Suzanne Perez Tobias

Every River Festival show isn’t for every audience — and that’s not a bad thing

Wichita River Festival officials say a shorter-than-planned rap show at the festival on Wednesday had everything to do with lightning and nothing to do with rapper Talib Kweli’s profanity-laced and politically charged language.

Even so, the move has spurred discussion and some protest about how the annual festival should handle bad words on stage.

Profanity isn’t a huge part of the River Festival entertainment scene, but it’s not a rare occurrence.

Last year, Liz Phair and Cypress Hill used foul language during their performances. The previous year, The Flaming Lips greeted a festival crowd with giant balloons that spelled out “F--- Yeah Wichita,” before the balloons were lowered and “edited” by removing the offensive word.

Festival officials say it’s a tricky balance, trying to offer edgy, modern music while ensuring the festival remains an all-ages affair.

“We’re charged with trying to curate programming that adheres to the spirit of the event, and that’s a broad spectrum,” said Mary Beth Jarvis, president and CEO of Wichita Festivals.

“That’s not just balloon clowns and Disney princesses. It’s entertainment for all,” she said. “So yeah, a 9 o’clock-at-night concert is going to look and sound different than a 4 p.m. Touch-a-Truck.”

The truth is, not all River Festival artists are appropriate for all audiences — and that’s not a bad thing. Festival planners should continue to book modern acts but might consider being more explicit about the potential for explicit lyrics.

A quick scroll through Talib Kweli’s playlist, for example, shows that nearly every song bears a parental advisory for explicit lyrics. A recent album has the F-word in the title.

Is it so unreasonable to think that the artist might, despite warnings and contractual obligations, slip up or even willfully include some vulgar lyrics in his set?

Jarvis, the festival president, says entertainers through the years have been remarkably willing to tone down their acts when necessary to maintain the radio-edit, “all ages” nature of the festival.

“We have worked collaboratively with artists and their management to help them understand that they’ve got the opportunity to reach big crowds at a great event with their music, with their message, with their brand,” Jarvis said.

“And they have responded well to finding the sweet spot for how to do that in a way that stays true to the community nature of the event.”

When Grandmaster Flash played the festival in 2014, Jarvis said, the legendary hip-hop artist got the usual pre-show reminders to keep it clean, and it worked.

“This is a guy who for a long time was plenty ‘street,’ and he’s standing up there giving stay-in-school messages,” she said.

Rapper Common shared some of his passionate societal views, Jarvis said. “He just did it without draping it in vulgarity to the point where it became disrespectful.”

Some festival-goers pressure the festival to take a zero-tolerance approach to profanity. That’s probably not realistic or reasonable if you want to attract young crowds.

A note on the festival schedule about PG-13 or R-rated entertainers might be an appropriate warning about potentially inappropriate shows.

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.