They profiled a cop who fatally shot a black man. Now artists are boycotting their awards show

Frank Lopes, aka “Hobo Johnson,” performs at Sol Collective in Sacramento on Friday, January 20, 2017. He is among more than a dozen performers boycotting the Sammies show in 2018.
Frank Lopes, aka “Hobo Johnson,” performs at Sol Collective in Sacramento on Friday, January 20, 2017. He is among more than a dozen performers boycotting the Sammies show in 2018. jvillegas@sacbee.com

More than a dozen performers say they’re boycotting the annual Sammies music awards show after the sponsoring publication, Sacramento News & Review, profiled a former Sacramento cop who was fired after fatally shooting a black man in 2016.

The boycotting performers include three of the 12 nominees for “Artist of the Year.”

The Sammies are a long-running local awards show showcasing performers in 29 categories from blues to country to rap. Each category has between six and 12 nominees, with some artists nominated for two or more awards. This year’s event is scheduled for March 15 at Ace of Spades in Sacramento.

Several performers are instead planning to appear at a protest concert on the same evening at the Blue Lamp.

In December, the alternative weekly News & Review published a detailed story that extensively quoted former Sacramento Police Department officer John Tennis and featured him on the cover in a blue “Superman” T-shirt. He was fired last year after fatally shooting Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man who drew police response after residents said he was acting strangely and waving a knife.

Tennis and his partner initially appeared to try to run over Mann with their police cruiser before running after him and shooting him dead. While there were initial reports to police that Mann might have had a gun, no gun was ever found. The Sacramento Bee reported at length on the Mann incident in 2016.

News & Review publisher Jeff von Kaenel said he’s surprised at the backlash. Any publication would have taken the opportunity to interview the cop at the center of such a controversial officer-involved shooting, he said.

“I never would have thought we’d have gotten this reaction,” von Kaenel said.

The sudden artist backlash, he said, could force the cancellation of the Sammies altogether this year.

Sacramento Black Lives Matter activists were first to raise concerns about the Dec. 14 story, headlined “Confessions of a killer cop.”

The group’s leader, Tanya Faison, said the story “humanized” Tennis. She said it came after months of what she considered inadequate coverage of law enforcement missteps that resulted in the deaths of Sacramento residents.

“They are giving him a chance to give his side of the story when his side doesn’t matter,” Faison said. “They gave him a platform. They gave him a cover story. They kind of humanized him.”

The story wove Tennis’ troubled history within the department – including a previous time he killed someone in the line of duty – with new details about Mann’s difficulties getting the help he needed. Faison said black victims of police shootings don’t get the same breadth of coverage.

Von Kaenel stands by the story, although he said the News & Review erred by tagging numerous activists in a social media post responding to the backlash. Activists said they were further angered by that move because it opened their personal pages up for attack from those in support of Tennis.

He said reporter Raheem F. Hosseini was able to get Tennis to admit to an earlier in-custody death. The Bee in 2016 first reported that Tennis was involved in the 1997 death of Albert Glenn Thiel following a traffic stop.

The fact that Tennis wore a Superman shirt said more about Tennis’ state of mind than about the publication, he said.

Von Kaenel was shocked when Tennis chose the alternative weekly to break his silence after the Mann incident. “I could not believe he was calling us,” von Kaenel said.

Faison said Black Lives Matter didn’t organize the Sammies boycott.

Hip hop performer The Philharmonik was apparently the first to say he wouldn’t perform or accept a Sammies award if he won. He was nominated for Artist of the Year and in several other categories, but his name has since been removed from the ballot.

“It was the cover. It was the lack of representation over the years,” said The Philharmonik in an interview. “The article, to me, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Other boycotting artists include Hobo Johnson, Sparks Across Darkness, Write or Die , Tel Cairo, SpaceWalker, Vinnie Guidera & The Dead Birds, Mahtie Bush, LaTour, Drop Dead Red, Petaluma, The Gold Souls, Girls Rock Sacramento, Captain Cutiepie, Nezumi Onna and Andrew Castro.

Gabi Garcia, who owns the Blue Lamp music venue on Alhambra Boulevard, offered her stage for a protest show soon after artists began announcing they would boycott the Sammies. The Blue Lamp concert will also be held March 15, with doors scheduled to open at 7 p.m. and all proceeds going to the Mann family, Garcia said.

Garcia said she was disappointed the News & Review didn’t make a stronger statement about the article after some in the community reacted angrily. She said many people have been upset for years about a lack of diversity in the News & Review staff and its coverage.

“I would like to make it clear that this is not to protest the Sammies,” Garcia said. “This is about the community wanting to take a stand and wanting the paper to take notice and standing in solidarity with our marginalized community.”

As the premier awards show for local music, the Sammies are “a huge deal,” Garcia said. “That’s why I commend all these artists taking a stand.”

Mone’t Ha-Sidi runs Black Arts Matter, a group that she said speaks out against “anti-blackness in our arts scene” and promotes equality. Ha-Sidi is organizing the Blue Lamp show with Garcia and said she decided to boycott the Sammies right after the Tennis article was published.

“We think we’re in this liberal bubble, but there is a lot of casual racism and micro-aggression here,” Ha-Sidi said. “In the art scene, it has been made clear a lot of times that when there are people of color involved, it’s tokenism. For being the diverse city we are, when you get to events, it’s very segregated.”

Von Kaenel seemed mystified that artists are backing away from the awards show, an event he said is a money loser for his organization.

“If an individual band doesn’t want to be included, that is OK. We are trying to get them more attention. Usually they complain about not getting enough,” he said.

As for his staff, he said their coverage has been fair. In the case of the Mann death, he said the News & Review’s coverage helped expose the issue with the police response. The publication has two minority columnists on a small staff, he said.

“We had done extensive coverage of the African American community,” von Kaenel said. “We’d like to do more.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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