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What will it take to fix the Halifax Pop Explosion?

A deep dive into why the venerable music festival’s fourth apology for racism still isn’t right.

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Responding to allegations of racism, HPX finally released a statement promising to release more statements. - THE COAST
  • The Coast
  • Responding to allegations of racism, HPX finally released a statement promising to release more statements.

It was like a snowfall. Flurries at first. Then, a quickly mounting storm. “YOUR company has systemic racism on its own, NOT just because most companies also have it,” reads one of many comments on an Instagram post shared last June by the Halifax Pop Explosion. “recognize that the racism stems from somewhere personal, whether it be yourself, your team members, or the fact that Halifax has been extremely unfair to people of colour for decades.”

“There are so many resources in the comments here alone,” reads another. “Either act on the numerous suggestions of transparency, reparations, consequences for those who caused immediate harm and a restructuring of your org with hired consulting and new staff. Or disband.”

Someone types: “halifax poop explosion 🚨 💩 💥 . clean up the shitstorm you created.”

The comments pile up into the dozens, the hundreds—so many that, even nine months later, when you look up the HPX Instagram and try to read through the wreckage, it buffers and skips.

“What about all the POC people giving you direct action steps for free here? Do you see them? Are you gonna compensate them? These are things we wanna know, and things you should be explicitly telling us,” types another.

Someone else comments: “Having a ‘diverse’ lineup but not supporting and respecting those artists and music lovers is not enough. We need to work to make safe spaces and community for Black & Indigenous artists and audiences and that doesn’t end with the lineup.”

“So what are you waiting for?” another Instagrammer adds. “The comments have laid out exactly what steps to take. You're used to taking advantage of free labour. Get on it.”

A former festival performer posts a two-word comment that feels like a nail in the coffin: “I’m bored.”

The trio of posts that caused this landslide of critical comments began with Halifax Pop Explosion taking part in #TheShowMustBePaused, a social media movement taking aim at systemic racism within the music industry last June. That HPX participated in the movement by posting a black square—seemingly without acknowledging its own systemic inequities, or at least not doing so publicly—made the venerable music festival look performative at best and racist at worst. Two apology posts from the organization followed later that month, both met with similar commentary: You’re a problematic event, and we’ve been trying to tell you this for awhile.

It felt like change might be on the way, especially when, in the replies on a now-deleted post, the Halifax Pop Explosion’s official account replied to a commenter. “This is James,” starts the comment, apparently authored by HPX executive director James Boyle. “I've been reading your posts. I've been reflecting a lot on this. I've emailed you directly, and I want you to know that I am sorry for the harm you’ve experienced over the past three years as a result of our actions.”

Near the end of the apology comment, Boyle states he is no longer involved with the festival. “Effective today, I want you to know I have resigned from Halifax Pop Explosion.” Besides this comment on an Instagram post, no official statement has been made by the festival about Boyle’s resignation. Since June 2020, there’s been no executive director listed on the festival’s site at all. 

In fact, the city wouldn’t hear a sound from the decades-old festival for another nine months—not even a peep last fall to acknowledge the day the annual event was slated to start, if not for Covid shutting things down.

Then two weeks ago, on February 25, 2021, the wind shifted again. HPX released an official statement.

The statement is a whopping six pages long—which makes sense in a way, since the pressure systems behind the storm have been building for awhile. Those familiar with the festival know its problems pre-date a shaky, problematic social media strategy. 

Remember back in 2017, when Polaris Prize-winning musician Lido Pimienta asked an HPX crowd to cede the front rows to women of colour (a twist on the popular Riot Grrl "girls to the front" request)? When a white festival volunteer resisted Pimienta's request 10 times, the musician paused her Oct 19, 2017 set. The incident became international news, making Pimienta a target online for alt-right trolls in the process.

As I wrote last October—on what should’ve been the first night of HPX’s 2020 shows—this story travelled all the way to Billboard, with Pimienta telling the iconic music publication in 2017 that she “was deeply touched” by the apology the fest issued publicly, and that “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’.”

But that wasn’t the only instance of racism that happened at HPX’s 2017 event. A musician of colour—we’ll call them Taylor—who performed at multiple festival showcases that year, told me about their experience with the festival in an exclusive interview after last June’s trio of HPX Instagram apologies.

Taylor says a man working at the festival verbally abused and threatened them multiple times. After witnessing the non-aggressive way the man spoke with non-POC bystanders, Taylor believes the Pop Explosion worker’s threats were motivated by racism. Things culminated the night after Lido Pimienta’s show, Taylor says, when this man drove his car at Taylor, yelling out the window at them as they stood in an HPX venue parking lot.

Taylor adds that this man repeatedly told them he’d use his connections to make it impossible for them to work in this town again. Taylor told the HPX board what happened days after the aggressor accelerated his car at them. But, Taylor tells me, the board treated it as an interpersonal issue—a disagreement between a couple people in the music scene—rather than three connected acts of racism perpetrated by a contracted festival staffer against a performer.

