Moses Sumney Cancels Montreal Jazz Fest Set Over Controversial Musical

After releasing last year’s shattering debut album Aromanticism, Moses Sumney, maker of inward-looking and experimental soul music, is all over this summer’s festival circuit, playing something like half of this year’s major music festivals. But one festival where he won’t play is the Montreal Jazz Fest. Sumney was slated to play the Jazz Fest today, but, as Pitchfork points out, he has cancelled his performance. His reason: The festival is also going ahead with its production of SLĀV, a deeply controversial theatrical musical.

The problem with SLĀV is pretty easy to figure out: The play is built around old slave spirituals, but its cast is mostly white. SLĀV describes itself as “an incursion into the world of slave songs.” The play has drawn protests for racism. But in a statement to CBC, the festival has defended its decision to keep the production going:

We are truly fortunate that artists as talented and recognized on the five continents as Betty Bonifassi and Robert Lepage — in his very first collaboration — have chosen the festival to present this show as a world premiere. Before subjecting them to trial by public opinion, we firmly believe that we must wait and witness the show they will present to us all.

On Twitter last night, Sumney wrote:

When I learned that the festival continued to defend this show publicly, even after adamant protests — during which one of the show goers (the majority of which were, of course, white) slapped a woman of color protesting the show — I knew that I could not present my music at this same festival in good conscience. Especially on a day sandwiched between Canada Day and Independence Day, two bittersweet holidays that have long left black, brown, and indigenous voices out.

Sumney will instead perform at the Montreal venue La Sala Rossa tonight. In a statement to Pitchfork, Jazz Fest organizers say, “The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal respect his decision and we hope he’ll come back to the festival in the future.”

UPDATE: Following Sumney’s announcement and the sustained controversy surrounding the play, Montreal Jazz Fest has finally decided to cancel all remaining performances of SLĀV. The festival also shared a statement in which they said, “Since the beginning of SLĀV performances, the festival team has been shaken and strongly affected by all the comments received. We would like to apologize to those who were hurt. It was not our intention at all.”