We aren’t quite at the point where we can be back at clubs and restaurants in a way that isn’t weird. But until we are, we have a lot of work to do. As we see more call-outs and calls for accountability every day, almost every industry is experiencing a reckoning. For DJs in Toronto, this movement was sparked one year ago when DJ Big Jacks spoke out about his experience working at Cactus Club Café.
The tweet by Big Jacks’ that sparked the initial conversation in August 2019 said, “Cactus Club really canceled their DJs on Caribana weekend? Between this + them telling me to ‘not cater to the Caribana crowd’ I don’t know how y’all can still eat there.” The tweet got local traction and in response, Cactus Club released a statement calling “any suggestion that Cactus Club is guided by considerations other than the needs of our staff, our customers and the wider public both untrue and flatly inaccurate.”
Under their empty black post, @shiftyfades commented “remember when you cancelled your DJs on Caribana weekend because you ‘didn’t wanna cater to the Caribana crowd?” User @grandzaddys, commented, “didn’t y’all have racial accusations pointed towards the company that were never debunked?”
Caribana is historically well-attended by all races, so while the ‘Caribana crowd’ doesn’t directly refer to a particular group, it overtly implies that Black Caribbean patrons aren’t welcome. Though the parade was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, beyond Caribana weekend, DJs say that this sentiment remains at Cactus Club and other popular Toronto restaurants and venues.
In a temporary Instagram story that was turned into a tweet, DJ Luke Sorensen came forward with his experience working at Queen St. Warehouse. He alleged that “frequent 'genre bans’ were put on DJs out of fear of ‘attracting the wrong crowd.’” Sorensen revealed that in an encounter with an owner, he was told to play music that fit the restaurant’s aesthetic, followed by an email banning hip-hop and urban music. Sorensen couldn’t be reached for additional comment.
This isn’t necessarily exclusive to Black DJs; Luke Sorensen is white. Evidently, white and non-Black POC DJs who play primarily Black genres can be susceptible to these experiences too. But it comes back to venue management not wanting these genres to attract Black guests and mar their space’s purported aesthetic.
We spoke to a few Toronto DJs to hear about their experiences.
Have you experienced discrimination at a gig?
It was summer 2017 and I was at Cactus Club on Caribana weekend. Verbatim I had one of the floor managers come up to me and tell me to not cater to the Caribana crowd. Outside of that instance, there was a lot of coded language in my time there. A lot of times they want to party to our music, they want to say our slang. But when it’s time to actually have us there, unless you’re the entertainment, they get funny.
Did coming forward with your experience have a negative effect on future gigs?
If it did mess with my bag, I didn’t notice. If there are companies that don’t want to work with me because of that, then I don’t want to work with them. But it’s not like I was blacklisted or anything. To be honest, I have had more people come up to me who were happy that I said something.
Why did Luke Sorensen’s post resonate with you?
One time at Cactus Club, it was a busy evening and I was playing all types of music. It was starting to get busy and people were starting to buy drinks and turn up. At that moment, I was playing hip-hop and a manager came over and said that it would be a good idea to transition into some Top 40 or dance music. I told him that I could do that later on and he said, “Well, I don’t like the energy of some of the people in here. They’re getting a little too excited.” And then he motioned towards a table of Black people getting bottle service. I challenged him on that and he said “We just need to switch the vibe.” It felt like they were down to play Black music when it was convenient, but they didn’t actually like the ‘crowd’ that it attracted.
What are the next steps that DJs can take in experiences like this?
I would voice my opinion, finish the gig, and then try to have a conversation with them afterwards to talk it out and explain why that is wrong. Whether or not they chose to receive that feedback or not would determine whether or not I would ever play there again. I will always finish a gig because at the end of the day, you’re there to do a job. But I did voice my opinion at the time. I’ve never had a problem with speaking up. Now, I would say it more explicitly though. It’s one thing to walk away from a situation like that but taking it one step further is actually using your voice and advocating for change in those spaces. That’s something that I’ve been reflecting on.
Shaine Crosby is a DJ.
Are these incidents isolated to places like Cactus Club or is this a recurring theme at venues around the city?
Anywhere you go that isn’t organized by you and your peers, you have to constantly be mindful of these things happening. For example, if I play at The Libertine, I know that I’m going to be fine all night because we’re all there for the same reason. But at somewhere like Cabana Pool Bar, I had a really messed up experience with discrimination there. Or somewhere like Come See Me on College, the first thing that I was told when I walked in was that I had to take my durag off.
Does this impact how you select gigs now?
Big time. If I don’t feel comfortable at your venue, I’m not going to drop by. It hurts. As much as I have a thick skin, I’ve been going through this stuff since I was a kid. I’m just not with the disrespect.
Do you see it getting better for DJs in Toronto?
It’s still a problem. And not just in big instances, but there are millions of little microaggressions that happen too. It’s just another day in Toronto. Long story short, Toronto has an issue and it needs to be addressed.
I love the fact that everyone is talking about it though. It’s something that Black people have been trying to bring attention to for so long and we were dismissed. We don’t need to shut up about these things. It’s real and it happens to all of us. All of my Black friends say the same thingL “Don’t go to this club because they don’t fuck with niggas. Don’t go to that club because they don’t fuck with niggas.” It’s always the same thing. To ignore it would be complicit.