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Gripes over rumored Austin City Limits Festival headliners Stevie Wonder & Kanye West: Are critics racist?

by Published on
David Shankbone
Kanye West

This article was originally published at CultureMap Houston.

 

Kanye West and Stevie Wonder … [N]ot what I would think as headliners for the 10th anniversary of ACL.”

“No disrespect to them but just not my cup of tea or what I think ACL is about. Lets not make the mistake Glastonbury did by bringing beyonce, jay-z and black eyed peas to headline last few years. Come on ACL you’re better than that!!!!!!”

“This is not a R&B or rap festival, this is a unique, search for new & local artists with a couple of big names as headliners. The whole point of ACL is to discover and love. Neither Stevie or Kanye should be there, especially on a 10th anniversary. They slipped a little last year and looks like even more this year.”

These are just a sample of the comments posted on the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s Facebook page in response to a report in Spin magazine that Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, and Arcade Fire will be this year’s headliners (Arcade Fire announced itself on Twitter Monday that it’s playing ACL for sure.) The full lineup for the Sept. 16-18 festival will be announced Tuesday.

Speculating on who will be playing each year during the weeks before the official lineup release — which promoters C3 Presents tease out with great precision — is a popular sport for a certain breed of music addict. And this year, those music addicts are unhappy.

Looking at the nature of the complaints about the presence of Stevie Wonder and Kanye West on the 10th anniversary lineup, it’s hard not to notice something that the two artists being griped about have in common.

In case you haven’t seen a picture, they’re both black.

Now, Kanye West is a somewhat polarizing figure. People are still mad about the Taylor Swift thing, and even his most ardent fans can acknowledge that some aspects of his persona can be a bit grating. Furthermore, at a festival whose roots are in, um, roots-rock (the headliners in the festival’s inaugural edition were Wilco and Ryan Adams), the idea of a rapper closing down the festival can be shocking.

Of course, to find Kanye’s presence to be truly shocking, one would have to discount hip hop as a genre, despite it being the music industry’s commercially dominant form for nigh-on two decades now, and one whose creative potential has been realized to the point that even traditional ACL acts from Willie Nelson to Bon Iver have made prominent appearances on rap records in the past six months.

But we don’t need to spend too much time mounting a tired defense of hip hop in order to set up the point that the people angry about a rapper headlining the festival might be blinded by some racial prejudices. We’ve got Stevie Wonder to make that point for us.

Because Stevie Wonder is every bit the traditional Austin City Limits act. He’s a legendary performer with a career that started 50 years ago, with the 1970s credentials favored by previous headliners like The Eagles, Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Tom Petty. He’s been canonized as the recipient of the Gershwin Prize for popular music, and played a Presidential inauguration. He’s had a zillion hit records. His first major breakthrough as an artist came on a song on which he played a friggin’ harmonica. Everything about him screams Austin City Limits.

And yet the people who are moaning about the fact that Kanye West appears to be topping the bill are happy to lump Stevie Wonder in with him as they complain. It’s hard to imagine that they’d do the same thing if the Spin article had leaked, say, Neil Young’s name.

But for all the supposed liberal credentials of the aging hippies who make up the Austin City Limits Festival’s core demographic, the issue of race is one pretty severe hole. The festival has featured only a handful of non-white headliners in the past, and never one as prominent as either West or Wonder.

While M.I.A. played last year, Muse, The Strokes, Phish, and The Eagles all got higher billing than the Sri Lankan rapper, and there were more bands led by white guys with the word “Black” in the name than there were black artists. So while it’s encouraging to see the festival branch out when it comes to the headliners they’re booking, the reaction from a vocal contingent of fans sheds some light as to why they may have been reluctant to do so in the past.

Of course, it’s possible that the photo circulating online of that issue of Spin is a photoshopped tease that some cranky Internet troll put together just to see how people would react.

But regardless of the report’s legitimacy — and we’ll know for sure by Tuesday — one thing is certain: The fact that so many of the die-hard Austin City Limits Festival fans felt the need to insist that there was something inherently wrong with a bill that includes one of the best-selling and artistically successful contemporary artists in Kanye West and one of the most important recording artists of all time in Stevie Wonder is not something that can be separated from the fact that the artists they’re upset about are black.

There wasn’t this much whining when the Beastie Boys were announced in 2009, after all.

But that’s the ugly underbelly to a lot of supposedly progressive communities, whether it’s a hippie-inspired music festival, or a political party that sees few people of color in leadership roles, and the booking of Kanye West and Stevie Wonder at the festival makes that clear. For that — not to mention the chance to hear “Runaway” and “Superstition” live at the same festival! — we should be glad that the 2011 Austin City Limits Festival took a chance on both of these legendary artists.