The 2018 edition of the Halifax Pop Explosion music festival and conference has come a long way from its roots in the early ’90s as a celebration of Halifax’s status as “Seattle of the North.” Festival executive director James Boyle says the biggest change he sees this year a shift in genres, with hip hop growing in clout.
“We recognized the strength of the growth of hip hop’s popularity not just in our local landscape, but nationally and internationally,” says Boyle. “It’s no question that Canada’s involvement and growth in hip hop is pretty evident, not just from the strength of Drake but also the incredible number of musicians coming out from coast to coast.”
This year’s event features hip-hop acts aplenty, from established artists like Cadence Weapon and Sean Leon alongside emerging artists like Hua Li and CupcakKe. While the list may be unfamiliar to some, Boyle and Pop Explosion board chair Stephanie Purcell urge music fans to get out to the venues to discover something new.
“We’ve been known for so many years as a discovery festival,” she says. “A lot of people see bands and artists preform on our stages and a few years later they’re headlining Jazz Fest and huge festivals for audiences of thousands. It’s pretty cool that we get them first. Some of the people on our lineup this year are going to blast off for sure.”
Pop Explosion, says Boyle, offers a unique flavour that other music festivals can’t replicate. The city’s size makes it easy to venue hop and take in as much music as possible over the four-day festival. “When we have colleagues from New York visit, they get to see the same bands they see in larger centres but don’t have to travel for a half hour between venues. You can take it all in easier, but the level of talent is the same as it is in New York, the U.K., or Germany.”
Along with the music fans Pop Explosion attracts, the conference draws industry representatives from across the world. The Label Summit brings together reps from labels of all sizes to network, participate in focused learning, and attend curated artist showcases to discover new talent.
“It’s a very rare opportunity for labels like this to come together in a smaller region,” says Purcell. “They all have time to connect and hangout, chat and actually do business.”
While attendance at the Label Summit is by registration only, educational conference events are free and open to the public. The Central Library will host song-writing sessions for teens and adults, an info session on health and wellness in the music industry, and more.
Last year the festival made national news when Colombian-Canadian artist Lido Pimienta stopped her set. Pimienta invited “brown girls to the front,” an extension of the ’90s Riot Grrrl punk ethic that called for women to stand near the front of the stage in a show of strength instead of being pushed around by violent mosh pits made up predominantly by men.
After Pimienta’s request, several white attendees and a festival volunteer refused to move and she stopped playing. She told Billboard Magazine last year: “I ask them to share the space in a more significant manner as an act of love and solidarity with people who, outside of the music show bubble, have to constantly justify their existence to the world.”
A week later, festival organizers posted an apology on its Facebook page, reading “We will not accept this behavior and neither should you. Be responsible for your friends–talk to them and support them as they move towards unpacking their racism. People of Color deserve safe spaces and it is your responsibility to help. It is also ours.”
Boyle and Purcell say the festival is working with inclusion educator Crystal Taylor, who is developing a program for festivals staff. “We want people to stop and really think ‘How can we make this show the best for the artist and the fans in the audience?’” says Boyle. “It’s that kind of cognisance that’ll make it better for everyone over all as we continue to work with leaders like Taylor and other in the industry who are working on policies that move the entire industry into the future.”
It’s a conversation that Toronto hip-hop artist Peggy Hogan, who performs under the name Hua Li, looks forward to continuing this year. Hogan’s identity as a queer, mixed-race artist is central to her music.
“I’ve run into James [Boyle] a lot this summer and he’s taken some flak,” says Hogan. “He’s demonstrably done some soul searching, and I think that is reflected in the programming this year. We can keep those conversation going and see where people are at a year later in terms of thinking about these issues.”
Three you have to see
See halifaxpopexplosion.com for the latest show times and venue information.
Hua Li | Montréal
In Hua Li’s music you’ll discover luxurious R&B-style soundscapes, silky smooth vocals, and confident rap lyrics that explore feminism, race, gender, and more.
Hogan’s identity as a queer, half-Chinese rapper is at the forefront of what she’s serving to her audiences. “I’m so about just presenting an alternative version of Chinese-Canadian or Asian-American womanhood at large,” she says. “My Chinese family members brought in very colourful aspects of their culture to go with what I was seeing around me, but I grew up here. I watched MuchMusic growing up. I loved hip hop.”
In addition to her own set, she’s DJing on this tour for fellow Pop Explosion performer Cadence Weapon.
Gaelynn Lea | Duluth, Minnesota
On her latest release, Learning How to Stay, Gaelynn Lea’s light vibrato ranges from hauntingly soulful to pure bubble gum pop.
In addition to the concert, she has a talk at Paul O’Regan Hall at the Halifax Central Library. Lea was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic condition that complicates bone and limb development; she uses a wheelchair. An advocate for people with disabilities, Lea will discuss practical ways to make the music and arts industries more accessible to people with disabilities and how that can help create positive change.
“I had a show booked on this tour that we had to cancel because the venue couldn’t get a ramp,” she says. “That used to happen a lot, but now I am super vocal about it. If I said, ‘It would be nice to have a ramp,’ which is how I started, maybe 30% of places did it. Now I say, ‘I can’t play there. I’ll play on the floor, but you will not lift my chair up on to the stage.’ It’s getting a lot better.”
Jeremy Dutcher | Toronto
Reviewers are eager to relate composer and singer Jeremy Dutcher’s latest album to opera. The 27-year-old member of New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation sings the entirety of his latest release, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, in Wolastoqey, the traditional indigenous language of the Wolastoq people.
His layered piano tracks and operatic tenor vocals blend with the voices of the past. Dutcher combed through anthropological recordings made between 1907–1913 to incorporate clips from the now digitized wax cylinder recordings into his album. This music is a sonic discovery, and you don’t need a translation to hear the passion in Dutcher’s voice.
The record won this year’s $50,000 Polaris Music Prize, a juried award given each September. It celebrates the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, or record label. Dutcher is the first East Coast artist to win the prize in its 12-year history.