Halifax’s OBEY Convention is shifting the ambition of festival inclusion into radical action

Now in its 12th year, the celebrated DIY avant-garde music festival is listening to the critiques of its community to create a subversive event for everybody.

Moor Mother at OBEY 2017/ Credit: Meg Yoshida
May 28, 2019

On Valentine’s Day 2019, Halifax’s OBEY Convention, the celebrated festival of experimental music and art, received a cease and desist from Bold Strategies Inc., a law firm representing the interests of street artist and founder of Obey Clothing, Shepard Fairey. As per a Canadian trademark on the word “Obey” pre-dating the festival, Bold Strategies on behalf of Fairey requested the east coast organization to stop using the word as part of their public identity. Following internal discussion, legal advice, and small negotiations, the festival has now come to the decision that this is the last year they will be known as OBEY Convention. Their ability to navigate this situation, retaining agency while going head to head with a corporation, speaks to not only to the spirit of the festival but points ahead to its ongoing evolution.

Now entering its 12th year, OBEY Convention has become a haven for fans of free-improv music, weird punk, mutant techno, avant-jazz, harsh noise, and underground rap. Since its formation in 2007, they have invited an expansive selection of internationally celebrated artists like Mykki Blanco, Peter Brotzmann, Pharmakon, Marie Davidson, and Low to make an eastern pilgrimage to the wilds of Nova Scotia. As a longtime attendee of the festival as a performer, reviewer and fan, the 17-hour drive from Toronto is an epic trek that’s always worth the effort to arrive at the Maritime Mecca of subterranean sound.

Beyond its programming, OBEY has carved out a unique niche within the Canadian festival landscape by centering the work of artists and the desires of its surrounding communities. Beginning as a natural extension of the underground scene surrounding Halifax-based label DIVORCE Records, it has evolved from a scrappy, DIY weekend to a larger phenomenon that has retained its subversive roots. This progression is largely owed to genuine efforts towards inclusivity, while actively listening and engaging with feedback such as its lack of diverse representation.

OBEY’s longevity is hugely due to the fact that we are open to criticism and take it to heart.

Kat Shubaly, Executive Director, OBEY Convention

“OBEY’s longevity is hugely due to the fact that we are open to criticism and take it to heart,” says Kat Shubaly, the festival’s Executive Director who has led the organization in collaboration with Creative Director Andrew Patterson since 2014, when they stepped into the massive shoes of founder Darcy Spidle. “Grievances and comments aren’t swallowed into an organizational void, but are actually read, felt, addressed, and turned into a dialogue. When [musician] Nick Dourado flat-out asked Darcy ‘why’s the festival so white?’ Darcy said, ‘good point,’ and then started doing the work to change that. We are now consciously seeking a widening spectrum of voices both in content and in our audiences.”

“The other factor is that OBEY sticks true to its roots,” Shubaly continues. “We started as a punk festival and will always have the punk ethos at our foundation; challenging the industry status quo and making sure the individual is heard.” Current initiatives include shows that are free for anyone under the age of 19, accessible venues, safe space training, programming focused on inclusion for people of colour and LGBTQ2S artists and attendees, community building symposiums, and the OBABY Convention, an immersive arts program for kids.

In 2007, when Californian musician Bill Nelson of Man Is The Bastard, Bastard Noise, and Unicorn asked Spidle about touring in Halifax, he teamed up with local artist Sandy Saunders, who played in Torso and Vennt, to create a festival weekend. OBEY shows in these early years took place in alternative venues such as the Alter Egos all-ages space and Speakeasy sports bar, both of which have since shut their doors.

“No one was doing these kinds of shows in Halifax at the time, so it felt very fulfilling and inspiring to have an event of our own,” Spidle remembers. “The Bastard Noise performances at OBEY Convention are still among my favorite in the festival’s history. The weekend gave me the resolve to create more experiences of this kind. Every year it got bigger and more ambitious. I always strived to create an event that felt absolutely different from the other festivals in town. Non-corporate. Inventive. Artistic. Open-minded.”

As OBEY continued to expand, the festival welcomed early performances from Canadian artists who have since become household names. These include U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy, whose 2010 solo set made me a lifelong fan as she conjured haunted girl-group pop with hissing cassette tapes before shifting to the E Street style band she leads today. And six years before playing to 250,000 people at Coachella, Mac DeMarco sold out a pair of OBEY performances at the 300-person capacity Khyber Centre for the Arts.

Dirty Beaches at OBEY 2010// Credit: Pierre Richardson

Alex Zhang Hungtai, who has appeared at the festival three times, made the wildest trip of all on his first year in 2010, driving alone across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax to perform as his former solo project Dirty Beaches. “I must’ve been out of my mind, but the journey was beautiful,” says Hungtai. “I just remember everyone was incredibly warm and friendly at the concert and it felt worth it to drive across the coast to be there.”

