the Kanye kontroversy

It’s Friday evening and a local TV news poll has revealed that 84 per cent of respondents said no way to the following question: Does Kanye West belong at Bluesfest?

Only 16 per cent said way.

That’s a hefty majority of naysayers. And given the festival’s eclectic nature, it’s difficult to imagine how they even determined what should and should not be at Bluesfest.

Racism? Could be. It’s not a stretch to suggest it played a role in the decision-making process.

Of course, the 84 per cent would argue that it’s a blues festival and hip hop is not real music anyway, or some similar, weak argument. And in fairness to the anti-Kanye camp, it’s entirely likely Skrillex would have fared no better on the same question. (Though opponents are unlikely to demand the removal of the equally ‘inappropriate’ young-country acts from the bill. And that’s where they could have made themselves useful.)

So no way, say the many, hip hop does not belong at this festival. And that’s final.

Again, that would be hip hop, the contemporary form of topical talking blues.

But these are people who believe Bluesfest is all about the classic rock. (As opposed to, say, blues.) After all, Deep Purple knows its way around a blues song (it’s called Lazy). And Skynyrd… well, it’s Skynyrd, ain’t it? We’re talking (not rapping) a band steeped in the southern blues tradition. Though, if you believe Lynyrd Skynyrd’s former producer Al Kooper, at least one original Skynyrdian guitarist would have preferred that Kanye drink from a separate fountain.

(Only one original member remains with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Kooper did not reveal the identity of the racist asshole in the band, so I won’t speculate. But suffice it to say, come showtime the 84 per cent might want to take the opportunity to proudly wave those confederate flags. It’s something of a Skynyrd tradition.)

We get it. After all, the campaign to deny hip hop legitimacy as a musical genre is now in its 37th year. But it’s not exactly gaining strength. Perhaps it’s time for the 84 per cent to devote that negative energy to instead fighting against gay marriage or something.

Not sure, though, exactly what sort of music those narrow-minded music-lovers expect from the festival at this point. Fact is, genre-identity issues have mattered not to organizers since the day they booked Sting, well over a decade ago. And hundreds of thousands seem okay with that. (Issues some of us may have with the festival’s name are a separate matter.)

And so, in solidarity with the 16 per cent — and because I rather enjoy good music — I made my way to Le Breton Flats for the hip hop show of the millennium Friday.

It was going to be a big one. A special occasion. Hell, west-end kids were already taking their first selfies while preparing to board the bus to downtown. Must capture every moment of this experience, doncha know.

Makes you glad no one holds slideshows anymore.

Wending our way through a fenced-off crowd-control maze that would make Rudy Giuliani proud, I and thousands of my new young friends eventually found our way to the entrance. A thorough search later (security is tight, but I’m sure it will be equally so at Blue Rodeo’s show) we were in.

And onstage was Vancouver’s Marianas Trench, throwing a loud and rawkin’ bone of appeasement to the 84-percenters who believe it’s not a proper show unless the singer screams the name of our city in falsetto — numerous times. Speaking fondly of his band’s previous visits to Ottawa the Trench’s frontman related the charming story of a woman who called him a “sexy beast” and how he responded to that compliment.

“I said, ‘Come and see me after the show,'” he nudge-nudged to the audience.

See, kids. That’s how it’s done in the rock and roll world. Good, wholesome family entertainment just like festivals used to be. None of your hip-hopping and technoing and twerking and whatnot. It’s just a shame the 84 per cent were not there to share the moment.

Me, I wasted little time moving on to the stage then playing host to Ottawa’s magnificent Souljazz Orchestra. The globetrotting musical-global-villagers rarely make it back to their hometown, so this was destined to be pretty swell.

It was.

“Souljazz are the shit!” bellowed one patron as he walked away from the stage and on to the next one. After one song. Perhaps the super-tight combo was too intense for him. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of other stages, other shit.

Like Hawksley Workman, who classic-rocked his way through a set — as he is wont to do when necessary — at another sidestage. His show seemed workmanlike, appropriately enough, but he gets extra points for his pronunciation of Gabriel Pizza.

Meanwhile, back at Souljazz, keyboardist Pierre Chrétien was taking the crowd all the way “back to the Babylon days” with a fiery Freedom No Go Die. (Hey, some of us go back all the way to the Café Nostalgica days. But it’s not a competition.)

Conclusion: Souljazz are the shit!

Just ask Trevor Walker, seen dancing in the crowd and making the most of being on the other side of the beat for an evening. (Or part of an evening. He DJed at Social later.)

And so to Kanye West, the voice of the 16 per cent.

“I’m just going to climb that thing I want to climb,” one teen was telling her friends as she and thousands of others negotiated a place in front of the stage. Please keep off those towers, kids! We don’t need any extra weight on them. (That’s for you classic-rockers.)

As it turned out, there was no need to climb anything to get a good view of the man’s performance. Alone onstage, with no lightshow, props or band to serve as distraction, the great man ensured all eyes were at all times on him. Some watched Kanye via the oversized screens on either side of the stage. Most watched through the tiny screens held above their heads. Some may even have shifted their gaze, briefly, to the stage itself.

The show was, unsurprisingly, weighted toward West’s latest album. But he touched on all elements of his career. As such, he provided a reminder of what made Kanye West such a phenomenon a decade ago. With The College Dropout, he appeared to arrive fully formed, a fresh voice for the aging hip hop playbook. With Jesus Walks, for example, Kanye directly linked contemporary hip hop to gospel, the music that inspired every important American musical movement of the 20th Century.

Blues included.

Of course, the problem with being a fresh voice is it’s impossible to sustain. Subsequent albums have been strong but hardly revelatory. Moreover, Kanye West has dared to become a celebrity, no better in the public’s perception than, say, his wife. More ammunition for those determined to hate him; though, this has nothing to do with his musical acumen.

And there’s that seemingly limitless ego, something to which fans of classic-rockers like John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Axl Rose can at least relate. And that ego was certainly evident Friday evening. I mean, come on, man, can’t we at least have the Kanye West Dancers out for a number or something? That skulking about the stage, engaging in the occasional awkward dance move or punching the air with your fist is fine. But, you know, kids like distractions.

They also like hip hop, a genre far older than they are but still relevant. Kanye West proved that Friday. Indeed, the festival is offering a veritable hip hop primer this year, with legends like Nas and De La Soul and up-and-comer Chance the Rapper.

The 84 per cent would do well to check out this handy history of hip hop. They just might learn something.

Just ask the senior spotted bopping to Kanye somewhere midfield Friday, smiling at the kids and their music and amply protected by his straw hat. That’s old school — with a newly opened mind.

If only 84 per cent of his friends had been willing to join him.

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