If the arena’s biggest perception problem is that it books only country shows, its next biggest perception problem is that it is purposefully not booking black acts.
The venue has had no performers of color since it opened, and that topic is frequently discussed within community groups, on social media and in The Eagle’s editorial pages.
“Great first year for Intrust Bank Arena, but what will come first – the sun going completely black or an act of color appearing at the arena?” one Eagle Opinion Line caller said in 2011. “And, no, Barney does not count.”
“I think we should change the name of the Intrust Bank Arena to the All-White/Country-Western Arena,” said another. “Why not bring a variety of entertainers to this arena? Can I get an ‘amen’?”
Brandon Johnson, executive director of Community Operations Recovery Empowerment Inc., a community leadership and engagement group, said he thinks the arena has many problems, chief among them that it’s too small. It lacks about 2,000 seats to get the types of shows he wants to see – specifically Jay Z and Beyonce – and from the beginning, he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t built larger.
But the bigger problem, Johnson said, is the belief in the black community that the arena wants to keep black acts away to keep black people out of downtown.
“The arena doesn’t want them because of the violence associated with rap music and the shootings associated with rap,” he said. “They believe it will happen here, too.”
A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager, adamantly rejects the suggestion that arena managers are intentionally turning black artists away, although he said he knows that the lack of diversity on the schedule has helped feed the fire of those who believe it.
He’s been in discussions for such shows over the years, he said, and works with local radio stations to find one that would fit in Wichita. But nothing so far has worked.
“We look at every show,” Boleski said. “It really comes down to just the business and the economics. Is it going to be successful enough to hold that show in a 5,000- to 10,000-seat facility?”
Greg Williams, program director at hip-hop station KDGS, Power 93.5, said he can vouch for the arena. He has been working on his own and with Boleski since the arena opened to bring a show featuring artists of color to Wichita, he said.
“The real problem isn’t Intrust Bank Arena,” he said. “The bigger problem is promoters that book these shows aren’t willing to take a risk on booking a show in Wichita, Kansas. As much as people don’t want to accept that, the fact is, that’s the biggest problem.”
The root of the issue can be traced to the 2008 T.I. show, he said. The chart-topping artist performed along with rapper Akon at the 10,000-seat Kansas Coliseum. But the building wasn’t even half full the night of the show. The horrible ticket sales “hurt the city in ways I can’t describe,” Williams said.
“This guy is selling out everywhere, and he goes to Wichita and can’t even sell 3,500 tickets,” Williams said. “When a promoter leaves with his hands bloodied and his pockets empty, it’s hard. Now he doesn’t want to touch Wichita.”
It’s not that Wichita has never been able to sell a show by a black artist. Snoop Dogg sold out the Kansas Coliseum in 2001, and shows by Ja Rule and 50 Cent also performed well in the early 2000s.
But those successes are much farther in the past than the T.I. debacle, Williams said.
Another problem for Wichita: The hip-hop landscape is mostly made up of smaller acts that perform 2,000-seat venues like the Cotillion and marquee players who demand enormous guarantees. Many of them, including Jay Z, Beyonce, Drake and Nicki Minaj, wouldn’t put Wichita on their list of stops even if its reputation was good.
“It’s all relative,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, if you’re a really big superstar, you can play New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans. Really, you could play 10 of the largest cities in the country and go into either a stadium or a 19- or 20,000-seat arena and make so much money, you don’t even care about going to a place like Wichita. You don’t need to.”
Williams did say, however, that he is in negotiations to get a big hip-hop show at the arena, though it’s too soon to say what, he said. And even if it doesn’t come through, something will.
“It is going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a question of if. I’m absolutely confident it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of getting the right pieces.”