This effort to prioritize a reciprocal relationship between audiences and performers is yet another factor that sets OBEY apart. “It’s something that money grabbing, scheming festivals will never learn from because their model is based on a fast profit return format,” Hungtai continues. “OBEY stands out in terms of giving something back to Halifax. It incorporates its own community while bringing voices and perspectives from the outside and has this beautiful exchange.”

The distance required to arrive at OBEY also proves the commitment of artists and attendees. “Halifax is really, really far away for most people,” laughs Patterson. “So that’s a big blessing and a curse, a double-edged sword. As someone put it to me once, it’s an experimental festival on the way to nowhere. If you’re here you really want to be here. That’s true for the local people who live here all the time, the artists who are visiting, and the audiences. You can’t get here by accident or on a whim.”

“It’s not easy to pull off a professional experimental music festival in a small city in Nova Scotia, and we had challenges,” echoes Spidle. “But there has always been a strong support system of dedicated collaborators.” In order to continue its evolution, he stepped down after nine years to let new voices be heard. “Arts organizations need a serious change of leadership from time to time,” Spidle continues. “That’s how fresh ideas bloom. Kat and Andrew have maintained the festival’s vision, but they are going in new directions and building a brand new audience to add to the old one. It’s exciting to watch.”

Senyawa at OBEY 2017// Photo: Meg Yoshida

In Patterson’s mind, OBEY mirrors a quote from influential BBC DJ John Peel on his favourite band, The Fall: “always the same, always different.” While the ideals of the festival haven’t changed, they seek to adapt to the counterculture that feeds into it with each passing year. Though OBEY’s recent programming has included a dynamic range of performers—noise-rap artist Moor Mother, Indonesian doom-folk duo Senyawa, Anishinaabe violist Melody McKiver—the greatest challenge faced by any tightly-controlled organization is breaking outside of its self-created bubble.

“Early on, OBEY was very much a white people festival,” Patterson admits. “It’s still run predominantly by white people, and the audience definitely reflects that. Only in the last four or five years we’ve started to see people of colour turning out to our events, and even then it’s quite a small number.”

“Some of that I think is reflective of larger realities within Nova Scotia and Halifax specifically, but also a lot of it was due to how [the festival] started. It’s challenging to make connections with new communities, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. That’s where a lot of my work goes now locally: trying to connect with people who don’t know what OBEY is but are doing really rad stuff.”

You don’t fix segregation with selective, tempered, and patient inclusion. Until there is a music festival that addresses that the inception of the music industry comes from colonial infrastructure, there is only bullshit.

Nick Dourado, musician and composer.

In past years, acclaimed musician/composer Nick Dourado (whose ever-expanding list of collaborations includes Aquakultre, Special Costello, and Beverly Glenn-Copeland) has performed on every day of the festival with various projects. They have also been one of OBEY’s most vocal critics, challenging the organizers to match their words with action and become the subversively intersectional festival they claim to be.

“African Nova Scotians have had their families dismantled in our lifetime in Halifax—this affected the music community and all musicians by creating the mechanism of segregation,” explains Dourado. “You don’t fix segregation with selective, tempered, and patient inclusion. Until there is a music festival that addresses that the inception of the music industry comes from colonial infrastructure, there is only bullshit. In Halifax and in Canada, anything run by settlers is not radical.”

Debby Friday live at Slut Island 2018

Addressing those challenges will forever remain a work in progress, yet in the meantime, OBEY Convention continues its forward-thinking programming. This year’s standout acts include Americana trance duo 75 Dollar Bill, Middle Eastern bass manipulator DJ Haram,  “bitchpunk” rapper Debby Friday, Leeds’ world-destroying noise-rockers Guttersnipe, solo sets from Vancouver’s Maskara and Slaylor Moon (both members of festival favourites Shearing Pinx), and scholar Mary Jane Leech showcasing the music of pioneering queer, black composer Julius Eastman.

For Tobias Rochman, a co-founding organizer in the early years of OBEY, who has most recently returned to perform with hardcore acid-techno duo Pelada, the city’s isolated location in the east coast has allowed it to thrive and survive from pure necessity. With a population of only 300,000 to 400,000 people, artists are forced to build a broad coalition between multiple disciplines and musical styles. This creates cross-pollination in fresh and exciting ways that larger cities’ divided scenes may not experience.

“I don’t think we initially understood how much of a lasting cultural impact the festival would have,” says Rochman. “In Halifax you learn at a young age to work with people who are different from you to create something bigger than the sum of its parts,” he continues. “If you don’t get a full grasp of how to make something from nothing, you’ll be left with only nothing. I mean that with love. Nobody is going to do it for you; you have to take initiative and be passionate. You might be a volunteer one year and a performer the next.”

I feel like OBEY has evolved to where it is today through advocacy, active listening and pliability. That’s due to the generosity and ability of artists and attendees (or those who would like to be) to call the festival in or out.

“Nobody running OBEY is trying to get you to drink more energy soda under the false pretence of community,” Rochman finishes. “It’s a particularly dangerous festival because it succeeds in proving what is possible. It stands in stark contrast to the corporate festivals and in most cases even outdoes them.” 

