Just scratching the surface

Why talking racism, power and privilege in Toronto's white indie music community isn't enough

“Here to learn.”

This was a shared sentiment among the panellists of Music: Racism, Power and Privilege 101, a discussion held at the Music Gallery last month. 

To enlighten already-engaged music lovers, creators and experimenters wasn’t moderator April Aliermo’s intention. The bassist/vocalist of bands Hooded Fang and Phèdre simply wanted to facilitate a frank and honest offline discussion.

Aliermo assembled various members of the music community to speak to concerns unfolding in online forums within the predominantly white/straight/male scene.

“A lot of people are tired of giving answers,” Aliermo began. “But a lot of people have questions.”

No one claimed to be an “anti-racism expert.” The panel was made up of cellist Cris Derkson, Simone Schmidt of Fiver/the Highest Order, Alaska B of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Damian Abraham of Fucked Up, journalist Max Mohenu, and media and culture sociologist Kim de Laat. They attempted to answer anonymous questions that were submitted prior to the event.

The night began with a primer from de Laat on the implicit ways that racism gets reproduced in the music industry. Some valid context was given; however, to be willingly present at the PWYC panel probably meant you didn’t need a beginner’s guide to what’s racist and what’s not.

To the misfortune of many, this was a lingering theme.

The band name controversy surrounding Viet Cong was brought up countless times. Aliermo briefly mentioned that, despite standing by it, she hated writing Not Yours To Play With: Why Viet Cong’s Name Offends, an Exclaim! article that prompted much discussion and the talk itself.

Frustration brewed after Aliermo noted that the two-hour panel only had time to answer to the pre-posed questions. The initiative was to ensure that the questions, awkward and uncomfortable in nature, would be answered in an inclusive, (somewhat) non-judgemental space. It was an honest attempt, but this simultaneously extinguished any chance for audience participation.

Aliermo would later say that the panel, with a predominant focus on Toronto’s white indie scene, should have been labeled as such.

Many of the more-often-comments-than-questions were answered confidently by Alaska B.

“You should look at it just like countries do, if you don’t take advantage of an immigration of ideas and concepts from elsewhere in the world, then all you’re doing is cutting yourself off from all the possible benefits,” B said in response to someone conflicted by the desire to include a racialized person in an otherwise all-white band.

Of all the panellists, Abraham took the most flack for fitting the white, straight, male descriptor in a conversation about racism. Despite this, Abraham admitted to his own band’s past mistakes, like using album art that included police brutality and anti-cop imagery that had implications to racialized people the band members didn’t understand.

Mohenu and Aliermo were quick to come to defend the singer’s presence on the panel.

“When I think of the supreme ally, I think of someone who is consistent, someone who is consistently trying to educate themselves and trying to educate other people around them. When I heard that Damian was going to be on the panel, it was a no-brainer, because it’s someone who’s been consistent in wanting to help educate people,” Mohenu said.

“For me it’s important to have a straight, white ally who can speak about their privilege because there’s a small handful of people in my life that are vocal about acknowledging it,” Aliermo followed.

The tipping point came near the end of the night, when an audience member stood, tears rolling down their cheeks. They questioned the lack of “black music” representation on the panel, indicating that the audience should have been warned about the “white indie” focus. This came following another audience member’s plea for the panel to stop using the phrase “people of colour.”

“It’s a term created to make white people feel comfortable,” they said.

“Racialized” was used for the remainder of the evening.

To write an article summarizing the discussion, intention or relative ‘point’ of this panel seems boastful at best. To internally debate the questions and answers only leads to a manifestation of mini panel discussions within your own head. The process of mentally jotting down notes, only to cross them out immediately after, points to the notion that this conversation needs to continue, and often.

To echo the last words of an unnamed audience member, “Do another one, please.”