As part of its 2019 programming, the festival hosted the event "Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman," which featured the work of the titular queer, black composer who died in 1990. The event was lead by Mary Jane Leach — a NYC composer and researcher who was a friend of Eastman's — and facilitated by Nivie from We Are Missing, a collaborative community project that aims to create QTBIPOC programming in K'jipuktuk.
In a three-part public apology, OBEY organizers recalled how Leach, who is white, "repeatedly invoked a racial slur by referencing, verbatim, the titles of a series of self-portraits composed by Eastman in the late 1970s and early 80s." They acknowledged that "discomfort, unease and violence was felt by many, in the room as Leach invoked these titles."
Eastman's works from that time period include pieces titled N****r F****t, Dirty N****r, Evil N****r and Crazy N****r. A selection of the aforementioned pieces were reissued on vinyl through Italian label Blume last year.
Organizers wrote in their summary of the event, "At the outset of her talk, Leach made a statement that it would contain explicit, complicated language and that, while she wrestled with whether or not to include said language throughout her engagements with Eastman's work, she intended to do so on the day in question as a means of honoring what she understood as the intentions of the work and the artist. We recognize that this contextualization was not enough and does not excuse the way in which this program curated, implemented or performed."
The apology then detailed how the rest of the event played out, as follows:
Following Leach's presentation, Nivie began unpacking some of the complications inherent in Leach's research and her position as a white person telling the story of a queer, black person's life. Through pointed questions by the facilitator and feedback from several attendees, Leach's use of language and handling of Eastman's life and legacy were called into question and identified as problematic and an example of colonial oppression. Leach's work and presentation thereof was, in tandem, lauded by a self-identified queer, black attendee, who described it as "brave and important". The event ended without interference or acknowledgement on behalf of OBEY Convention of the harm perpetrated in the room, and of that we are regretful.
Following the Eastman event, festival organizers pulled a Leach performance from the evening's programming "to honour the voices that came forward, in trust and confidence, and shared their experience of harm."
Organizers explained that "this decision was made not as a punitive gesture towards Leach, but rather as one of care and harm-reduction towards the more vulnerable, racialized people harmed by our prior programming."
In concluding the apology, festival creative director Andrew Patterson wrote that OBEY Convention is "engaged in serious, active, internal discussions at present" and is "open to being in dialogue with any and all people who feel hurt as a result of this problematic programming."
Patterson also wrote that the festival had reached out to Leach following the event and "intend to instigate conversations of and around accountability, provided she continues her willingness to stay in touch."
He added that "beyond the repeated invocation of the racial slur, it is our feeling that Leach did not receive the criticisms and questions posed to her with the honour and respect they deserved."
A day after the event, Leach called the events a "very strange and unsettling experience" on Twitter, responding to a fan thanking her for her patience.
You can ready OBEY Convention's complete apology.
Ahead of this year's festival, organizers revealed that a name change would be coming for future editions in the wake of a lawsuit from Shepard Fairey.
Getting ready to go to Halifax for the Obey Convention, where I know none of the performers/composers, so this should be fun.https://t.co/7zGawWpGGL— Mary Jane Leach (@mjleach7) May 28, 2019
Disappointed to have missed seeing you. Thank you for your patience and trying to tell a bit of julius' musical history today.— Pookas (@Pookas) June 3, 2019
Thanks. Very strange and unsettling experience.— Mary Jane Leach (@mjleach7) June 3, 2019
_I'm_ still unsettled by the events of Sunday. I can't imagine how you're feeling. Hope all's okay and that you got home safe and not too angered by the experience.— Rick Brown (@BrownBattery) June 4, 2019
Thx, jjust got home and internet is down, which may be just what is needed right now.— Mary Jane Leach (@mjleach7) June 5, 2019