Betty Better Have My Money


By Lucas Charlie Rose

If you were in Montreal this summer, chances are you’ve heard about the SLAV controversy.

SLAV, described as “a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs” was the most popular ticketed show at the Montreal Jazz Fest this 2018 season. SLAV was put together by acclaimed Québec director Robert Lepage and renowned singer Betty Bonifassi, who said that the show’s purpose was to “talk about human pain experienced together. All cultures and ethnicities suffer the same” (Montreal Gazette).

There’s one important detail to point out though: Both Robert Lepage and Betty Bonifassi are white, as is most of the cast, and the show is based off of Black slave songs.

On opening day, the Black community and their allies gathered outside the theatre to protest the fact that the show was culturally appropriative. After making international headlines and gaining support from mainstream artist Moses Sumney, they were relieved when Jazz Fest finally decided to cancel the show.

However, a lot of folks still fail to see the ways in which SLAV was culturally appropriative. In their eyes, the show was meant to honour and give exposure to these songs. It’s true, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and knowing how to differentiate between the two is vital if you truly want to show respect toward other cultures, instead of doing them harm.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to identify that line and avoid crossing it:

Am I borrowing elements from an oppressed culture?

In the case of SLAV, it’s not hard to see that the answer is yes. White people have suffered throughout history, but none of what they have been through is comparable to 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade. A slave trade that to this day has repercussions on our society. No matter where you are in the world, black communities still suffer oppression.

Am I respecting its cultural meaning?

It is impossible to talk about the Atlantic slave trade without acknowledging the fact that it was racially motivated. To use slave songs in a show while claiming that “all ethnicities suffer the same” shows a lack of respect for what these songs meant to the people who wrote them. It is also ignorant of the history of colonialism tied to the land on which Jazz Fest takes place.

Let’s not forget what slave songs are about: Freedom. Not only were these very spiritual songs used by slaves to find the resilience they needed to survive, but they were used as codes, providing an escape route out of the plantation. They are much more than just music.

Am I benefitting from it?

The SLAV production team was going to benefit from the show in several ways.

First, financially: Robert Lepage’s production company Ex Machina received hundreds of thousands of dollars to put the show SLAV together. Tickets to the show were between $60 and $90. None of the profits made by the show were to be reinvested into black communities.

The second benefit was the exposure: The promo surrounding SLAV emphasized the faces of Betty Bonifassi and Robert Lepage. Before a member of the SLAV resistance decided to attend a showing, the fact that there were two black chorists as part of the cast was a virtually unknown fact. Clearly, both Lepage and Bonifassi expected this show to be a
successful milestone in their careers, otherwise it is doubtful that SLAV would have been produced in the first place.

How is it harmful?

Imagine: You spent weeks painting what you think is your masterpiece. It’s the culmination of years and years of hard work. Every stroke of paint represents something that has happened to you, and looking back at the finished piece, you have never been more proud of yourself. You’re dreaming about showing it to the whole world but you’re broke and have no contacts. Luckily for you, somebody called Chad happens to see a picture of your art online. “I have never been so touched by something before in my life.” They say, “I can help you show it to the world.” Their excitement is contagious, so you agree.

Weeks later, you see your masterpiece on a billboard overlooking the city. It’s an ad for an art exposition celebrating the country’s ‘top rising artist’ who is none other than… Chad.

Furious, you head down to the exposition to confront them. There, you realize that not only did they replicate the art you had painted yourself, they have been using your style to create new pieces. Under each piece is their title, which doesn’t match what you intended them to portray. And all of this is happening without giving you an ounce of credit or compensation.

“Wait, you’re not happy? You should be happy!” Chad says when you confront them. “Look at all the exposure your art is getting!” They point to the crowd gathering around the pieces. “Do you really think they would have heard about your work if it wasn’t for me? You’re so ungrateful!”

Do you get it now?

How can I do it right?

This is what I like to call the microphone theory.

Once again, you will have to use your imagination:

You are on stage in front of a crowded Madison Square Garden with a very, very important message to relay. There’s a slight issue though: you don’t have a microphone.

So you try and scream louder and louder and louder until your voice breaks. Nobody has heard you, and now that you’ve lost your voice you know that nobody will.

What do you need? A microphone.

That would allow you to not only get your message across but also
preserve that voice. What does the microphone do when there’s nobody in front of it?

It’s silent.

If you want to be a good ally and truly pay respect to marginalized folks, be a microphone. Make sure that you’re amplifying voices, not replacing them.