Opinion: Racist Myths At Heart Of Bluesfest Criticism

If you think it’s time to eradicate hip hop from Bluesfest due to Thursday night’s crowd behaviour, there is a good chance you are being racist.

That doesn’t mean you are a racist, however it does mean that the racist tropes of Black criminality – and criminality of people of colour in general – are ones you accept as fact. But much of the conversation surrounding Thursday night’s Migos and Little Yachty shows play on racist tropes of how hip-hop music is the music of criminality and therefore a bad influence on youth, or how young people of colour are often characterized as “thugs.”

Morning radio shows on Friday referenced how the acts during Bluesfest’s final weekend would be calmer and have “better crowds” because of acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which will attract an older, whiter audience. Some of the deadliest concerts have been with performers like The Who (11 fans dead in Cincinnati in 1979) The Rolling Stones (Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel during their set at Altamont in 1969) and at Woodstock in 1999. 

This coverage has mainly been of the “dog whistle” variety, where coded racial language like “urban” and “hip hop” have been used over and over to insinuate and underlying message of criminality, of uncontrolled youth of colour, of “thugs.” On its face, this may seem like no one is referring directly to the race of the performers or crowds in relation to the violence, but it’s actually a targeted message, one that has been used throughout history, to reinforce the belief that youth of colour behave badly and must be controlled – and policed.

In addition, there are large assumptions being made in the Ottawa media about the racial consistency of the crowd: the photo used in Thursday’s Citizen alongside the article on the incident implies that it was mostly made up of youths of colour, whereas photos taken by concert-goers tell a different story.

Assuming that youth of colour, and young Black men in particular, are dangerous is not a new idea: it derives from slavery, where the myth of Black criminality was constructed to discipline and control slaves out of fear they would stage a rebellion. Given Canada’s 200-year flirtation with slavery, this myth endures on this side of the border.

Studies have found that Black boys are viewed by police as older and less innocent than white peers, a trope we see repeatedly in pop culture. Police violence against young, unarmed Black men, including in this very city, show us that this type of coded language, and playing on this racist stereotype, can have deadly consequences. It is these stereotypes that dehumanize young people of colour and put them so much more at risk.

While still a predominantly white city, Ottawa is becoming increasingly diverse, which means that openness to understanding non-white populations is required. Migos has one of the hottest singles of the year and it should have been known that they would attract a younger audience. What’s critical to this conversation, however, is that unacceptable behaviour by attendees is not racially relevant, while the portrayal of that behaviour is.

Using racist euphemisms to imply it was Black youth and Black performers results in violent crowds is as problematic as it is untrue.

Thursday night’s Bluesfest show was a disaster, obviously, but it’s not youth of colour who are the problem; and neither hip hop nor Black performers are the problem either. Teenagers who enter the grounds with flasks full of alcohol and a fist full of drugs are the problem, as generations before them were once that same problem.Sex, drugs, and rock and roll will always have problems like sexual assault, violence and rebellion intrinsically related to them. But the problem isn’t Black.

Bailey Reid, Erica Ifill and Erin Gee co-host the Bad+Bitchy Podcast. Twitter: @badandbitchy. The op-ed feature was published in the Ottawa Citizen on July 14.

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