Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Less "Beef" & More Unity, Please!

I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy the entertainment industry in all of its mess and glory. I watch TMZ and E! News daily (along with other news programs, of course), and I am usually pretty up-to-the-times on the wha gwan with the creative folks in the public eye.

I love to be entertained by talented folks! I admire their hard work. I admire their perseverance and thick skin. I admire their movies, their albums, and their fashions. I love art, and the process of producing art.

That being said, I could do less with the "beef" culture, and how it has permeated the otherwise inspiring talent that I consume on a daily basis. I think at this point in pop cultural history, it's time to usher in an era of support, positivity, and progress. It's almost a necessity, given the political unrest that the majority of these cultural icons are currently living in.

We've all been entertained by the stories over the years. If you're a reggae lover, it goes back to Bounty Killer & SuperCat war-ing in the mid-90s, and continues on to include rifts between Bounty and Beenie Man, Shabba and Ninjaman, artists like Aidonia and Busy Signal, Spice and Macka Diamond the female representatives jumped in the ring on the 2012 Sting stage in Jamaica, and controversy has continued to the Vybz Kartel and Mavado beef, etc. etc.

Fans are loyal, and we often stand by our artists. We stand behind the singers that move us, the actresses we admire, and the models we endorse. It's almost like a part of the legacy, when you have a sect of individuals who are passionate about your art and will defend your honour. This happened with Michael Jackson and Prince, even with Lady Gaga and Madonna, and has really been a part of the entertainment journey.

I believe it was Kevin Hart that once declared that the industry is created that way: artists are built up, praised and glorified, and when they reach a level of status and excellence...in come the haters. In comes the controversy, the deep secrets, and the "haters." And it is in this moment when your stamina as a professional artist is really challenged. It is within the turmoil and the rumours when one must either build up a strong armour and keep pushing on...or you fall. You fall victim to the negative energy, you buckle under the pressure, and you let the side noise take the place of your passion and artistic objective.

We can all probably list dozens of other artists that were the subject of public battles. In hip hop alone we have Nas vs. JayZ, Remy Ma vs. Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent vs. The Game, Lil Kim Vs. Foxy Brown, and of course the most historic beef of them all: Tupac vs. Biggie. Whether fictional or the real deal, we are brought into the drama as spectators, and left to judge artistry, authenticity, and worthiness between the public figures.

It is as though only one can reign, and to imagine unity and co-existence is unacceptable. This has been our bad training, and I think I speak for many when I say that I'm exhausted from it! I didn't realize how exhausting it was, until I saw the photo of Drake and Meek Mill "squashing" their beef once and for all. It was a reassuring publicity moment, and I couldn't help but hope that this was the beginning of a beautiful trend.

Without getting into political discussion, it goes without saying that leadership is key when it comes to setting the tone, determining the trends, and being a consistent example of behaviour and perspective. With good leadership comes a healthy culture, in the workplace, in political office, and of course: in hip hop and entertainment.

So I had to give thanks for Drake and Meek Mill for circulating that visual representation of unity. For what it's worth, it made me feel good about the direction of the hip hop culture for a minute.

I know hip hop, and TMZ are not the end-all and be-all of the world we live in, but I do also realize the impact that pop culture and the millions of messages we all consume on a daily basis have on our psyche. I can also appreciate that whether it's your local DJ, your high school teacher, the mayor of a city, or the president/prime minister of a country, everyone that has a voice and a platform also has a level of responsibility.

Over the decades, I can distinctly remember the images, the messages, the songs, the movies, and the books that inspired and motivated me. There are individuals that I may never meet that had a great impact on how I see the world, how I conduct myself, and what I believe in. Along with community leaders and family members, there are so many opportunities to inspire greatness...so I have to give credit where credit is due, and breath a sigh of relief for the pleasant images that pop and urban culture provided me with this week.

