Photo via AGO's Facebook Page
In Canada, multiculturalism is a way of measuring diverse city centers and their people against the vast majority of white “suburban” Canadiana. Casey Mecija (formerly of Ohbijou) and Lido Pimienta have started conversations that ask us to consider the complex and nuanced experience of what it’s like to make music as a racialized performer under the Canadian umbrella of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism stands supported by the ideas of diversity, difference and acceptance: We are multiple and together, we are proud and especially, we are getting along. “Difference” often refers to visible racialized ethnicities and is measured against whiteness. The idea of Canadian multiculturalism pervades all aspects of Canadian life, trickling into legislation and forms of governing. To make music as a racialized performer in Canada is to be granted support and exposure at the expense of token status, and token status at the expense of having your sound be expected to match your skin. It’s limiting and frustrating and begs for solutions. The issue boils down to who has the power to accept and include. How can we shift this power and allow for subtleties in the ways we come to understand our artists of colour?
Now both living in Toronto, Lido Pimienta is a Colombian visual artist and musician, and Casey Mecija is a first-generation Filipina whose band Ohbijou recently went on an indefinite hiatus. They first collaborated on a panel at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled “Music and Performance: The Limits of Canadian Identity” alongside Alaska B. (Yamankata) and Cadence Weapon, then chose to extend that conversation at Holy Oak Café. The panel was named “Decolonize the Chicken!” and Pimienta shared that it is meant to address the deconstruction of stereotypes. Unlike the AGO talk, the setting was intimate, which Lido said was done on purpose. She told me many people wanted to go to the talk but were unable to make it, encouraging her to set it up somewhere where they could. Rosina Kazi from the duo LAL and April from both Phèdre and Hooded Fang joined to lend their voices and experiences to the conversation. To have all women of colour musicians for panelists was no coincidence.
Angela Davis wrote that multiculturalism is best represented by a metaphor of the salad, and “who consumes multiculturalism is a question begging to be asked.” Mecija and Pimienta began to try to answer this question in the context of the Canadian music landscape by sharing their personal experiences. “Through touring & playing live I've accumulated an archive of experience, which with the band now being on hiatus has made me think a lot about what it means to be a racialized performer in Canada,” said Mecija of what brought her to start this conversation. “People like me and my peers often get caught in the contradictions of multiculturalism. Our bodies are conflated with the sounds that we make, the nation state and expectations of ethnicity, race and gender.” Of these expectations is the assumption that a non-white performer must perform their respective “non-white music.” Pimienta extravagantly mocked this as she flailed her arms around imitating her spectators: “she’s a Latina from Colombia, so she’s gonna make us dance!” She, however, described herself to be on an “experimental-avant-garde-nuanced-performance art trajectory” that shouldn’t be limited or dictated by preconceptions of how she should sound. As put by Mecija, “The nuances of our experiences are undermined by this blanket term of ‘multiculturalism.’”
The tangles of the topic made themselves known as the panel spoke directly to Canada, narrowing their focus on the government grant system and how it attempts to include, but ultimately limit the artist. “Despite us having a grant system that is supposed to help all the artists, you have to be able to please them,” said Pimienta. Mecija added that “it gets tricky when these are our access points to inclusion in institutions, festivals, press and funding opportunities.” They spoke directly to Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council who’ve included boxes for non-white people to check in an attempt to satisfy multicultural demands. Mecija expressed the tension she feels and said she hesitates when filling applications. “The hesitation is a result of knowing that my music may be read as a product of my Asian-ness, but that doesn’t stop me from checking the box and being grateful that it’s there.”
Sitting on her couch, Pimienta expresses a similar frustration. Of Canada Council she notes, “your project has to mirror the values of Canada Council. If they consider that you are this Canadian thing that is gonna represent Canada, they will most likely give you the money.” She continues, ”give me the trees and the mountains and the river because that’s what we are.” There are limitations placed on the artist, and despite some effort towards inclusivity and diversity, we know Canada is largely white and rural, not to mention how it disregards its Indigenous communities. Pimienta acknowledged that Ontario Arts Council is much more open to a variety of artists, and she’s received much support from them in her career, but the money is not there. “It’s tough. So then people are like, ‘fuck this, I’m gonna go to the States.”
Photo By Jenny Mecija
At “Decolonize the Chicken!” the women discussed how festivals and bookers also function with the attempt towards inclusion, yet still allow a white majority of performers. Rosina Kazi emphasized power, being in positions of power, and how non-white performers need it for this to change. Later, Pimienta agreed. “We have to create our own movement. We have to create our own venues.” She said this calmly and with assurance. “The system is not gonna change for us unless they see an opportunity to make money.”
Creating their own venues and their own movement poses its own risk, which Rosina acknowledges as she laughs about doing so and being broke. Multiculturalism appears benevolent, but we know it’s in fact flawed when the power to include still lays in the hands of a white majority. As Mecija, Pimienta, and “Decolonize the Chicken!” have expressed, it’s not enough. What we need is actual diversity, people of colour in all positions and crevices of the industry, who are willing and dedicated to allowing nuance and complicated identities to emerge and flourish. Only then can we truly be multicultural, instead of just being measured as a different type of non-white.
Maria Martinez is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter - @martinezmria