Hannah Guinan, the Khyber Centre’s Artistic Director, has played a prominent role in those efforts from her time as an OBEY volunteer, performer, and the previous Vice Chair on its Board of Directors. Her list of spearheaded initiatives included a PWYC policy and transparency statement, venue access notes in the festival guide, programming committee structure and implementation, booking of staff and volunteer anti-oppression workshops, creation of an artist care form with Carmel Farahbakhsh from the South House Sexual and Gender Resource Centre, public crediting of names of all those who consulted with programming, and assisting with the festival’s first successful Canada Council grant.

“I feel like OBEY has evolved to where it is today through advocacy, active listening and pliability,” says Guinan. “That’s due to the generosity and ability of artists and attendees (or those who would like to be) to call the festival in or out. It has the attentive ears, emotional investment, and owned responsibility of staff and volunteers to continually learn, unlearn and present something responsive, full-hearted and fresh.”

“OBEY has maintained its longevity because its roots and continuance stem from a genuine place of passion for art, music, and sound,” she continues. “They make space for messy and beautiful things that do not have that allocated otherwise here.”

Nicole Rampersaud live at Solonation 2016

This year’s OBEY lineup also includes a healthy selection of Toronto performers, giving them an opportunity to cross into new areas of the country they might not typically visit. These include fractured beatmaker Korea Town Acid, achingly hilarious performance artist Bridget Moser, the playful jazz of the Brodie West Quintet, and hard-charging hip-hop duo Just John and Dom Dias.

The festival has also bestowed the title of its first ever Composer-In-Residence program to trumpet player Nicole Rampersaud. Her new composition invites a group of Halifax musicians to perform solo pieces while moving throughout the Central Library’s Paul O’Regan Hall, mirroring the emphasis on spontaneous collaboration that is central to the festival’s ambition and ethos.

“OBEY put out a call for proposals in the Fall, and, having recently relocated to the Maritimes, I saw it as a good opportunity to engage with musicians in the Halifax experimental music scene,” says Rampersaud. “I also saw it as an opportunity to compose a site specific piece, something that I’ve always wanted to do.” 

“The final piece will be a composite image of solo pieces I’ve written for the musicians involved, field recordings I have collected of various soundscapes in the Maritimes, and the acoustics and space of the Hall,” she continues. “My hope is that the final piece serves as a launch for the festival and celebrates the warmth and generosity of the festival and the city.”

“Choosing someone like Nicole is purposeful,” adds Patterson. “We really liked her proposal and her music so it was an easy choice in some ways. But there were a lot of amazing people who applied and we felt like Nicole did speak to upending the expectations of what a composer does, what they look like, and where they come from. I think there’s a bit of trying to turn or poke at that world a little bit this year.”

So what advice do the organizers and returning artists of OBEY have for other Canadian festivals? Spidle believes that determining your size is important. To avoid burning out, going broke, and maintaining experimentation, you must be wary of overstretching your resources and time. Hungtai adds that while artists performing at OBEY may be challenging or unknown to the average attendee, they have proved that a tradition of diverse programming over the past decade can attract crowds who are willing to take a risk.

On a local level, Patterson explains that inclusion can only occur with conversation about how things could be done differently, rather than simply inviting people to participate in a pre-existing structure. Shubaly highlights this year’s safe space workshop presented with the South House, which is free to attend for festival staff, volunteers, and the public. In her words, “inviting other organizations and venues to participate is part of creating a wider network working to improve the event culture in our city.” 

Though Rochman makes the disheartened comment that corporately sponsored festivals promising their hypothetical efforts to challenge practices may be too little, too late, he still believes in the power of change. For the OBEY Convention or anyone else seeking a radical reinvention, he offers a list of concrete actions.

“Book women, trans and non-binary people, and artists of colour, period” says Rochman . “Pay them equally to what you pay white cis men. Don’t marginalize them even more by including people from these communities but then just loading them onto one bill so you can fulfill a checklist and feel ‘woke.’ Don’t tokenize. Don’t congratulate yourself for doing it. Do it because they are making amazing art and you are discerning enough to have good taste.”

Since my first time attending OBEY in 2010, the strides they have made in these efforts are notable. The days of Halifax’s white-dude-heavy bills have now been replaced with more culturally-representative lineups, and a new generation of teenagers are forming their own scene at the DIY venue Radstorm. It’s clear that the festival’s work must continue, but the winds of change are blowing throughout their sonic spring, and feel indicative of a larger subcultural movement on the rise across Canada. With this in mind, we should celebrate OBEY’s efforts while continuing to hold them accountable for the future we’re creating together.

“Cis white people need to do better and make some space for others,” Rochman concludes. “If your lineups are diverse, your audiences will be too. And beyond that, the people choosing the lineups should be diverse, as well as the board of directors. Give everyone a seat at the table and the rest of these issues will begin to improve. It’s not a favour to the community; it’s a reflection of the community.” 

OBEY Convention XII runs from May 30th to June 2nd, 2019 in K’jipuktuk / Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

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