What moved me the most was seeing the level of class that Serena Williams had this week, despite being unfairly treated at the U.S. Open. I loved the way she stood up for herself, I love the way she spoke, the words she choose, the tone of her voice, and how she made sure to push her message across. There was the greatest female athlete of our time reminding the tennis officials that she was a woman of grace, an honest professional, and a clean role model for her daughter.

I watched as Serena comforted Naomi Asaka in her moment of glory (albeit confusion), and as the two legends stood side by side and smiled through their tears. That image is what I use as an example of unity despite competition. Respect despite controversy, and support regardless of status.

When history reveals itself in another twenty to thirty years, we will see how these moments define a generation and influence the recipients. We will hear how the narrative plays out and see what it fosters. More greatness. Increased progress. Less anxiety. Many factors contribute to the mood of this moment in history, so it is my wish that those who have the "power" to influence and endorse and set trends use this opportunity wisely. For our future, and for our daily experiences. Every image, every word, every action counts.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Six Soca Songs that Made Summer 2018 Sweet

This music, by design, is created to generate good vibes. Great energy, radiant sunshine, and positive sensations go hand in hand with soca music in the summer time...or in summer-like climates, year round. Every new season of this island music comes with a different feeling, and can be ultimately judged overall by the body of songs and performances once the Caribbean carnival calendar is complete.

There are a few keys years in soca that stand out in my memory: for example, I distinctly remember the 2011/2012 season being one of them. The Antilles Riddim STILL sounds brand new to me, it's that powerful. Kerwin's "Bacchanalist" and Machel's "Vibes Cyan Done" are classics in my memory.

Since then, some eras were lukewarm, and others were pretty hot. In my humble opinion, 2018 has been fire. Big up the artists, the producers, and the DJs for circulating these upful vibes all year long. This year's soca has integrated marvellously with the big Afrobeats and Dancehall tunes as well, which has made it extra special.

As this year's carnival season winds down, I look forward to hearing what's coming up for 2019, but want to take a quick look back at a few of the songs from this particular soca season that continue to move me, and will frame the soundtrack of Summer 18's experiences:

(1) TAKE OVER - Kerwin DuBois
This one takes the top spot; the riddim, the groove, the video, everything. Big up Kerwin for consistently delivering hits that speak to me!

(2) SPLINTERS -Shal Marshall
Shal hit me hard with this track: everything about it is heavy.

Voice is a true songwriter, and has an amazing ability to capture feeling, message, and inspiration along with a sweet groove. Every time. This song deserves all of the accolades it received.

Fire. This song feels like excitement, and is classic Kes excellence.

(5) NO WEAPON - LFS Music
The lyrics and empowerment in this song is what caught me, plus it's extremely vibsey.

(6) CRIMINAL WINE - Patrice Roberts and Lyrikal
The video captured me, because Patrice and Lyrikal together is nothing but sexiness! This song is wonderful!

OK, so there are more than six. There are more than ten. There are plenty...I digress. This entire "Pim Pim Riddim" is dangerous.

Clearly, this list only represents a portion of the songs that spoke to me personally, but the season overall was fabulous and I know that the memories it inspired will be equally vibrant when accompanied by the sounds.

Truly looking forward to the next season of soca songs, embracing the legends of the genre, and seeing if anyone new pops up on the scene. It is this anticipation that frames the entire soca-listening experience: it's ever-exciting.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability

Culture is defined as the collective manifestation of arts and human intelligence. It is something we all create, together, in order to represent our community's existence. Our culture is how we present ourselves to others. How we celebrate our unique belongingness. How we communicate what we view to be traditional, important, and significant.

In Toronto, our annual Carnival celebration (formerly and affectionately known as Caribana) is the most visible display of Caribbean culture across the country. In fact, it used to be the largest street festival amongst ANY culture in North America.

Used to be. This year looked kinda scanty.

