Canadian rap fans have learned that there’s nothing worse than clutching your concert ticket as you rap along to every Youtube video of the artist you are about to see live, just to hop on Twitter to read that the show has been postponed. The artist you were so excited to see has just tweeted that they couldn’t get into the country, and just like that, they have become the latest victim of the Canadian border. Cancelled shows suck, no matter where you live. But in Canada, where live music fans and hip-hop enthusiasts have grown to anticipate concert cancellations before any feelings of excitement at a show announcement, it sucks even more. While many are quick to scream “fuck the Canadian border,” with virtual picket signs in the form of 140 characters, there may be more to the story.
Issues with the Canadian border have spanned the length of the hip-hop show industry in Canada. In 2000, Ontario attorney general Jim Flaherty attempted to stop Eminem from entering Canada due to lyrics laid with “violence against women.” In 2007, Jerome Almon, CEO of Murdercap Records, attempted to sue Canadian immigration officials in a $900 million lawsuit stating that he had been a product of racial profiling, as he was detained for questioning 117 of the 120 times he had crossed the border. Wu-Tang legend, Ghostface Killah was banned from entering Canada for 15 years, and rappers like Nipsey Hussle may never step foot on Canadian soil.
Shows have been cancelled, promotion companies have gone under, and fans have missed out on their favorite music over the years because of the border’s issues. But how long are Canadians going to blame it on the border? It’s more than just a few officials that are condemning the industry. After decades, it’s safe to say the issue has surpassed a personal vendetta against rappers. It’s 2014, and some of the biggest artists in the world are successful rappers, which is starting to make the whole “blame-the-border” thing sound like a cop-out for laziness, assumptions and bad business. While rap has never been the most corporate-savvy industry, there are levels to paperwork and logistics that continue to be ignored by promoters, management teams and the artists themselves—and that’s just not how the men in suits at customs operate.
Five years ago, it wasn’t easy to put on a rap show in Canada. A few large promoter powerhouses seemed to be the only ones bringing large hip-hop acts across the border. But times have changed, and now anyone with a network and a budget can put on a show and small promotion companies are popping up sporadically. But the idea of quality versus quantity still rings true. Just because someone has a little cash to blow on a show, doesn’t mean they understand the business behind the money they’ are so focused on getting. Work permits, visas, custom clearance and hiring attorneys should be at the top of the list when planning a show, not drink deals and the flyer’s color scheme.
Lola Plaku, a booking agent for French Montana & Fredo Santana, is no newbie on the Canadian show scene and she’s noticed a direct correlation between cancelled shows and green promoters who expect their half-ass work to produce something more than half-ass results. “If I’m the promoter that is booking French Montana, I need to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ to make sure that I’ve done everything I possibly can to make sure this artist gets in the country,” she says. Artists and fans rely on promoters to do their due diligence to ensure that everything behind the scenes runs smoothly, so when the tour bus/van/car pulls up to the border, everything goes as planned.
But artists and their teams have a responsibility to take care of work permits and visas, because flying under the radar doesn’t always work. Saying that you are coming through to visit your friend in Montreal for the weekend with a van full of speakers and sound equipment probably isn’t going to work, and is a rapper’s first step in doing a giant U-turn back to where they came from. Getting that plastic Canadian money, it’s as simple as going to the Government of Canada’s website and filling out some forms beforehand.
“If you don’t raise any suspicions at customs and if nobody searches you, you fly below the radar. It’s that easy to get into Canada. That’s what a lot of promoters do, and that’s what a lot of promoters hope will happen so they don’t have to do the paperwork,” Lola says. Visiting your grandma in Quebec City, your baby mother in Scarborough, your long lost brother in Vancouver doesn’t seem like a concrete plan when thousands of dollars and hundreds of fans depend on getting across. Artists must invest in the proper permits, no matter how many times they have made it through before, because reputations and responsibilities rely on it.
“So an artist flies under the radar a couple of times, the next promoter says ‘Oh, you’re good. You must not have a record.’ And that will be the one time where the customs officer is suspicious and that’s when they run a background check on you and that’s when they see what you’ve done in the past. They Google your name and you have flyers out with your name on them and that’s when they deny you entry and ban you from ever coming to Canada,” Lola says.
Everyone has a past, but it just so happens that many rappers who try and enter Canada have a rap sheet full of gun charges, assaults, D.U.Is and possession charges—which conflicts with customs’ main job of keeping criminals out of the country. Before an artist can make their way across the border, they must prove without a reasonable doubt why they should be allowed in the country, which is why investing in a lawyer to deal with the fight accordingly can be an artist’s key to coming through. Ghostface Killah, Danny Brown, and Meek Mill have all finally performed for their Canuck fans on home turf, thanks in part to strong legal counsel.
Freddie Gibbs, who has two gun-charges under his belt is in the process of working alongside a lawyer to finally get a chance to perform for his Canadian fans. Gangsta Gibbs, who was scheduled to perform alongside Young Jeezy during the infamous TM103 tour that made headlines with back-to-back shootings in Toronto and London never made it, because he wasn’t able to cross. The Indiana rapper cites the border incident as a main reason why he no longer affiliates himself with the Snowman.
