*feature image by Alex Payne
This week, Action Bronson, a controversial rapper from New York, had his performance at Yonge-Dundas Square cancelled due to a petition that received over 37,000 signatures. There was a lot of shade thrown on both sides about whether this was a feminist issue or a censorship issue, or both.
Yesterday morning, I took the artist’s view of the issue and felt uncomfortable about the idea that a performer’s work could get banned for being unlikeable or controversial. Obviously, I’m no fan of gang rape, but many people were rightfully asking whether someone’s work reflects their personal character; if it does, what should we think about Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin? Should Game of Thrones be banned for its gratuitous violence, sexual and otherwise? I felt worried about what the implications could be; it’s easy to hate on something as distasteful as a rap song about gang rape, but could this trend continue on and start hurting artists who create anything controversial that someone else doesn’t like? I particularly remembered a story about a friend who had had some of his artwork featured on a T-shirt in a mall in Calgary. Getting his work on the shirt was a big deal for him but a woman had seen the shirt and demanded the store stop selling it; it depicted a girl committing suicide and the woman, whose young daughter had committed suicide, felt it glorified suicide, was triggering, and shouldn’t be sold in a mall.
I later learned that Action Bronson has had a history of less than kind behaviour toward historically-oppressed groups beyond this one song; he posted a picture online of a drunk transgendered person, referred to her as “it” and laughed about pouring a bottle of water over her head. He later took down his Instagram but didn’t apologize. Another blog I read poignantly pointed out that censorship is when you are forced to stop creating your work, usually by a government. If the public rejects an action (whether through petition or boycott), that’s something a bit different. Action Bronson can still create and perform his songs without fear of jail or other retribution. Controversial lyrics will create controversy, which may lead to certain places not wanting him to perform there.
In the end, his performance was moved to a ticketed venue vs. a public space. He can still perform for those that wish to see him, and those that feel he shouldn’t perform in a public-funded space also got their voices heard.
It’s not a black and white issue; creators must feel they can create without fear of retribution, but consumers can choose to reject these creations if they don’t like them. These conversations about public harm vs. freedom are important to have and don’t have easy answers. I’m not here to say who was right and who was wrong, but by listening to both sides of these kinds of issues we can engage in meaningful debates with each other. Is being offended by content so bad that it requires stopping the content from existing? Or is it something more – that some kinds of offensive content actually play a much larger part than we realize in shaping a reality that favours some while re-enforcing oppressive and dangerous systems for others?