Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Azalea Festival, Wilmington Police Department investigate racial discrimination accusations

Performer Louis Nixon alleges festival staff racially profiled his team and forced them to leave before being able to take the stage. The Azalea Festival denies this, saying performers were 'taking advantage' of backstage access


Louis NIxon, a.k.a. Ike Ellis, backstage at the Azalea Festival main concert stage on April 14. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Louis Nixon)
Louis Nixon, a.k.a. Ike Ellis, backstage at the Azalea Festival main concert stage on April 14. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Louis Nixon)

WILMINGTON—The Wilmington Police Department and the North Carolina Azalea Festival are both looking into accusations that security staff racially discriminated and harassed a performer during this year’s festival.

The performer and Azalea Festival staff have markedly different versions of the incident, which occurred on Saturday, April 14, at the Azalea Festival’s DJ Battle.

The incident took place in the backstage area of the festival’s main concert stage show, prior to a performance by headliner Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges.

Accusations of racial profiling, harassment

Louis Nixon, a Pender County rap artist who performs as Ike Ellis, alleges that he and six members of his team were the victims of racial discrimination by Azalea Festival security. His version of events was first reported by blogger Gage Mortimer (you can read that story here).

Nixon also spoke with Port City Daily about the incident.

“We were asked to perform, we were told we should bring our own DJ, we understood it like our team wouldn’t have any issues getting a plus-one for anyone who needed one,” Nixon said. “We have an entourage–a stylist, a manager, security–and our DJ and another rapper we were going to perform with. That’s not unusual, and we didn’t expect problems.”

Nixon said he was given access to the backstage area of the festival’s main stage, but his team were harassed by security and told they would be escorted out of the venue before Nixon had a chance to perform.

“I was told I could stay and perform with another DJ, who’d I’d never met or worked with, which seemed wrong to me, like my DJ is a performer, he’s part of the performance. I didn’t understand what that was about,” Nixon said.

According to Nixon, the harassment was racially motivated; Nixon said that as his team, who are all black, were being told to leave, he witnessed several white women being given access to venue by two white security guards.

“It was definitely racially motivated, security zeroed in on my team,” Nixon said. “You’ve got two white security guards throwing my people out, and right there at the same time, two Caucasian ladies came up and received passes just for asking. They didn’t vet them or anything.”

Nixon added that, while the confrontation was mostly nonviolent, one of the security staff ripped a lanyard off his neck, leaving welts. Nixon called the move “totally unnecessary, because I’d already decided if I had to choose between leaving my team behind and performing that I’d leave. I didn’t like it, but that was what it was.”

Although several law enforcement agencies, including the Wilmington Police Department, provided security for the Azalea Festival and its concert series, Nixon clarified that the security he dealt with were not uniformed officers.

Nixon provided an image of the security staff members in question, but the Azalea Festival declined to say if they could identify the two men.

The Azalea Festival responds to accusations

Alison English Baringer, executive director of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, said on Tuesday, May 1, that staff had been made aware of the accusations and there would be a formal inquiry into what had occurred.

On Thursday, Baringer issued the following statement on behalf of the Azalea Festival:

“The North Carolina Azalea Festival takes claims and accusations against it seriously. Upon hearing of the accusation relating to Mr. Nixon, the Festival immediately launched an inquiry into the alleged situation. We have been in contact with our concert committee volunteers, third-party security, and law enforcement agencies to determine the facts concerning this matter.

“The alleged incident took place in the backstage area during one of the Main Stage Concerts (nationally-touring Ludacris). Most nationally-touring artists have clauses in their contracts which limit backstage attendance to only those absolutely necessary to the operation and production of their show. Some artists of this caliber will not take the stage or even enter the venue if their tour managers see that the backstage area is not controlled and maintained securely. Due to this, security in the backstage area is of the utmost importance. For some perspective, the Azalea Festival Board of Directors do not have passes to the backstage area, and they are the fiduciary agents of this event.

“On the night of the alleged incident, The Azalea Festival hired a third-party agent to organize and orchestrate a local DJ battle for supplemental entertainment prior to the opening act for the national artist in which Mr. Nixon was associated with.

“Feedback the Festival has received from those backstage indicates that throughout the night the number of people backstage grew to an excessive number, as a direct result of the DJ Battle. Participants in the DJ battle were seen bringing people backstage who did not have passes. Some of these people may have been affiliated with the DJ’s, but not necessary to the operation and production of the show at hand. Initially, the Azalea Festival backstage team tried to accommodate the extra people by giving them passes. Soon this leniency was taken advantage of, with more and more people being brought backstage by the DJ’s and their friends, and the numbers grew to an excessive amount. At this point the backstage team asked those not directly performing on stage in the DJ Battle to leave the backstage area.

“In preparation for the headline artist, backstage security is required to clear the backstage area. Staff asked the local DJ acts and guests to leave after their performance. Feedback the Festival has received is that those associated with the DJ Battle did not want to leave backstage, and some acted in defiance of this request, which resulted in security stepping in.

“Based on the feedback we received, the Azalea Festival backstage team followed protocol that aligns with our nationally-touring artist contracts. Without their diligence in maintaining a safe and secure environment backstage, the possibility the national acts not taking the stage could result. The Azalea Festival has worked diligently to create a warm and welcoming environment for all to enjoy our concerts. However, with any large event there are secure areas backstage that are not appropriate for non-essential personnel.”

Ongoing Wilmington Police Department investigation

It was not clear from the Azalea Festival’s statement whether they believe Nixon and his team to have been among those who “acted in defiance.” Nixon said he was aware that festival staff would be clearing the backstage area prior to the Ludacris show but that his incident with security occurred before Nixon could perform.

“I know sometimes the headliner wants it all cleared out for themselves, but this was earlier in the show,” Nixon said. “Bottom line, we didn’t get to perform. That’s what really hurt us.”

While the Azalea Festival considers the incident resolved, Wilmington Police Department Spokeswoman Linda Rawley Thompson confirmed the department is still currently investigating the incident. According to Rawley Thompson several Wilmington officers were present at the venue.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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