“I couldn’t go with Jeezy, because I couldn’t get into Canada. And we got into an argument about that. Jeezy was trying to make fun of me, because I couldn’t come with him to the Canadian tour stops when he had put out Thug Motivation 103 and I remember we were in LA. This was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back and showed me I can’t fuck with this n*gga. This n*gga’s a bitch-ass. We was eating dinner in LA with a couple basketball n*ggas like Dwight Howard was there. Jeezy was saying ‘Canada, man. That shit be off the chain. They’ve got some bad bitches there. They don’t let n*ggas like Gibbs up there.’ And I was like ‘What the f*ck are you talking about?’ and he said that they don’t let n*ggas like me in Canada but then I was like, ‘Didn’t both your shows get shot up in Canada?’ And he was just sitting there looking stupid. ‘Well, they’re about that action in Canada.’ That right there let me know that this man is a walking contradiction,” he says.
Artists like Freddie Gibbs and Schoolboy Q, who have a past of felony charges or served jail time, can go on a European tour—but every time they attempt to cross into Canada, they’re turned away. Lola explains that Canada’s proximity to the States is the biggest deterrent for letting artists with a criminal past in. “It’s easy to sneak into our country. Not every criminal can afford to jump on a plane and go to Europe, whereas everyone can afford to jump in a car and go through Detroit or Buffalo across the Canadian border. We share a land. We share a border. So I understand why Canada is as tough as it is to get into. I don’t appreciate it, but I get it,” she says. There’s also something called a Schengen Visa that allows someone like Freddie to hit up Europe, which grants access to 25 European countries without continuously passing through customs. But no Schengen Visa exists for the True North.
A failure to disclose any legal past is also the biggest way for an artist to find themselves detained and denied. Without disclosing all legal information, there is no way for a promoter or attorney to take the necessary steps in order to get an artist across the border to the stage. Artists are better off admitting their crimes. They may look even harder afterwards anyway.
In early June, New York rapper Nitty Scott was scheduled to hit Toronto as the only Canadian stop on her The Art of Chill tour, but once she arrived at the border, things weren’t so chill. “We basically arrived at the border. We had filled out certain documentation beforehand and submitted copies of our passports and other information so they could do background checks and all these things that we were told we could bypass and do ahead of time, so we even had a piece of paper talking about submitting this information. We really did what we could to prepare. We got to the border and said that we were there for a hip-hop show. The minute we said that we were there for a hip-hop show, it seemed like the vibe just changed and all of a sudden, we were asked to pull over to the side. They searched our car, they made us empty our pockets and I was brought into a room,” she says.
Nitty was detained for questioning where the border officers had brought up a juvenile incident that had happened when Nitty was 16-years-old, as juvenile records are now available to border agents. She was then told that she had been denied entry for that reason, along with an incident on the record of a member of her entourage. The New York rapper will be allowed back once her record is expunged. “It was kind of scary, because I had never been in a situation like that before. I felt like a criminal.”
“It’s always been this strict,” says Andrew Pupolin, show producer from Canada’s Substance Group booking agency states. Andrew and Substance have brought everyone from Danny Brown, to Cam’ron to Meek Mill. Although the agency works to align every necessary factor in ensuring an artist is able to perform, on rare occasions it is out of his hands. “Sometimes I can’t guarantee anything. They can hit a guy at the border that’s a huge dick and he might just say ‘no’ and that’s out of our control at that point.”
Patrizia Giolti, spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) admitted that even with all the proper documentation, artists can still be denied access into Canada. “When they show up at the border, they are dealing with us. This is where we make the determination whether or not the person is admissible to Canada and it can be for something completely different than the work itself. So, if you particularly are coming across and you have your work permit and everything is good but then we realize that there are other issues there that you may be inadmissible for other reasons, then you are not allowed into the country for that. It all depends on the situation. There are so many different variables.”
At the end of the day, a border agent’s ego is bigger than any rappers. Be “admissible,” Giolti says. What does that mean? Well, for one, artists shouldn’t pull up to the border smelling like kush with their eyes red and their hat brim pulled low. They must leave their ego on the other side of the line, and never give the border guards a reason to turn them away by swallowing their pride, ego, and everything else that is tempting them to scream, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m kind of a big deal,” at border officials. Smiling goes a long way. Border etiquette is a real thing, and sometimes it involves being submissive to power-hungry officers. Don’t give them the satisfaction of ruining the day, the show and the expectations of your fans, just because of your unwillingness to co-operate for 10 minutes. Leave the ego and alter-ego to the stage, since it makes the difference of getting over the border or not.
Will there always be a time where immigration officials ruin a show? Probably. But it’s time for the industry to take a greater role in the responsibility of cancelled shows and focus more how to fix the issues. With the aid of permits, lawyers and a little more knowledge of the logistics, the rap show will go on.
Samantha O'Connor is a Canadian writer living in Europe - @samomaryleona