On Kanye and Canada


kanye west

I have been moved to address the outcry against Kanye West being chosen as one of the headliners of the Pan Am Games Closing Ceremonies here in Toronto (along with Canadian Serena Ryder, who wrote the Pan Am official theme and Pitbull, who is Cuban-American). I considered signing a petition against the choice of Kanye because I certainly don’t think that he is a great ambassador of sportsmanship and pan-cultural respect and comradeship. But on second consideration, I felt as though the petition was too strong a stand to take, I may not respect his egotistical and rude behaviour, and I am not a fan of his music, but I’m not in favour of ousting him from Toronto either. I read an article that suggested that some of the Kanye backlash may be racially motivated, and that strengthened my resolve that the petition is not something I feel comfortable signing, but I wanted to address specifically the argument I have been hearing that Kanye was a poor choice as a headliner for the PanAm Games, in the host city of Toronto, because that honour should have been reserved for a Canadian musician.

It’s true that these games involve athletes from 41 nations, therefore, even though Toronto is the host city, Canada doesn’t have a cultural monopoly on the talent included in the games. If the headliner for the Closing Ceremonies that everyone in the media and elsewhere had been from any other country, other than the United States, I wouldn’t be writing this article. The problem with bringing in a big American music star into an event hosted by a Canadian city is that, every single time, it quietly reinforces to a huge percentage of the population of this country, my country, that our artists are not good enough to perform in that capacity at that caliber on the World Stage. This is straight up bullshit. Yet, as Sharron Matthews wrote recently on her Facebook page, this misinformed opinion is rampant: “”I think it is amazing that Canada can get an artist like Kanye West… it shows that we are bigger than our local performers… that we can bring in world class performers…” – Woman on the Radio/CBC phone in show.” This attitude toward our own local performers, whether it be in music, in theatre, in film or television or in art or dance or any other artistic industry is one of my biggest pet peeves, and I see it every day. I see it in the attitudes of my own friends and family toward my work when they say casual things like, “Then when you’ve made it you’ll get to go to New York and review big Broadway shows!” or “Instead of reviewing the Fringe Festival you should find a way to review the Toronto Film Festival and interview all the famous people!” Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp and Julia Roberts and Oprah Winfrey don’t interest me or excite me half as much as watching something like Spoon River at Soulpepper or a Fringe show like Rachel Blair’s A Man Walks Into a Bar or watching Sharron Matthews do a Cabaret. This city is packed to the gills with talent that is underrated, underused and that rivals the talent of any other city in the World, and there are cities just like this one all across the country. In my opinion the only thing the United States does WAY better than us is it values its artists, you don’t even have to be talented to be valued as an artist (or as a weird artist-adjacent socialite) in the United States. The United States values the Hell out of Kanye West because Kanye West demands to be valued, and we value him because we have been conditioned to value anything the United States values.   

A lot has been written about the importance of representation in the media and popular culture. We know that decades of disseminating television programs and films filled with white, middle class, heterosexual characters of vague Christian faith sends a strong message to those who do not fit into this extremely narrow box that their experience exists beyond the mainstream and is not what is being marketed as desirable, or in some cases, even considered within the realm of “normal.” We have made great leaps and gains in this regard since the 1970s, but those in charge of the creation of our popular culture still mostly hold on ardently to many archaic ideas, for example, that Batman, Santa Claus and Jesus Christ must be white or that female characters must exist as either the helper to the protagonist or that which must be rescued by the protagonist, and literally hundreds of other examples. We know that popular culture is a powerful force in our society to either give voice to those who have been marginalized or to keep them silent. Therefore, if it is important for people to see themselves represented in their societies’ media and popular culture, then what does that say about Canadians? After all, the majority of what is being marketed to us as “our culture,” “our stories” and “our experiences” are only vague American approximates AT BEST. Either we are forced to admit that we don’t have our own culture, that we have appropriated everything from our friends to the South (which, I don’t believe to be true), or we must confront the fact that we are letting our culture be marginalized in our own country, by our own continual consent. That is fucked up.

I’m not suggesting here that Canadians are oppressed by Americans, or that our experience compares to that of people whose lack of representation in the media comes from being disenfranchised because of racist, homophobic and patriarchal social constructs. Yet, I will argue that our inferiority complex, which has real adverse effects on the way we treat our citizens and the way that we see our country as a whole, is exacerbated by the lack of Canadian voices, faces, stories, and experiences that we see represented in our mainstream media. The most frustrating thing is that we have largely done this to ourselves.

Years ago, in Canada, when people still rented movies from video stores, Canadian films were often in the “Foreign Films” section. The American films, which sprawled through most of the store, were presented as the default, conventional, option. Yet, the United States of America is a separate country from us, which suggests that, in Canada, they actually qualify as “Foreign Films.” We’re awfully mixed up here. Now that video stores are things largely left to hipsters with VCRs it’s nearly impossible to see a Canadian film unless you’re at a film festival. We are the ones who are missing out. Canadian films are awesome. We are literally depriving ourselves of our own culture, of our own stories, of our own art. Then we wonder why it’s so difficult for Canadian artists to get American caliber success without opting for a green card and setting off for a place where artists are valued. 