Of course, the stories of Pimienta and Taylor are only the ones that we know about, ones that have a direct line of aggressor and aggrieved. The roots of the issue go back further, burrowing down metre after metre through the topsoil of modern culture. Like all primarily white organizations—this Coast you’re reading included—HPX has to deal with the fact that it has an inherent legacy of being less accessible and less equitable than organizations that are built from a place of inclusion and diversity. This is the racist bedrock of the entire music industry, which has always encouraged the success of white artists over artists of colour and has repeatedly facilitated the theft of Black music.

Back to the Pop Explosion’s statement. Is it able to, as Pimienta hoped, help the festival “move past the noise?” Well, the six-page document talks a lot, but says little. Its first subsection—titled “Why it Took So Long to Communicate With You”—highlights the feeling of those belonging to Halifax Pop’s board, a move that’s decidedly more I feel bad than I’m sorry.

“In 2017, a conflict took place at a Halifax Pop Explosion event, which raised concerns with members of the BIPOC community,” it begins (though I’d call an attempt to run someone over more than concern-raising). “There have been times where the weight of conflict, not understanding where to move next, has caused HPX to remain still,” reads one line, centering the issue from a white aggressor/bystander viewpoint, instead of putting the feelings of those harmed (like Taylor or Pimienta) at the heart of things.

“The board felt very immobilized,” says Georgie Dudka, the vice chair of the Halifax Pop Explosion board of directors, on a Zoom call with The Coast last Monday. “We understood that we needed support in unpacking the inequities, in unpacking the conflicts.”

That immobilization plays into the second problem, which is how long the apology was in coming: It’s been over 900 days since Taylor entered into closed-room conversations with the festival. What Taylor anticipated to be a discussion of the racism they experienced and how further instances like this could be avoided, ended up being a mediation about what Dudka still referred to during last Monday’s Zoom call as a “conflict."

And if the statement says little, it does even less: Making a statement is not the same thing as taking action. People of colour have watched white-lead organizations release plans and promises for decades (and let’s not forget that, counting the public apology to Pimienta, February 2021’s statement is the fest’s fourth).

The statement only really promises release dates of more statements. Yesterday was the promised release of a safer spaces survey created with outside consultant ARC, the Atlantic Restorative Company. And on April 15, the fest will update its website with info like financial statements and future event dates.

How long will Halifax have to wait to see measurable action from one of its biggest cultural events? “The statement is not meant to be just perceived as talking. It is very genuine from the board,” the chair of HPX’s board of directors, Stephanie Purcell, says in the same Zoom interview. “And we are putting things into action, and there’s going to be even more action as this process works through with ARC—from the survey, from people who are going to engage with them and then their recommendations that are going to come out on the other side of this.”

The Halifax Pop Explosion’s work with an outside consultant agency—and the resulting, recently released statement—were funded by a grant awarded last summer from the department of communities culture and heritage “to review the organization and festival with an independent consultant,” as the statement says. Reference to the festival’s finances was made both in the statement and in Purcell and Dudka’s interview with The Coast, with them saying that without this grant, work towards equity wouldn’t be feasible (especially since pandemic closures meant the fest didn’t make money last year).

“There’s been a lot of emotional distress among the board members and among the staff since 2017. We’ve lost staff, we’ve lost board members. It’s also a volunteer board so there’s only so much time that we can all commit to the organization,” Purcell says. “And then once Covid hit, that just also created a whole other set of challenges for the festival and for moving forward and getting people together.”

Purcell and Dudka add that ARC isn't the first consultant HPX has brought on board, just the first public-facing one. But, when asked, they ceded that no internal work has been done to make the organization more anti-oppressive. The organization has done equity, diversity and inclusion training in the past, and plans to have all future staff, volunteers and board members go through this training. Additionally, a new process of hiring and filling contract positions will be unveiled by the organization.

I asked if the fest-affiliated person who Taylor alleges drove a car at them—a man who has worked with the festival for many years—would be able to re-apply to work at the festival. Could this alleged racist aggressor ever expect to be hired, contracted, paid? Could he expect to have a reference? “We don’t have any contract positions with any previous contractors or anyone currently, as there’s a lot of plans for the festival still under way. And we’re going through a whole new program of RFPs”—that’s request for proposal, like submitting a tender for a short-term contract—”where people can apply through the RFP for jobs or contracts within Halifax Pop Explosion,” Purcell replies.

So, if he applied, he’d be rejected immediately? “Once things go out to the public, anyone within the industry or feels that they wanna apply for a contract position can apply,” says Purcell, before Dudka adds that “HR and privacy” means they can’t say any more.

