Rappers’ war with the border

Are artists like Public Enemy unfairly discriminated against by Canadian officials?

Brendan Murphy

Over the last two decades, Public Enemy has established itself as one of rap’s most influential and socially conscious acts. Even the Library of Congress has recognized its achievements. However, the group’s front man, Chuck D, says there’s one set of people whose respect he’s still waiting on: the officers at the Canadian border. “We’ve had heavy security problems at the border since the 1990s,” he says. “It’s the roughest border on the planet. To me it resembles the Berlin Wall.” Given that PE was the first hip-hop act to do extended world tours, he’s not just analogizing. “I experienced having to be searched by cops and dogs coming through western Germany to go back to Berlin, and I’m here to tell you that that seemed more humane.”

Those who regularly attend Canadian shows headlined by American rappers know that there’s a good chance their favourite artists may not be there when the lights go up. If they are, chances are they’re not happy. During this summer’s Pemberton music festival, Jay-Z, one of the most recognizable figures in music today, complained about his experience on the way there.

American rappers are not the only ones who’ve noticed. Belly is a Palestinian-born, Ottawa-based rapper. A Juno-winning artist who plays on both sides of the border, he agrees with Chuck D. “I have an easier time getting into the States than getting back into my own country. [Going into the U.S.] I haven’t been pulled to the side in four or five years. In Canada, it’s one out of two times that I’ll have to spend an hour or two in Customs.”

Toronto’s REMG is Canada’s largest “urban” music concert promoter. Since founding the company in 1993, Jonathan Ramos has been bringing some of the biggest names in rap and R & B to Canada. He explains the process. “There’s two parts to it—work permits and immigration.” According to Ramos, if the person is an internationally recognized musician, a work permit is often not necessary. “The problems come up at immigration,” he says.

Since 2003, the border has been overseen by the Canadian Border Services Agency, an amalgamation of Canada Customs and personnel from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. David Garson, a senior partner of the Toronto law firm Guberman, Garson, Bush, who has been practising immigration law for over 15 years, explains that while Immigration and the CBSA do share duties, responsibilities and information, the border itself is the CBSA’s.

In an email to Maclean’s (before declining to answer further questions), a CSBA spokesperson wrote: “Several factors are used in determining admissibility into Canada, including involvement in criminal activity, or for security, health or financial reasons.” According to Garson, it’s most often for reasons of criminal activity. “Canada is very strict about criminality,” says Garson. “If you have a conviction that could have been proceeded upon indictably in Canada, then that person is inadmissible.”

While the U.S. has a petty offence exemption, Canada does not. “It could be one charge,” says Garson. “You may have entertainers coming to Canada that have had a DUI or a minor possession charge and, if that’s the case, then they’re deemed inadmissible.” Ramos points out that it’s frequently not even the musicians themselves who are the problem. “It’s often someone in the entourage. Sometimes they’re essential to the show, which means it can’t happen, and sometimes they aren’t.”

Previously called a “minister’s pardon,” the temporary resident permit is how someone deemed inadmissible can enter the country. While both Ramos and Garson stress that this is best handled well in advance, it can be done at the port of entry. “There’s a lot of discretion given to the officer at the border,” says Garson.

Since Chuck D and Belly are both able to cross the border, the issue for them is their treatment while there. “I definitely think that if you’re dressed as the profile of what a rapper is, they pick on that,” says Belly. “And no matter what they say, you go into the side room at Customs and it’s filled with people of ethnic backgrounds.”

For Ramos, there are several popular artists he has avoided working with because they’re not likely to make it over the border. But as for discrimination against rappers themselves? “I think there’s a problem with the system, but I doubt that rappers are being targeted for being rappers.”