Band critical of UMSU BDS position dropped from Frost Fest days before event cancelled

“Essentially we were blackmailed,” says UMSU president

An artist slated to perform at UMSU’s Frost Fest — which was abruptly cancelled last week — was dropped from the bill after telling organizers he would publicly criticize the union’s recent condemnation of the Canadian Federation of Students for affirming its support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

After the fourth annual Frost Fest was cancelled with only days notice last week, UMSU president Jakob Sanderson cited “a primary act that was no longer able to perform at the event” as one of several reasons the event was called off.

But Rory Ellis, bandleader for Live Band Karaoke — a musical group that provides live backup to karaoke singers — said he did not withdraw from the event but had the performance cancelled after informing organizers the band would use the appearance to publicly criticize UMSU’s position on BDS.

“I actually didn’t pull out,” he said.

“I made UMSU aware how uncomfortable we were with their decision but did not offer to withdraw.”

In an email exchange with UMSU organizers a week before the scheduled performance, Ellis suggested Live Band Karaoke’s appearance be cancelled but that the band would expect to be paid as per the contract.

In another email later the same day, Ellis rebuffed an offer to discuss UMSU’s position with Sanderson. He wrote that the band was not offering to withdraw from the contract but that “We are vocal proponents of human rights and we will vocalize our displeasure with UMSU before and after the performance.”

A follow-up email from organizers cancelled the performance. Frost Fest was cancelled five days later.

“We’re working musicians and losing a paycheque is a big deal to us,” Ellis said, adding that the band was paid its entire $675 appearance fee.

While it was not initially disclosed what primary act was removed from the lineup, Sanderson confirmed it was Live Band Karaoke.

He said while UMSU did technically cancel the performance, it was due to circumstances outside the union’s hands — namely that the band would only perform if they were able to “vocalize [their] displeasure with UMSU before and after the performance.”

“We had no intentions of ever cancelling the performance,” he said.

“Essentially, we were blackmailed into cancelling the performance.”

The BDS movement calls for non-violent activism to, according to the movement’s official website, “end international support for Israeli violations of international law by forcing companies, institutions and governments to change their policies.”

During the last regular meeting of 2018, the UMSU board passed a motion condemning the Canadian Federation of Students for affirming support for the BDS movement at its annual general meeting in November.

UMSU’s motion called the federation’s affirmation of support “an unnecessary and ill-considered intervention into international politics for a student federation.”

Sanderson said the decision to cancel the performance was made because the event was not “a political occasion.”

“It didn’t seem like something that we would want to do for the students, to turn this into quite a controversial issue,” he said, “so we tried to pursue other performers instead.”

Sanderson said that while the dispute was “certainly a contributing factor” to Frost Fest’s cancellation, it was not the deciding factor and the event would have most likely gone forward should other issues not have occurred.

Sanderson said every other artist scheduled to perform was paid following the cancellation. Posters advertising the event promoted six DJs and six comedians slated to perform.

Some acts performed at the Hub despite the cancellation and Sanderson said if any performer has not yet been paid, “they certainly will be.”

In an earlier interview, Sanderson also cited low ticket sales for the event, which Ellis said he does not believe.

“I think UMSU is trying to make it out like this was a financial decision to avoid a political embarrassment,” he said.

“They don’t want people to know that blowback from their decisions is wrecking their plans. I also don’t believe that low ticket sales alone would have ended the event. As far as I could tell, they were still planning on going ahead until this mess.”

Sanderson said UMSU saved money overall by cancelling the event. He said the total cost has not yet been finalized.

“We are certain that we were able to recoup a number of costs and that we saved more money by cancelling than if we had gone ahead with the performance.”

Sanderson said dropping the band off the bill was not about BDS or any UMSU motion — but rather that it would have made the event “inhospitable” to attendees.

“We would never have a band that is actively coming with the expressed purpose of speaking ill of the organization, regardless of any political issues,” he said.

Ellis said the band would have vocalized its disapproval “mostly” with UMSU’s condemning of the Canadian Federation of Students’ support of BDS, rather than focusing on the union itself.

“To me I would be criticizing the people for making that decision, not just the decision,” he said.

Sanderson called the band’s conduct “extremely unprofessional” but said there is a place for members of the public to critique UMSU within UMSU spaces.

“People can criticize UMSU whenever they want, and they do quite often,” he said.

“And that’s fine. But we are not going to be paying a musical act to perform at our event with the expressed purpose to come and criticize us.”

Ellis said the band has no regrets concerning the cancellation and said his position remains unchanged.

“I think they want to have their cake and eat it too, claiming to be apolitical in this decision but also siding with Israel,” he said.

“I’m not sure how an elected union is under the impression that their commentary on international politics can be apolitical.”