In the years following the incident and the mediation—a time that the Pop Explosion repeatedly describes as time it spent standing still—Taylor was on the move, feeling they had to get out of Halifax all together. The fact that it will be easier for their aggressor to re-apply to HPX than it will be for Taylor to return from out of province for a fest-related opportunity feels like the cherry on top of a shit sandwich.

When asked why people of colour should have to wait until the festival’s pocketbook is in order, Purcell says: “As we had noted in our statement, a couple of the big reasons for our delay: One is definitely our financial situation—that was just a priority, to keep the festival alive.”

“That’s just a fucking pathetic answer. It just stinks of privilege. Like, you can afford to wait around until someone can pay you to work towards erasing this harm that you’re doing? It’s just fucked. I feel one does that work because they are a decent human being,” Andrew Patterson, former creative director of Halifax’s EVERYSEEKER Festival, says on a windy phone call from Montreal later the same day. “It’s not about affording to do the work. It’s about can you as a human, as a community member, afford not to do that work, on a soul level?

During the same timeline that Halifax Pop was feeling frozen in place from the events of its 2017 festival, EVERYSEEKER was working to move away from the almost-all-white lineups of its early days (when it went by the name OBEY Convention), bringing on a programming committee to, as Patterson puts it, “invite input, experience and oversight from community members” for the festival’s bill and in its makeup. (Patterson was resistant to the idea of a committee at first, but says its value became visible almost instantly: “Seeing that committee come into existence and being able to rely on its wisdom, its knowledge and its perspectives, was a big lesson for me.”)

Operating on a much smaller scale than HPX—Patterson figures one evening headliner at Halifax Pop “would be a quarter of our annual budget”—EVERYSEEKER has been offering anti-oppression training to the public and all fest volunteers for about four years. The fest has its own safer spaces policy as well as a partnership with Whole Tone Artist Development, what Patterson calls “a major anti-racism project” the festival is investing in—all without ever being awarded a special grant to help create a more inclusive experience.

Naturally, as another white-based organization, EVERYSEEKER’s existence hasn’t been blemish-free. In particular, in June 2019, a white speaker—Mary Jane Leach—referred to several works by Black composer Julius Eastman that included a racial slur in the name. 

“That event I will live with for my life,” Patterson says of the incident. An apology was issued two days after the event on EVERYSEEKER’s website (that’s 895 days faster than HPX’s apology), but Patterson says if he could do it over, he’d make sure the apology was less academic in its language and focused less on trying to explain the fest’s point of view.

“We were already doing that kind of work and we were already conscious of that and the cultural space we take up and we still fucked up. And that's not the only fuck up: It's just the most public one,” he adds. But while you can’t help being white—that is to say, you can’t help it that you profit from society’s million inequalities, both big and small—you can do something about it. “If you’re working in any way that holds cultural space, it’s your duty to educate yourself on the true potentials of that space and how it can make room for everyone,” Patterson says. “And how to invite everyone that they feel seen and heard and safe.”

EVERYSEEKER isn’t the only one doing the work on a shoestring. The collectively run, not-for-profit Radstorm has one of the city’s most thoughtful code-of-conduct policies, with a zero-tolerance policy for any “language, behaviour [or] content created or shared in the space” that “includes but is not limited to sexualized violence or harassment, racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, ageism, and ableism,” as the group puts it on its Facebook page.

Accessibility and equity is at the forefront of everything the DIY arts space does, with pay-what-you-can performances and a dry venue policy keeping events more open to all. Currently crowdfunding to purchase its 2177 Gottingen Street building after years of lease insecurity, it’s worth noting Radstorm also doesn’t have a special social justice slush fund to dip into to make things more welcoming.

“There will always be conflict. When we invite ticket-holders into a space, there’s a certain amount of ‘what will happen.’ And there are steps that the organization will be taking moving forward to make the spaces that we have and the venues that we have safer,” HPX’s Dudka says on our Zoom call.

But what does that look like? “I’d like to see festivals and music organizations take a look at the historical perspective of the industry in which they work. It’s been touched on that the music industry is a harmful, extractive, racist, colonialist endeavour,” says Patterson. Diverse programming created by diverse groups; engaging in anti-oppression training—and putting that training into practice; making events as physically, financially and culturally accessible as possible; ensuring representation in higher, paid levels of your organization; and swift accountability of wrongdoing are all good starting points. 

“We have a line in the statement that we’re working towards a safer spaces policy. The language of a safer spaces document or policy, for any organization, comes with the acknowledgement that they are safer. That doesn’t mean that they are safe entirely,” Dudka says. “All of those questions that are really important to say ‘When I’m coming into this space, how am I being taken care of?”

He adds: “We are trying to actively investigate those questions with the survey and with the policy we’re creating moving forward.” The thing is, you can’t move forward, you can’t move past the noise, if you’re standing still.

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