do not really hold these issues to heart enough to be vocal about them.

‘I think it can be frustrating when you share your opinions on social and political issues, and then journalists only want to ask you about social and political issues.’

Dacks: Yes, definitely. Considering artists have to open up in so many different ways on social media, from their eating habits to professional obligations to clothes sense, it just looks weird if there’s silence where political opinion is supposed to be. But at a certain point of celebrity I’m sure a manager would have a conversation with an artist about dos and don’ts of social media and perhaps strategize how to best to express a message, so there would be a push not just from fans but from within an artist’s team to form some kind of social media stance. If you are in the position of having learnt a culture’s music other than your own, whether through shallow appropriation or lifelong study, you should have an opinion on how you relate to that music and be able to express it in public.

Trapunski: I think it's easier than ever for artists to share their opinions on political issues, and with social media I'm sure a lot of them feel pressured to do so. A lot of work has been done by outspoken artists like April Aliermo of Hooded Fang, Alaska B of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and Lido Pimienta to create a better music scene, but I think we have to be careful not to make "politics" their whole identity in the same way we shouldn't pigeonhole them based on their race. I think it can be frustrating when you share your opinions on social and political issues, and then journalists only want to ask you about social and political issues. There’s probably more of a pressure for racialized musicians around topics of race and culture to add their voice to it.

Shehzaad Jiwani discusses diversity and music on The Agenda in the Summer, July 25, 2016.
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