The startups behind an Inauguration party in Washington DC, at which rapper Lupe Fiasco was hauled off stage after criticizing President Obama, insist that the move was not a suppression of free speech, and that they will continue to host parties at political events in the future.
Fiasco performed for more than half an hour at Hamilton Live last night, but he only did one song – one that happened to include the lines “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza strip was getting bombed / Obama didn’t say shit / That’s why I ain’t vote for him, next one either.” And then he did it again.
After listening to Fiasco perform the same song for about 40 minutes, the organizers asked him to move on to the next number. When he refused, event officials escorted him off stage.
As soon as that happened, Twitter erupted with cries of protest at the perceived assault on free speech, a refrain that has continued into today.
Twitter user JoSe Hu$tla captured much of the sentiment of those not in attendance when he Tweeted: “my homeboy #Lupe man. I thought we were protected by the 1st amendment, they cant do that. at least he speaks the truth unlike politics.”
— Rap Genius (@RapGenius) January 21, 2013
But free speech had nothing to do with the fiasco, said Slade Sohmer, cofounder of HyperVocal, one of three startups that form Startup Rockon, the hosts of the party. “We did not remove someone from stage for an anti-Obama rant,” said Sohmer, referring to early media reports on the incident. Quite the contrary.
“He was stuck on repeat. This was 100 percent a situation where it was a performance that people were not feeling, and we moved onto the next act.” While video of the event shows some people at the front of the stage enjoying the show, Sohmer says there were several hundred others who were disinterested or put off by the performance.
“If he wants to get up on stage and do that song for five minutes, that’s fine, but to keep repeating that over and over again is not what we had in mind.”
Sohmer wouldn’t say how much the organizers paid Fiasco to perform, and he wouldn’t go into how much they knew about Fiasco’s political opinions before booking him for the party. In the past, Fiasco has referred to President Obama as a “terrorist,” and he is an outspoken supporter of Occupy Wall Street. As he told the Guardian, he has never been shy about speaking truth to power .
It’s funny that people are upset that Lupe said what he said. He’s been critical of Obama since 2007. That tiger went tiger.
— dascruggs (@dascruggs) January 21, 2013
Minutes after the rapper was kicked off stage, the organizers Tweeted their dissatisfaction from the HyperVocal Twitter account, creating the impression that Fiasco’s eviction and his anti-war rhetoric were at least related. “Disappointed that an artist took opportunity to use an event celebrating innovation/startups to make a political statement,” the Tweet said, perhaps disingenuously given the conspicuously political occasion.
Disappointed that an artist took opportunity to use an event celebrating innovation/startups to make a political statement. #StartUpRockOn
— hypervocal (@hypervocal) January 21, 2013
Sohmer conceded that the Tweet did express the organizers’ disappointment with Fiasco, but that it didn’t explain the eviction. “You can be disappointed about the political statement and at the same time not have that be the reason.”
Sohmer said Fiasco hasn’t said anything to organizers since the incident.
Startup Rockon was formed last year by HyperVocal, Fighter Interactive, and EventFarm with the aim of celebrating startup culture at the political party conventions ahead of last year’s elections. However, the success of those events – which included performances by Steve Aoki, The Roots, and a series of sparsely attended panel discussions – spurred the group to expand the endeavor. Last night’s party was billed as a celebration of Obama’s second term and “honoring innovation.”
As with the events at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, Startup Rockon awarded a cash grant to a local startup. Last night, that grant was awarded to CodeNow, a non-profit coding academy for under-served high-school students in Washington DC. Startup Rockon says on its website that the grants are worth “up to $5,000,” but Sohmer wouldn’t confirm the actual figure. CodeNow founder Ryan Seashore wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Sohmer said the controversy hasn’t affected Startup Rockon’s enthusiasm to do similar events in the future. “We’re going to continue to do this stuff and continue to celebrate the startup culture.”
[Photo by Eastscene; not taken at the Startup Rockon event]