Naturally, there are individuals who take the various elements of their individual cultures very, very seriously. The foods they eat, the way they dress, how they conduct themselves, and the languages they speak. They hold on to these elements proudly, as it is these factors that solidify their purpose, and dictate how they interpret the world around them. And likewise, how the world views them.

The culture of Caribbean Carnival is an international force. At any give time of year, a Carnival enthusiast can travel and find a passionate group of like-minded souls celebrating Caribbean culture exactly they way they like it. This cultural recognition is magnetic and sustains a thriving ongoing industry based on its beauty, elements, and events.

Caribbean Carnival is something that came into my world quite naturally, and has only grown in terms of my passion and interest in this phenomenon. It has become a welcome addition to my life's routine, despite the fact that there are numerous people in my circle that think the act of Carnival is a legit waste of time and personal resources.

My literary activities, communication practices, musical commitments, my Jamaican heritage, and deep appreciation for reggae music still haven't prevented me from falling in love with Carnival culture. I still anticipate the time of year when Toronto Carnival rolls around. I always look forward to visiting at least one out-of-town Carnival a year (Miami and Jamaica are favourites). I still plan to one day visit Trinidad to experience the heart and soul of all things Carnival, and related fete and masquerade bliss. It's almost an addiction, and I have realized that it's not something I can simply "get over" or "grow out of," contrary to popular belief.

The pseudo-academic in me (along with an inquisitive mind, and cultural frustration) is now taking a different glance at the Caribbean Carnival, in an attempt to understand its power and maintain its influence.

This is not coming from a place of finger-pointing, or placing blame. In fact, I won't even target individual mas bands for any less-than-pleasant Toronto Carnival experiences. I will not encourage the belittling of novice costume designers or band leaders. I won't support the accusations towards particular figure heads, or engage in verbal bacchanal about what so-and-so should have done, should have said, or who they might have hired. I can't endorse the blatant in-fighting, badmind, and mean-spirited internal competitions. It's too much. It hurts my soul. My Caribbean soul.

What I will do (as an obsessive over-thinker and writer) is attempt to somehow operationalize this process to the best of my ability. I want to see if this exercise will help me, or help others who genuinely have a passion and curiousity for this event and the culture that surrounds it. I hope this is helpful, in a constructive and progressive way.

I have heard on more than one occasion that this appears to be the beginning of "the end" of Toronto Carnival. That it doesn't feel that same. It's falling apart. "I'd rather go to Crop Over in Barbados," or "I'll be in Jamaica for Independence Day instead" are common statements about our late summer long weekend. "I'm done with playing mas in Toronto," is a phrase that is overheard far too often now. I'm not sure if this is because of different priorities, leadership challenges, or because our precious Carnival has never really established a firm or financially sound system on a long-term basis.

(Raise your hand if you're still waiting for payment, a refund, prize money, compensation, acknowledgement, a response to an email, or if you're curious about who actually won the Band of the Year title this year, last year, or in 2016, etc. and why. Touch your neighbour if you have a few really great ideas about the logistics of this Carnival, but have had difficulty finding a listening ear to communicate it to. Hold up a gunfinger if you miss hearing reggae and/or live bands on the road, and wonder where they went...)

Other than the Carnival insiders and enthusiasts, how many people in Toronto really know WHY we can't call Caribana "Caribana" anymore, why Scotiabank is no longer the title sponsor, or who Peeks is and what their role is in the changes that have occurred over the years?

There are so many questions, that it exhausts even the best of us. Carnival experts in Brazil, the UK, and Trinidad have established specialized University programs, research processes, conferences (big up to the folks at Leeds Beckett University in the UK), thriving financial enterprises, and secure socio-economic structures that continuously support and sustain the various processes associated with Carnival production.

It's not impossible.

There are so many artists, dancers, musicians, craft makers, culinary professionals, and other Caribbean cultural ambassadors who have been able to develop financially lucrative careers and businesses in the name of Carnival, around the world. We don't always give them the credit they deserve, but the system is huge...and everyone plays a very specific part in it. We need to learn from these established examples.

