Lido Pimienta. Photo: Facebook

“Brown girls to the front! Brown girls to the front!” Lido Pimienta orders into her microphone, bending low so she can meet the faces in her audience, hot pink braids swishing on either side of a resolute face.

The 2017 Polaris prize winning Colombian Canadian tour de force is dominating the stage at the Marquee club in Halifax on a Thursday night: dancing, marching, chanting, cooing, and summoning.

Her vocal prowess is like a futuristic melding of Maria Callas and Bjork, evoking hip hop legends Roxanne Shante and Missy Elliott in her swagger (“it’s about motherfuckin time you know me”) — but still, Pimienta is an original. She delivers a performance that feels more like spiritual witchcraft than music alone.

It’s the 25th year of the Halifax Pop Explosion Festival — an enormous feat in a small city. The dance floor at the Marquee is jam packed and hot.

“Men to the back! Women up front!” Pimienta bellows, as a skirmish breaks out near the front of the crowd.

“That’s fucking racist!” a white woman shrieks in response, thrusting her middle finger at the stage, and at Pimienta herself.

The curating of the audience has become a custom at Lido Pimienta shows. And one that hasn’t gone unnoticed among those she seeks to protect.

“It was one of the most empowering moments of my life,” says Jesslene Jawanda, who had never been surrounded by other women of colour right at the front of a concert.

“I’ve never felt more safe or included,” she says, “and I’ve been working in that space for more than a year.”

There is one woman who refuses to make room. She is wearing a Halifax Pop Explosion shirt, and taking photographs.

“I was terrified. Very sheepish… “ Jawanda says, when she approached the woman, tapping her on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” Jawanda asked her, “do you identify as white? There are women of colour behind you who can’t see.”

The woman, photographer Kate Giffin, refused to move. (Note: This is not the Kate Giffin of Kate Giffin Photography based in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but a local photographer of the same name.)

Jawanda says Giffin shouted at her “I’m sorry if I’m white” and “I work for the festival.”

“Do I regret yelling? Definitely. Should I have reacted differently? Definitely,” Giffin admits, but maintains, “ I don’t feel like the way I was treated was appropriate, but nobody will ever see it that way because I’m white.”

When Pimienta sees Giffin in the crowd, she calls out “security!” pointing to her. Giffin retreats, and the show goes on.

Pimienta’s stage presence is unflappable. But the experience left Jawanda feeling conflicted about the festival. She was told by a friend that Giffin wouldn’t be permitted to attend any more festival events. But then a friend of Jawanda’s who was alongside her at the Pimienta concert, saw the woman at an HPX event the next night.

Jawanda too nervous to attend another show knowing she might run into the photographer again.

She sought out HPX Festival Director James Boyle, who took an hour to meet with her.

“We wholeheartedly believe in Lido’s message,” Boyle says, who was at the show that night.

But Boyle says HPX’s work doesn’t end there.

“Where we lack [on staff] is people of colour,” he says, “and we recognize that.”

HPX is working through youth outreach in black and indigenous communities to not only improve hiring practices in the future, but to hold up the work of young musicians of colour.

Boyle says Pimienta’s performance is important because it poses questions to the audience directly, in real time.

“For people to question themselves: What is racism? Am I racist? What am I doing?”

Boyle says the Festival is committed to taking in Pimienta’s message in the bigger picture. And he urges festival goers — especially those who are white — to do the same.

“It’s a good time to step back and reflect as an audience member and ask: Where is Lido coming from?”

“Open up your heart and your ears, and [respond] not in defence, but in support.”

For her part, Pimienta has responded to a flurry of comments on social media outlining the night’s conflict, including, on Jesslene Jawanda’s instagram, (in which she called on Giffin to name herself, and to apologize publicly).

Pimienta commented “She was so distracting and disrespectful, I am sorry I wasn’t able to do more…”

“I am glad that most people did get it, and embraced the reconfiguration of the room.”

But the post that perhaps sums the night up most succinctly was in response to a tweet from Ben Harrison: “A third of my feed is talking about the LidoPimienta HPX show… what happened?”

The artist responded herself, directly:

“Lido Pimienta happened.”

Join the Conversation


Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.
  1. And to think, all Giffin would have had to do to avoid controversy is say that she identifies as brown!

  2. What strikes me about this incident is the fact that Ms Jawanda might not feel empowered outside of this event.

    Before people start spouting on about racism and all lives matter perhaps we can think about empowering those who feel marginalized like Ms Pimienta did. We’ll all be better for it.