Following Show Cancelation SLĀV’s Director Claims Freedom of Expression is “Muzzled”

SLĀV, a musical about the history of racism, oppression, and slavery in America featured an almost all-white cast, prompted a petition signed by 1,500 asking for its cancellation. Director Lepage states that if it were up to him, the show would be still running.

Montreal Jazz Fest cancels SLĀV its largest show following criticism of racism & cultural appropriation

SLĀV, a musical featuring an almost all-white cast and director, came under fire at the International Montreal Jazz Festival for being racist and for cultural appropriation. Following the call to arms by performer Pierre Kwenders, and under intense public pressure from the black community in Montreal and fellow artists, the Jazz Fest canceled all upcoming performance.

Internationally renowned director Robert Lepage, refused to cancel, instead inviting people to see it before passing judgment.  However, the controversy grew in intensity, and after only three performances, the Jazz Fest drew the curtains down on the musical and canceled all upcoming presentation of its hottest ticket.

“We made the decision with the artist Betty Bonifassi to cancel all performances of the show at the festival,” organizers said in a press release on Wednesday.

The cause célèbre attracted the attention of scheduled-to-perform American musician Moses Sumney who pulled out of the Jazz Festival, saying he was disappointed by the festival’s decision to book a show “in which a majority-white group of singers, led by a white Québécois director, sing African-American slave songs, sometimes dressed as field slaves and cotton pickers.”

Cultural appropriation in art

The past decade many white artists, especially rappers have been accused of cultural appropriation, just consider the online thrashing of Iggy Azalea, Macklemore and initially even Eminem experienced backlash. It is best defined as the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, which may be reduced to an “exotic” fashion or toys by those from the dominant culture. It’s the equivalent of former archeologist raiding sites and selling artifacts to the highest bidders to be displayed in a European museum.

Black activist Vincent Mousseau accused the Festival organizers of being insensitive and basically callous. “The Montreal International Jazz Festival is the largest jazz festival in the world and we found it very irresponsible for the festival to put on the show without listening to the voices of those concerned,” he said.“What we saw here were black communities and allies standing up and saying that we’re not OK with the ways in which black culture has been co-opted and put on a pedestal by folks who are not us.”

Robert Lepage calls the cancelation of his show a ‘blow to artistic freedom’ and said in a statement released Friday that if it “were up to him, the show would still be running.’

I prefer to let the detractors and defenders of the project debate and define what cultural appropriation means, for it is an extremely complicated problem and I don’t pretend to know how to solve it. To me, what is most appalling is the intolerant discourse heard both on the street and in some media. Everything that led to this cancellation is a direct blow to artistic freedom, and after 40 years of working in the theatre, I think I can legitimately address this part of the question.

“I don’t believe the descendants of the people who wrote these songs are going to want to see this show,” said Lucas Charlie Rose, a hip-hop artist who organized the protest leading to the cancelation.

The Show must go on

In the rumor mill, there’s already talk of recasting the show with an all-black cast.  As Lepage said, “It’s obvious that any new show comes with its share of blunders, misfires, and bad choices. But unlike a number of other art forms theatre is not fixed. It’s a living art form, that allows a play to grow and evolve constantly, to be perpetually rewritten according to audience reactions, and to be fine-tuned show after show.”

That being said, it is scheduled to perform at the annual Québec city festival without any controversy, a city that isn’t enriched with Montréal cultural and ethnic diversity, and pride itself in its Québec heritage.


Ironically the show apparently failed to depict or even mention the brutal history of racism right here in Canada, focusing instead on its southern neighbor’s failing, and as Hyacinth Gaynair Jamaican-Canadian, a Rutgers University doctoral candidate tweeted,

The Montreal International Jazz Festival ends tomorrow. Make sure to catch its final acts.

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