I really want to see this tradition live on in Toronto/Canada. I want to see it grow, and flourish. I want to see our community flourish within it. It is my fear that as the newer generation comes of age, that they will care more about Drake and them (...big up Drake, same way. I'm a true fan...) and less about the traditions of their parents, grandparents, etc. The Caribbean will be a far-reaching part of their daily cultural experience, and may inevitably just disappear. And then what?

Caribbean Carnival pedagogy is rare, but necessary. Our culture needs to sustain folks at the forefront of research and analysis to explore how we can make a positive difference in the Canadian iteration of this celebration: continuous and consistent progressive leadership to preserve the pure elements of Carnival that inspire, motivate, and bring so many people joy.

No strings attached.

In the midst of my Carnival musings and tabanca for days past, I created a visual representation of this system's accountability factor, which also led me to ask a few questions that I don't have any concrete answers to. Here is the diagram: "Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability"

And here are the questions:

Who are we, as connoisseurs and producers of Toronto Carnival in particular, accountable to?

Who is inevitably most responsible for the way Toronto Carnival operates overall, and how it is perceived locally and internationally, going forward?

In Toronto, what is the most important end-result from this complicated and work-intensive annual structure?

Who benefits, financially and socially, from this elaborate Toronto celebration...and why?

How do we elect our Toronto Carnival leaders, and are we accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf?

What does transparent leadership look like in our Toronto Carnival community, and who best exemplifies this (past or present)?

How do we make changes and improvements to Toronto Carnival that we can all vote on, agree upon, discuss diplomatically, and contribute to regardless of "links," affiliations, allegiances, nationality, or finances?

I will continue to anticipate an inclusive celebration, based on cultural hope and progress. In the name of that University-Avenue-Old-School-Caribana feeling. The feeling that we embraced in our youth, as a family affair, and a feeling that we deserve to continue to revel in...from near, or far.

This diagram, and these questions are coming strictly from a place of Caribbean cultural passion, and the belief that my people...my beloved Caribbean people...deserve the best of everything we do and represent. We deserve a high standard of excellence in Carnival, and in everyday livity.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing;''s "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"THE VAPOURS" Selwyn Jeffers' Must Read Toronto-Based Urban Fiction Novel (Book Review)

Wow. This book was fantastic. And refreshing. Authentic, and entertaining. It was the perfect mix of familiar Toronto landmarks and streets, with a captivating story line. It was an encouraging introduction to novelist Selwyn Jeffers that makes me anticipate more urban fiction greatness from this first-time author.

It is everything I believe "Canadian Urban Fiction" should be. Honest. Gritty. Culturally-specific. Naturally Canadian, and aurally accurate with an exciting plot. I just LOVED reading the dialogue between the characters, and turning each page in hopes of discovering familiarity and social awareness with each chapter.

"The Vapours" is the inaugural novel from author Selwyn Jeffers, a Toronto-based screenwriter, poet, and blogger. It's a story about a Caribbean-Canadian university student named Shawn who is weeks away from completing his business degree, while also raising an infant, nurturing a relationship, and finding time to gallivant with his bredrens. With pressures coming at him from family, friends, and expectations high on all levels, he finds himself in the middle of the drug trade and and caught up deeper than he intended.

It is a common story: a brother with charisma and potential who makes a few choices in times of desperation that lead him down a path he had no plan to linger on. A young family trying to maintain their household with challenges, goals, and daily struggles. It is a story that is extremely familiar to those who are familiar...but a story that is somehow often forgotten, or overlooked. Misinterpreted and misunderstood. Repeatedly.

