With a remarkably dry several days on the heels of downpours for weeks beforehand, it looked like the Tanana Valley State Fair would catch a break this year. But on Thursday evening, fair management committed an unforced error consequential enough to tarnish the remaining days of the Interior’s annual end-of-summer celebration and cast a pall over many Fairbanks residents’ views of the event. Going forward, the fair’s organizers will have a steep hill to climb to repair damaged relationships in the community and convince would-be fairgoers that the event is inclusive of all the Interior’s residents and their interests.
The storm clouds gathered during a rap set by local performers Bishop Slice and Starbuks, who have a loyal following in the local rap and hip-hop community. The pair had performed at prior editions of the fair without incident, but this year, a fairgoer complained to fair manager Joyce Whitehorn about their set while it was still underway. The details of what happened are a matter of contention, but the essentials aren’t in dispute: Ms. Whitehorn ordered the performance halted and wouldn’t allow the performers to resume. After several minutes of heated discussion on the reasoning for the performance’s truncation, she ordered the two performers to leave the fair and a security guard escorting them out told them they were being trespassed from the grounds.
In explaining why she had stopped their set, Ms. Whitehorn told the performers that the content of their set was inappropriate for the fair’s family-friendly atmosphere. Though she didn’t get into specifics at the time, fair board members later explained that some of the group’s lyrics referenced violence in a way they found inappropriate for young people who might have been in the audience.
What hasn’t been explained, however, is why the performance went on at all if fair management objected to its content. The pair have performed very similar sets in prior years without complaint, and each year, the performers submit their lyrics for approval before the fair starts. In addition, other performances with references to violence haven’t been subject to similar action. A rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” performed by another group at this year’s fair, for instance, contained the famous line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
If the lyrical content of Bishop Slice and Starbuks’ set wasn’t markedly more graphic or violent than other performers, the reason for their ejection is an open question. And those sorts of unresolved questions leave community members free to speculate, often in a way that assumes the worst of fair management. Many have insinuated that fair organizers are prejudiced against rap music or even the performers themselves because of their race (Bishop Slice, whose offstage name is Julian Lillie, is Alaska Native, while Starbuks, whose name is Michael Cofey, is black).
In protest to what they saw as unfair treatment of performers by fair management, several musical acts opted not to appear for their sets on the event’s final weekend. Local bands Shagg, Marc Brown and the Blues Crew, the Red Hackle Pipe Band and Headbolt Heaters dropped out, as did the Austin, Texas-based High Plains Jamboree. None of those acts are rap performers, but they objected to the fair’s actions and opted against performing because they felt their appearance would have given tacit support to the decision to exclude Bishop Slice and Starbuks.
The furor at the fair is unfortunate, both for the event and the community. The fair’s attendance has been slumping in recent years and is in serious need of a turnaround. For its part, the community needs an event that all of its members can celebrate and feel comfortable attending. Last week’s events have damaged the fair in that regard.
If organizers wish to regain community trust and participation, they must offer a more fulsome, credible explanation for the incident that satisfies those who might be inclined to believe the worst of their reasoning. Failing that, they owe Mr. Lillie and Mr. Cofey — and the community — an apology.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,