NI Arts Sector in Sad State

“Across the arts council as a whole, optimism is in short supply. In fact, in 16 years we’ve never known morale so low with so many arts organisations facing closure or on the brink of collapse.” These are the first deflating words you will read if you happen to pick up a copy of the programme for The 16th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Although CQAF was able to retain its original funding, many upstanding organisations such as The Lyric Theatre and The Grand Opera House trust have had their funding cut substantially. Worse yet, six organisations including Blackstaff Press have had their funding cut entirely. Despite the fact that 23,000 people wrote to the Northern Ireland Executive voicing their aversion to the proposed cuts of £1.38 million, this has failed to make any kind of impact upon the decision.

It is easy to connect with the arts, that is what makes them so essential to life itself. Film, literature, and music are just some of the ways in which we connect with the arts on a daily basis. They enhance our well being, and our connection with others, not to mention how they promote growth to the economy and to tourism.

What is not easy to connect with however, is the impersonal, and bureaucratic government of Stormont ministers, who at the top decide where funding is meant to go and where it isn’t. This has an effect that trickles down into the now bleak prospects for the arts in Northern Ireland. In 2014, through campaigns such as the ’13p For The Arts’, awareness in anticipation of upcoming cuts was striven to be spread of the extent to which cuts were already affecting organisations. Arts Council Chief Executive Roisin McDonough has outlined how “The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) is one of the smallest departments, representing only 1% of total government expenditure, yet it is set to sustain one of the largest cuts in the NI budget 2015-16.”

In such a corporate world, the arts have a narrow reputation of appearing frivolous. This is being reflected through the decision to make cuts to a sector that has been proven to promote an enormous amount of growth with McDonough further pointing out how “The arts have become one of Northern Ireland’s main sources of job creation, wealth and competitive strength, feeding the creative industries, which employ 40,000 people and generate annually £714m Gross Value Added to the local economy. That’s bigger than agriculture.” Indeed, in a 2014 press release from Gov.uk their statistics found that for the UK more broadly, creative industries generate 8 million an hour to UK economy. Therefore, we must question to what extent are these cuts to an industry that was already struggling in terms of funding, in line with what is best for society and what society actually wants, when 23,000 contesting voices went ignored.

It is the mindset of political figures such as Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, that are harmful to the reputation of the arts. In November 2014 she said that “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects” STEM degrees are undoubtedly highly prized, but the mindset that they are the only route to a successful career is one that is harmful to society and the fate of the arts sector on the whole.

While it is disheartening to see that such narrow mindedness and undervaluing of the arts appears to be permeating into governmental logic at Stormont, perhaps the ramifications soon to be felt will be the catalyst to recognise what has become so unappreciated and fragmented in Northern Ireland. Maybe in recognising what is being lost, will the worth be realised and come to the surface.

Things like cuts have a way of falling through the cracks unnoticed. To remedy this, show your support for the arts, attend shows at a local festival such as CQAF or a local theatre show. A march for the arts and against the cuts is also being held in Belfast City Centre on May 2nd alongside the May Day Parade.

Live review: Nicki Minaj, Odyssey Arena Belfast, 1/4/2015

Arguably, the first and foremost thing that, ahem, sticks out, so to speak, about Nicki Minaj is that of her elaborate, risqué image. When she first exploded into the music scene back in 2012 she was adorned with bright neon wigs, elaborate make up and even more elaborate outfits. To say that this doesn’t have a certain amount of bearing upon how her status as an artist, and a female artist at that, is perceived would be wrong. A Nicki Minaj concert comes loaded with a certain amount of scandalous, boundary pushing expectations. Many may see her racy get ups as the only thing that defines her yet she’s the only female that has featured on the Hip Hop Cash Kings 2013 list, earning more than Eminem and Kendrick Lemar. Superficial or not, Minaj is clearly doing something right within the male dominated realm of rap and hip hop. Indeed, as the fans flooded into the Odyssey in their hundreds it’s time to figure out if there’s more to Nicki Minaj than racy outfits.