The beauty of urban fiction is that is captures real life. While it may be fictional, it is based on reality. Based on contemporary social norms. It is a familiar story communicated by "unfamiliar" players. Authors like Selwyn Jeffers are a rare kind in the Canadian literary landscape: simultaneously operating an independent publishing company as a means to get the story out, and taking on the role of a company full of publishing folk...they are committed to telling their story. Authors like Selwyn Jeffers are so dedicated to telling these stories that they are willing to play multiple roles in the process, in order to see publication achieved.

This is essentially what urban fiction was upon conception, and remains to this day. It is comparable to the "underground" hip hop scene, or indie art world: a piece that is created out of passion, out of necessity, and with no strings attached. No obligations and rules to follow. It is a piece of art that it free to be itself, without restrictive regulation.

"The Vapours" is worthy of a mainstream/corporate publishing contract. In fact, the availability of more stories like "The Vapours" would do our society well. Not just the up-and-coming writers like Selwyn Jeffers, but the folks that are quite the opposite of him. The folks that have maybe never spoken to or interacted with the fictional "Shawn Beckford" or taken the time out to understand how a young man like the lead character could find himself in an altercation with the Toronto Police or driving around Hamilton after hours with a car load of exotic female escorts, etc.

Urban Fiction is, by design, a fiction based on street life, culturally-specific experiences, or an unveiling of niche truths that are not present in readily accessible narratives. This is why most self-identifying "urban fiction authors" are self-published or connected to independent publishing houses. This is why it is so difficult to find an "urban fiction" section of your favourite bookstore, or see and the writers of this genre receiving international (or even national) acclaim for their works of literature.

And that's OK. No one is begging. Not anymore. Urban fiction as a genre has also motivated the confidence, the blueprint, and the support system to make books like "The Vapours" a reality. Time and time again.

Urban fiction, and the authors who compose it, are by nature self-starters. Self-reliant, and entering the publishing industry on their own terms. The majority of urban fiction authors and publishers have carved their genre out of their raw experiences, the experiences of their peers, their community, and their imaginations, out of a strong desire to have these voices heard. Whether fictional or actual, the stories are bold in message and importance.

Shawn Beckford represents an average Torontonian: renting a basement apartment, travelling to school on the TTC, and interacting with community members of all races, religions, and backgrounds. In every step the character takes, you can see and feel Toronto around him. The pretty Asian waitress. The Indian businessman. His West Indian girlfriend with aspirations to enter nursing, and her Jamaican patois-speaking uncle. Shawn's father, the Rastafarian business owner. His African classmate, and European associates that he hangs out with at the local vaping spot: The Vapours. There is natural diversity--and understanding--in his day-to-day journey that bring Toronto to life.

The landscape makes this story enjoyable, as a Torontonian. I imagine an outsider to Toronto would appreciate the unfamiliar speech patterns and references to "blue light busses" and other city-specific details. These are the words of which history is documented, and generations are formed. Stories like "The Vapours" represent an amazing way of capturing a unique fictional tale, but still capturing the essence of what the people, the places, and the stories of Toronto are like at this particular moment in time.

With the right amount of crime, humour, romance, and internal conflict, "The Vapours" allows us to love Shawn Beckford (aka Banneker), and understand his journey. Even the less-than-wise choices he finds himself making. It is the likeability of the character and his ambition along with the mystery of his circumstances that make this book so interesting.

It read like a movie, with scenes from a music video. It made me want to share this book with young black men in the city in particular, to let them learn from Shawn's experiences, and also see another unique way in which a story and an art form can come to life just by committing to the process. It made me want to share this book with older white men, to let them navigate Toronto through the eyes of a young brother like Banneker, and understand his reality.

Selwyn Jeffers created a well-crafted series of events, with a satisfying resolution. He introduced characters that I believe have their own stories to tell (and I'm waiting patiently for the next edition of "The Vapours" series), and taught a few life lessons without being preachy.

If this is his first novel, I believe that Canadian literature is in for a treat. Very rarely is Toronto captured this way. From the perspective of a first-generation Canadian black man, with detailed accuracy and cultural authenticity that even the greatest Canadian authors can not compose or mimic. There is beauty in a story being told from a place of expertise, and with the power of truth and intention that need to be read.

