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Pride Toronto performers weigh censorship controversy

To play or not to play?

2009 Toronto Pride parade. Credit: Jenna Wakani photo

Soon after Pride Toronto chose to censor the term “Israeli apartheid,” the anarchic folk-rock band Tomboyfriend pulled out in protest. At the packed town-hall meeting held at the 519 Church St Community Centre on June 7, lead singer/songwriter Ryan Kamstra expressed surprise that no other bands had yet done the same.

But earlier that afternoon, John Caffery of Kids on TV announced his withdrawal from a DJ gig at Pride. Singer Troy Jackson, writer David Demchuk and Pride stage host and mayoral candidate Keith Cole also dropped out. And now other scheduled performers are mulling over whether or not to do the same.

“I view free speech as vital to social change and empowerment,” says Caffery. “If free speech is to be taken away, then it certainly is not a party I can play music for.”

Kamstra agrees, noting the language in the contract Pride Toronto requires performing artists sign. The contract requires artists to be sensitive to Pride Toronto’s corporate sponsors and “to perform in a manner consistent with the celebration of Pride and positive value of diversity…[and] not present images or messages that promote or condone, or may promote or may condone, violence, hatred, degradation or negative stereotypes of any person(s) or group(s).”

“I couldn’t stomach signing that contract,” says Kamstra. “A lot of our stuff has express political content.”

Kamstra says the clause is too ambiguous and open to interpretation.

“I don’t see how we could mount a performance in any meaningful way,” he says.

“I’ll have to think about it more,” says “Gentleman Reg” Vermue. “We actually weren’t going to play Pride this year, but The 519 asked us to play in their yard and we said yes. We’re being paid by The 519.”

“I’m conflicted,” says singer Ryan G Hinds. “I really want to stand in solidarity with everyone else, but pulling out affects my backup dancers and my songwriter, not to mention my own bank account. It might make me a sell-out, but some people need to realize that Pride season is more than just politics… for some of us, it’s how we put food on the table.”

That’s fair, says Kamstra. “I really respect that this is a matter of personal conscience, what one feels the thing to do to be,” though not everyone is as conflicted as Hinds.

“We’re playing,” says Steve Digeur, singer for punk rockers Señor Kasio. “Hey, we’re musicians. We like to play and we like to party. So we’ll be there.”

“For us, playing Pride represents a way to connect to our queer audiences,” says half of electro duo Woodhands Dan Werb. “I have mixed feelings about Israel and Zionism and feel strongly about Palestinian human rights, but Pride isn’t the venue that I would use to convey those sentiments.”

“Fuck Pride. Fuck Israel. Fuck Palestine,” says Crackpuppy guitarist Patricia Wilson. “Only rock and roll matters. It is the only true government, the only true religion.”

Wilson says the whole controversy is actually a case of “corporate and government blackmail and [is] a real fucking shame because it divides the community. In 20 minutes, when this is all over, the community will still be divided.”

“I rest the onus on creating that environment solely with Pride Toronto’s decision to create a precedent by censoring one group, because it was optic and convenient for it to do so in a given climate,” says Kamstra.

“I feel the community at large has been vocal in communicating why this is wrong and that it is the festival programmers’ responsibility to respond,” says Caffery.

UPDATE: The women’s party Crave, a Pride Toronto event to be held at the Phoenix on June 25, has been cancelled, according to organizer Carlyle Jansen. Jansen has so far not given a reason.