Olympics Insider Calls Bullshit on Firing of Black Performer From Opening Ceremony

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Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/WikiCreativeCommons
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/WikiCreativeCommons

TOKYO—In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, an employee for a company that helped produce the Olympics Opening Ceremony says that the Tokyo Organizing Committee lied in official statements about its reasons for cutting an African performer from the event.

On July 22, the day before the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony, Senegalese percussionist Latyr Sy posted on Facebook that his performance in the event had been abruptly canceled in May. According to Sy and his team, after repeatedly asking for an explanation, representatives from the Japanese advertising monolith Dentsu—the Games’ exclusive marketing partner—eventually told them that the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games had raised concerns that “people will ask: Why is there an African in it?”

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Sy’s post went viral, and the backlash over his allegations forced a response from the committee. Its spokesperson, Masanori Takaya said in a July 24 press conference that Sy’s allegations were “not factual” and that due to “budgetary constraints and COVID-19 countermeasures, a number of musicians and performances had to be canceled.”

But according to a Dentsu employee who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, removing Sy from the ceremony was at least just as expensive as keeping him.

“Was any money actually saved by cutting him from the ceremonies? Not really because we paid a generous kill fee. You could also look at it as hush money. He was supposed to stay quiet,” said the employee. “The head of the Olympic Committee, [Toshiro] Muto, said that the African was cut due to budget restraints. That’s kind of a lie. You can’t unilaterally cancel a contract without paying most of it. And in this case, I’ve heard the artist was paid more than originally promised.”

The employee added that while “Sy wasn’t the only performer” cut from the ceremony, “it’s true, someone in the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee was miffed about having an African performer in a Japanese Ceremony. There was, of course, opposition to even having Naomi Osaka light the torch, but she is a naturalized Japanese and she is a winner. Everyone loves a winner.”

Responding to a request for comment from The Daily Beast regarding Sy’s removal, the Tokyo Organizing Committee provided the same reasoning it initially did. “Changes were made to the Ceremony for reasons entirely different to the situation described in the article. Plans for the Opening Ceremony originally included a musical segment in which many musicians, including the musician in question, would perform,” the statement read. “However, due to budget constraints as well as the necessity for COVID-19 countermeasures, the creative plans for the Ceremony were changed.”

The committee declined to respond to the specific allegations made by the Dentsu employee. “We have reviewed the addressed questions. However, our previously submitted comment will be all. Please refer to it once again,” it said in an email.

Sy told The Daily Beast that, initially, he had no intention of making public what happened. However, constantly seeing rehearsal footage on television in the days leading up to the ceremony, which was practically identical to the one he was removed from, compelled him to speak up.

“You see it on the news, and you think, ‘I’m supposed to be there.’ And you wonder, what were all the months of effort I put into preparations, and the 25 years I have worked in and contributed to Japan for?” he said. “I don’t hate this country. I’ve spent half of my life here. How can I hate it? But this kind of thinking? It has to stop. It must end. It’s 2021.”

Sy’s original Facebook post, which was written in both Japanese and English, caught the attention of the local and international media, and was shared over 1,200 times on the platform. The tabloid Nikkan Gendai wrote a full page article on Sy’s dismissal from the ceremony. The blunt headline read, “Organising Committee accused of blatant racial discrimination! An African performer was excluded from the opening ceremony.”

The prominent musician is a permanent resident of Japan and has lived and worked in the country for over two decades. He has appeared alongside the nation’s top artists in concerts and television programs both domestic and abroad. He performed in front of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was called “the face of the Tokyo Olympics” for his role in bringing the games to Japan, and met Emperor Naruhito at the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development in 2019.

Sy told The Daily Beast that due to an agreement with Dentsu, he could not comment on any details of his contract with the company or discuss payments. His team member—who was involved in managing the logistics of the canceled performance—said the COVID-19 explanation given in official statements do not make sense either, because the musician was invited to perform at the opening ceremony back in December 2020, when Tokyo’s coronavirus situation was as severe as it is now.

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The opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was supposed to present a new, more progressive Japan that celebrated “diversity and harmony” to the world, but it was steeped in controversy well before it even began. A creative director of the ceremony, Hiroshi Sasaki, had to resign for fat-shaming a female celebrity whom he intended to dress in pig ears as an “Olympig” for the event. The ceremony’s original composer, Keigo Oyamada, stepped down after his history of abusing disabled children resurfaced. Another creative director, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired for past Holocaust jokes. And on top of that, despite warnings, the ceremony featured the music of Koichi Sugiyama, a homophobic war-crimes denier.

“I never tried to blame Japanese society. I was afraid to say anything because people might hate me. But, as soon as I posted on Facebook, the thing just kept going off,” said Sy, referring to the hundreds of notifications of likes and shares he received that day. “I thought people would blame me but everyone from all around the world is sending me messages of ‘Don’t give up.’”

Sy said that although he is not giving up on his musical career, this incident has made him consider expanding his sphere outside of Japan. “If it continues to go on like this, I might leave this country I love so much,” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to, but this mentality is not good for anyone.”

—Jake Adelstein contributed reporting to this article.

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