Why Was Our Coronavirus Benefit Concert so White?

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

6 mins read

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I had a weird moment while watching the #StrongerTogether benefit concert that aired on Sunday, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. It was during “Lean on Me,” a new recording of the Bill Withers classic sung by Tyler Shaw, Fefe Dobson, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Avril Lavigne, Bryan Adams, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jann Arden, Sarah McLachlan and a bunch of people I did not recognize. I knew that I was supposed to be touched by the performance, but instead I couldn’t stop thinking about how there were 25 artists on the song and, aside from Shaw, Dobson, Desiire and Tika, everyone was white.

The irony is, “Lean on Me” only happened because of two people of colour, Shaw and Dobson. I don’t want to understate their efforts or imply that this song was uniquely problematic. It really wasn’t—the numbers were just as dismal throughout the broadcast. Alessia Cara, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Measha Brueggergosman also performed, and a handful of POC athletes and celebrities, including Andre De Grasse, Lilly Singh, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Drake, participated with touching messages and calls to donate, but overwhelmingly, this was a white show. And not just demographically. It was culturally white, and I’d argue that was the bigger problem.

Canadian musicians are super diverse, but I don’t think anyone can deny that its, and especially Toronto’s, hip hop and R&B artists are killing the game right now. So why weren’t those genres represented in this broadcast? Where was A Tribe Called Red? Daniel Caesar? Dvsn? Jessie Reyez? K-os? K’naan? Kardinal Offishall? Majid Jordan? Mustafa the Poet? Nav? Nelly Furtado? PARTYNEXTDOOR? Roy Woods? Shad? The Weeknd? Tory Lanez?

Hell, where were Deborah Cox and Tamia, who already delivered a quarantine anthem?

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I mean, maybe someone asked all 18 of those artists and they all said no. It’s possible! (Though it would be terrible PR.) But it’s just as possible that hip hop and R&B artists weren’t included. For rappers in particular, I can see an argument that they don’t make music that’s considered “moving” enough for a benefit concert. And, okay, The Weeknd couldn’t sing any of his own songs, but homeboy could have been one of the celebs asking for money. And does anyone really think Jessie Reyez or Nelly Furtado couldn’t sing the hell out of whatever power ballad you threw at them?

There’s also another potential reason: this was a fundraiser, and fundraisers require performers and celebrity guests who Canadians can relate to, those who will encourage people to open their wallets. But what does it mean that someone thought the celebs who best fit that bill were Céline Dion, Sarah MacLachlan, the Barenaked Ladies, Michael Bublé, Jann Arden and Shania Twain? I’m literally asking: what does it say about who we think Canadians relate to and, by extension, who we think Canadians are? Because the message I’m getting is kind of bleak.

I saw some of this dynamic play out on Twitter during Drake’s (admittedly rambling) end-of-show segment. There was a lot of chatter about how confusing it was, that it was disrespectful for him to appear after the Prime Minister, that he didn’t do a good job—that, essentially, he didn’t belong, not just in that spot, but possibly at the show at all. He may not fit a Muskoka chair vision of this country, but he is a gigantic star and proudly Canadian, so it’s super weird to imply that he doesn’t belong at a benefit concert for… Canada. And by weird, I mean racist.

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t enjoy the concert, or that I don’t like those artists. I do (especially Céline!). The problem isn’t that they were chosen to be there—it’s that they’re the only ones who were chosen to be there, even though they represent such a small slice of Canadian identity. None of them represent my experience of Canada. Almost no one on that broadcast did. And that’s why, during the biggest moment of a show that was meant to not only raise money for Food Banks Canada, but also send a message of unity and togetherness, I had that moment of… let’s call it unbelonging. The show’s overall message was that Canadians are stronger together, that Canadians are generous and kind and look out for one another. But the vision of Canadian-ness that the show presented didn’t really include people like me.

There was a similar dynamic after the Tragically Hip’s final concert in 2016. Media coverage trumpeted its unifying qualities, sending a powerful message about what it meant to be Canadian. Writer Navneet Alang explained it well in a conversation with TVO. “When the broader media narrative is ‘this was a moment that unified Canada’ that was both true, but a form of exclusion,” he said. “Not in the simple ‘I feel left out’ way, but a way of narrativizing nation and identity in a particular way that doesn’t quite reflect the reality of many people in the country.”

It felt like the same thing was happening with #StrongerTogether. But in this country? In 2020? Three years ago, Statistics Canada projected that by 2036, Canada will have almost as many people of colour as it does white people. A demographic shift is well underway. You’d just never know it looking at that screen.

And Did You Hear About…

That NYT piece that drags Anna Wintour as the “embodiment of boomer excess”—though no, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what André Leon Talley said.

Gigi and Zayn’s baby.

Lilly Singh’s latest example of cultural appropriation. It was quickly followed by what seemed like a snarky response to the backlash, then a few days later a vulnerable Instagram post about not knowing where she fits in. (My feelings have not changed, for the record.)

The commentary about Jared Kushner’s plastic surgery—and this Guardian op-ed about whether it’s okay to speculate about men having work done.

Beyoncé’s remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” (It’s v. good and all proceeds go to Bread Of Life Houston’s COVID-19 relief efforts.)

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