Opening up the night was support act Trey Songz, promoting his new album ‘Trigga’. As the arena is left in darkness for his entrance, the screen displays the cover art for his new album. Said artwork equates Trey Songz with Christ through an image of him in a cross position. It was enough in itself to confirm that this portion of the night was going to be one big ego-trip. His entire show was tirelessly punctuated with cries to the audience of “Who is gonna be my girl?” and other empty cat calls to that effect. Greeted with hundreds of girlish cheers from the audience he gained himself exactly the reaction he wanted but it wasn’t for his music, it was for his physicality. Musically, Trey Songz is reminiscent of Chris Brown or Ne-Yo. Yet his music feels slightly derivative, the kind of songs that sound like something else that you can’t quite place. Song after song devoted to the subject of sex, with lyrics that lack any kind of vigour, Trey Songz’s portion of the night feels extremely repetitive and elongated. Just when you think he’s going to close his portion with his cleverly named ‘Na Na’ he jumps right into ‘Touchin, Lovin’ and asks his audience “Who wants to touch me?” An artist that clearly has no sense of the fact that he is not in fact Kanye West or Jay Z, there is a palpable relief when he finally exits the stage with an unearned ego of abhorrent proportions.

As a support act, Trey Songz was tiring. It was lucky that there was an interlude for the audience to collect themselves. Finally, however a dramatic opening that displays a video of various clips of Nicki being photographed by the paparazzi builds up a certain sense of tension only intensified by smoke snaking around the stage. While this intensity is built through the video clips, it does feel slightly longwinded, almost as if it’s preparing us for Nicki Minaj: The Movie, yet eventually, the eagerly awaited singer rises up on a lift from underneath the stage. Dressed from head to toe in black with a veil over her face, the colourful eclectic association we have of Minaj appear in this moment to be obsolete. There is the sense that she is challenging these widely held, narrow notions of who she is and showcasing to the audience how she has deeper dimensions.

Her latest ‘The Pinkprint’ album which the tour is promoting, was written in the wake of a break up with a long term partner. As she begins the show with the first song of the album ‘All Things Go’ the sense of mourning the end of her relationship is strongly clear through lyrics such as “Cherish these days, man do they go quick, just yesterday I swear it was ’06” Seemingly a far call from the days of her fun, upbeat club anthems such as ‘Starships’ which perhaps she has become most associated with, right from the onset Minaj shows herself as a developed artist musically.

This deeper vein continues right throughout the show as she continues with more offerings from ‘The Pinkprint’ such as ‘I Lied’ and ‘The Crying Game.’ However, this is not to say that the entire show was bereft of the colourful, scandalous side of her we have come to know so well. Indeed, lacking the skirt she was wearing at the beginning of the show, she begins her song ‘Feeling Myself’ which Beyonce featured in on ‘The Pinkprint’. More energised, this risqué song, evident even through its title, throws the audience in at the deep end after the slow beginning we were subjected to. At one point she steps back on to the stage lift for a costume change and is lowered down with one fist in the air appearing like some kind of backwards superhero, which indeed, could arguably be a fitting description of her overall.

Returning to the stage in a gold outfit donning gold thigh high boots Minaj looks more in line with audience expectations. When tree stump stools are laid out on stage it becomes instantly evident that the song so many people have been waiting for was about to happen. Yes, up next was the controversial ‘Anaconda’ with some extremely elaborate dancing with her back up dancers. The stark transition from the dark, gloomy beginning to the shouts of “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” show how much diversity is abundant throughout the show.

Yet, perhaps the song that shone out the most, was unexpectedly, ‘Marilyn Monroe’. Introducing it with the words “For anyone that’s ever doubted themselves, that’s okay, I get that way too” she jumped right into the highly emotive, piano infused song. For an audience that had such a dominantly female audience it felt extremely prominent in how many girls and women alike would see her as a role model. It’s easy to see an artist that reaches sky high heights of fame in only one particular light, they feel somehow fictional in a way through the continual projection of a certain image. Yet ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and indeed the concert overall humanised a cultural figure that has become subject to so much scrutiny by the media and through her music videos.

Bringing the show to an end, she invited three members of the audience on stage to dance with her, the one that stuck out most was a twelve year old boy with so much enthusiasm for her music. He left the stage with the heartfelt statement ‘I don’t care what anyone says, you’re the queen of rap’ it caused the biggest reaction from the audience as they confirmed his statement through cheers. Returning for an encore wearing a blonde wig and performing a string of her more upbeat hits such as ‘Bang Bang’ it was clear that the upbeat and energetic side of Nicki Minaj has not disappeared through showing the more candid side of her in ‘The Pinkprint’. The show simply displayed an artist that is exploring ways of developing more mature musical inclinations while maintaining the more lighthearted side.