What is the result of having another country’s culture, their stories, their artists, their experiences, shoved down our throats for generations and masquerading as our own? It is a feeling of inferiority. It is a continual questioning of the worth of our own stories, our art, our experiences and how we distinguish ourselves from Americans while we are encouraged at every turn to appropriate their culture. It is believing that American culture is the default, that it is what we aspire to, that it is superior to our own. It looks exactly like this rant that Toronto DJ Walmer Convenience posted on his website regarding outrage to having Kanye perform at the Closing Ceremonies at the Pan Am Games:

“Petitioning against Kanye is small minded. Having Kanye perform is a sign of confidence in our culture. Having some bland CBC level act who has a career because there are laws that force radio stations to play Canadian music is a sign of weakness. It shows that we need to force our music down our own throats. We are scared of being overshadowed.

Let’s be even more real. Putting some fucking D-Level CanCon turd instead of Kanye is gonna get zero global attention. It’s not gonna focus any attention on Toronto as a global cultural hub. In fact, having some shitty state-sponsored artist will just showcase the garbage level of output from that area of the Canadian music industry.

One of the Change.org petitions goes on to list these artists as alternatives: Drake, Walk Off the Earth, Feist, Metric, Shania Twain, deadmau5, Crystal Castles, Zeds Dead, the Weeknd, Peaches and K’naan. Let’s be honest, who of these would you rather see than Kanye? Fiest? LOL. I know some of these acts and they would probably rather watch Kanye.”

Walmer Convenience’s only argument here is that Kanye is inherently superior to every single other artist in Canada, entirely because he is American. He makes no mention of the fact that Canadian artists are immediately at a disadvantage because they do not have the same media machine behind them as American artists do, and that, even with the CBC, we have been conditioned, for over a hundred years, to look to this machine in New York and Los Angeles, not to our own machine in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, for where the mainstream is of our culture. And yet, despite all that adversity, we still manage to churn out some of the best singers, bands, actors, comedians, writers and other artists in the entire world. Most of the time they have to leave the country to be “discovered” and this is inherently problematic and speaks volumes to our own inferiority and how ridiculously ensnared we are in the American system. If a Canadian becomes adopted as American (often literally becomes an American citizen) then, AND ONLY THEN, does the majority, mainstream of the country admit that we have some success stories in our ranks. Yet, this Canadian-American often leaves to tell American stories, often pretending to be American in those stories, and our stories and our experiences and our culture is still shoved to the side. We still don’t see ourselves reflected back on the television screen or the movie screen as much as we deserve to be.

The problem is that Walmer Convenience’s attitude toward Canadian artists is rampant, and it doesn’t come from malice so much as ignorance, it comes from decades worth of subliminal messages that we are not important enough to be seen, we are not important enough to be distinguished as different from a country that we are extraordinarily different from. Have you ever wondered why Canadians are so defensive about being mistaken for Americans? It’s not that we dislike America (necessarily), but that our sovereignty as a culture, as a distinct nation, is continually under attack and the attacks are small, and they appear entirely harmless, but they are relentless and the effect that this has had on Canadians is depressing and alarming. Walmer Convenience, and those like him, have completely surrendered to defeat. He doesn’t believe that his own country is capable of producing a music performer of the caliber of Kanye West (of ALL people). That’s pretty depressing for Walmer. He believes that we should be ashamed of ourselves and that our worth derives ENTIRELY on whether we get the approval of the United States of America. I’m tired as fuck of Walmer Convenience’s attitude.

He goes on to say “You don’t see Americans petitioning against Drake hosting SNL, The ESPYs or headlining major festivals all over America. No one is suggesting he be replaced by Jewel or Weezer.” NO. OF COURSE NOT. The reason is simple. If Drake headlines in the United States American DJs across the country aren’t going to write blogs praising SNL Producers for finally procuring the great CANADIAN Drake, a “world-class” performer instead of hiring the shitty local performers. This has nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the caliber of performers who live and work in the United States or Canada and EVERYTHING to do with American confidence. Americans know that their performers, whether Kanye or Jewel, are world-class and a source of pride to their country. They don’t question it or doubt it, and when people have that kind of confidence, they aren’t concerned when someone else comes in every once and awhile who may not be American. It is the exception rather than the rule. Americans turn on their television sets and they see Americans reflected back to them. They are secure in their culture, their artists and their stories. They are the mainstream, they are the dominant culture, but saying that being marginalized in media makes us inferior is like suggesting that marginalization makes any group inherently inferior, and that is absurd. 

Canadians deserve better than Walmer Convenience. We deserve better than to inflict this cultural appropriation on ourselves and our children and to let it make us feel inferior in any regard. We deserve to turn on the TV and to see our stories, our experiences our art and our culture represented there creatively and proudly from Newfoundland to Quebec City, Winnipeg to Victoira, Nunavut to Kapuskasing to Mabou to North Rustico and Leduc and Moose Jaw and all across this beautiful land of ours… strong and free.