Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Well, I Never Saw This One Coming...My Official Response to the PromArt Controversy


I found out yesterday morning that I was at the centre of a national controversy involving something called the PromArt program. I never saw this one coming...!

Anyway, here is my official response.

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In early 2005, I received a call from my then-manager, Steve Warden, informing me that my booking agency, Vancouver-based Feldman and Associates, had received an invitation from the Canadian government for me to visit South Africa as part of a two-pronged diplomatic initiative. The trip to South Africa would include both charity work and raising the profile of Canadian arts and culture. Admiring as I did the humanitarian efforts of people like Bono and Angelina Jolie, and excited at the opportunity of officially representing Canada abroad, I immediately accepted.

My trip included performances at a township community hall for underprivileged youths, an outdoor concert for township children, a private "story and song" performance at the Canadian consulate in Pretoria to which other Pretoria-based foreign diplomats were invited, appearances at two music festivals, and a small public performance in Capetown. It also included quite a bit of physical peril and hardship (but that's another story).

The highlight of my trip, however, was the day spent at a large orphanage with which the Canadian consulate was affiliated outside of Johannesburg, in the company of the Liberal-appointed Canadian consul, a Mulroney-appointed senator, and a Bloc Quebecois MP. This orphanage houses several hundred children, quite a number of whom are the orphans of AIDS victims, and I felt privileged to be able to meet with them, share stories, sing and play for them, and hear them sing in return. I am not sure if my visit there made any difference to the kids, some of whom were terminally ill, but I hope so.

In my only interview to date about this story, a journalist asked me about "applying for PromArt funds to serve career interests". The truth, I am sort of embarrassed to admit, is that until this story broke, I'd never even heard of "PromArt", had no idea my trip was part of a formal government program, had no idea that other acts had been invited anywhere under the same program, and had no idea anyone could apply for such funds. Needless to say, I never "applied" for anything from PromArt (I got an invitation, which I thought was from an arm of the Canadian diplomatic corps). That I know of, I haven't experienced any career benefit from my trip, nor was that ever my expectation. Indeed, I didn't even have anything to promote during my trip - I had no CDs commercially available in the country at the time of my visit, nor have I ever had any there since. I didn't even bring T-shirts to sell. My trip just wasn't about that.

For the record, I do not believe that the cancellation of the PromArt program constitutes "censorship", and I very much resent the enduring tendency of artists to so easily and violently misuse this word. Censorship is when a government punishes its citizens for expressing their opinions (as is the wont of, say, provincial "human rights commission" thought police). It is not the mere cancellation of a diplomatic or arts funding program. I should also like to state for the record that if in fact, as has been reported, the PromArt program has been used to fund political propagandizing abroad, rather than for the diplomatic and charitable purposes which motivated the invitation I received to visit South Africa, that I myself wouldn't lament at least its dramatic overhaul.

South Africa is a beautiful and troubled country, and I felt proud to be able to represent Canada there, and hopefully, spread some message of hope and joy to people who struggle with the burdens of disease, crime, poverty, and a legacy of institutionalized racism. Because of the way the invitation was explained to me, and what I actually did on my trip, I never imagined that there might have been anything untoward about it. I thought that I was doing something good.