While the story itself is captivating, the encounters, the characters, and the situations speak volumes in terms of race relations, interactions with police, authority figures, an inside look at the drug game, and also a reminder that things aren't always what they seem. I think Selwyn was wise in his characterizations, and deliberate in his depictions. I hope that the eyes that cross these pages and the spirits that welcome this tale are open to the experiences of "Banneker" and his friends, and that it influences additional dialogue and social commentary as a result.

That is the beauty of urban fiction. Much like hip hop music. Much like poetry. Like various art forms, and those who construct them: there is a message on these pages and the message was well-constructed and powerful.

Selwyn Jeffers has a great future ahead of him in urban fiction, in Canadian literature, and in story-telling for a generation. It was an excellent read, and I feel proud to be here at the beginning of what will be a great literary journey for this writer.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Support Toronto Caribbean Carnival Year-Round

Now that Toronto Caribbean Carnival season has passed, and the festivities formerly known as "Caribana" are a few weeks behind us, I can't help but reflect on what this occasion has meant to the city, the country, and the Caribbean culture.

Here are our thoughts, on behalf of myself and Kya Publishing (who have been involved in the administration and production of carnival on the mas band level since 2011), as posted on our speciality site: @CarnivalSpotlight earlier this week.

"It's more than just #JumpingUp in costume, dancing on Lakeshore Boulevard, taking selfies with #SocaArtists, having the biggest #SoundSystem and the prettiest truck #OnDeRoad, and IG recording the #WickedestWine. It's more than just #CostumeDesign, and parade logistics, media appearances, and the coveted #BandOfTheYear title.

Each year our #TorontoCarnival comes and goes. For 51 years we have looked forward to this #CaribbeanCommunity celebration, and revelled in the various streets of Toronto in appreciation of the music, food, people, and traditions that make our hearts soar with electricity and #GoodVibes.

We can't let Toronto Carnival die a slow death, and lose respect internally and externally.

#Carnival is our time: exclusively. In every major city, on every #island, and anywhere that #WestIndianPeople gather, the annual Carnival is OUR time.

We can't remain silent as our community is pushed away from venues, spaces, financial entitlement, and municipal favour.

We can't let #infighting#badmind#sabotage#ill-will, and competition divide us even further, when we as a #community already are in a battle to preserve our #culture in a way that we enjoy and appreciate.
"#Caribana" is not the end all and be all of Caribbean culture in Toronto, Canada, or the world. Carnival is not the only way that we can acknowledge or pay homage to our #ancestors. BUT...it is a joy. An extremely entertaining and pleasurable joy!! It is something thousands of people are dedicated to, and commit their lives, time, passion, and finances to.

***If we're not careful, we will lose this celebration and related activities in Toronto. We are all accountable.*** 🎉

If we neglect #loyalty, our #morals, our #values, and trade them for ego, narcissism, braggadocio, money, and evil-spirited competition, we all lose. Big time.
The very nature of this celebration is community. Let us all be conscious of what our community means to us and how we are either contributing to its progress...or feeding its demise through our words and actions.


Thanks for reading this!!

Friday, August 17, 2018

"CULTIVATING MINDS TO OWN THYSELF" by Jameel Davis (Book Review)

If you could provide a young person in your community, a family member, or a peer with a handbook for life management and self-empowerment, I believe that you would be pleased by picking up "Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" by Cleveland author Jameel Davis.

It's hard to review the book without acknowledging the individual behind the words. And to acknowledge the writer is to confirm that he lives what he believes, he practices what he preaches, and he is a man of conviction. To witness the way Jameel Davis conducts his life and business, is to verify that his words of wisdom are genuine.

"Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" covers a range of topics from identity to the education system, retirement, relationships, and spirituality. There are questions and quotes, and there's even space for writing notes on the pages as well. Overall, the book can be viewed as a self-help guide to living a life of integrity and progress. The back cover copy states that this book "teaches readers how to examine themselves in attempt to modify their thoughts and in turn become their best self, as well as make a difference in the lives of others."

It is birthed out of a love for his brothers and sisters, and a cultural responsibility to nurture and educate his community. You can feel this passion on the pages: through first-person accounts of the changes he made to his own life and the recommendations that he produced as a result, the advice can not be taken lightly.

Jameel notes that he removed many negative influences from his life, in order to surround himself with individuals who uplift and inspire. A graduate of Kent State University's Justice Studies program, the influence is evident as he unravels concepts of miseducation and representation. He credits environmental factors to contributing to the development of self-respect and dignity. He summarizes this with a quote saying that: "a solid core will override every exterior aspect you have."

Having graduated from University, Jameel still does not shy away from pointing out the contradictions that exist with the system. The thousands of dollars of debt, and "miseducation" that many of us believe are a customary rite of passage for young adults...he points out the flaws openly, with recommendations for self education and independent financial management and retirement preparation.

Why preach on these topics that have been covered by many, written about in abundance, and discussed daily via social media memes and influential quotes? Because it is his civic duty to inspire. In Chapter Four: I Am My Brothers & Sisters' Keeper, Jameel states that: "It is my passion to enlighten and to help myself, as well as those who wish to be helped, to become better than yesterday."

I read this book in two sittings, only separated by a brief night's sleep. While the words were wise and intelligently composed, it was the soul with which it was delivered that most moved me. It was the acknowledgement of culture and history, and the obvious intent to inform a generation about how to move forward without repeating mistakes of the past, and without repeating careless life choices that are fed to us with ill intention.

As an artist, I admire how Jameel has chosen to use his literary voice for the empowerment of people. As a writer, I appreciate how the words were crafted, and the level of detail and references that were used in support of his arguments. As a father and a brother, I commend his honesty and willingness to share raw emotion and intention. I believe that we living during a time where we need to amplify every good message we find, in order to break through the daily discouragement of corruption and injustice that we see in local society, as well as the international landscape.

These are words that we all need right now. Words of hope. Words of progress. Jameel says: "Leadership and positive reinforcement must be implemented. We have to be more family oriented. Spread love, joy. Promote healthy relationships."

The relationship advice is blunt and effective as well! Chapter Six has a great reference: brain teasers and questions for singles. A thorough self-questionnaire, it allows readers to take a moment to reflect on their personal beliefs and characteristics, and frames them in relation to love, friendship, and commitment.

"Part of owning yourself, is understanding the world around you. You cannot deploy yourself in a world you know nothing about. You do not need to understand everything about the world, but you should keep a close eye on things and people that can destroy who you are," he says, in a standalone quote at the end of this book.

There are so many important takeaways from this piece of writing, that it is worth reading, worth highlighting, and worth referring back to on occasion. And one of the best parts about reading a piece of writing and being able to access the author, is that you can sustain the feelings of inspiration and continue to receive the positive energy and observe the real-world journey of the book's creator.

I recommend that in addition to reading "Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" that you also connect with Jameel himself. He is active on Facebook and LinkedIn at "Jameel Davis," and can also be found on Instagram at @CultivatingMinds_ or via his publishing company @ElevatedWaves. I highly recommend this, because the simple act of connecting with Jameel Davis has been nothing but a blessing for me personally, and I have witnessed firsthand the impact he has had on those he has engaged with.

Sending nothing but wishes for continued success for this young brother, and preparing myself to read his other works!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

YARD SISTERS' Authentic Jamaican Tours in Support of Local Enterprise

Jamaica remains one of the top tourist destinations internationally for many reasons: beautiful weather, delicious cuisine, groovy music, breathtaking views, and charming, warm citizens. Year-round, the island is filled with tourists from around the globe who want to listen to reggae music while eating jerk chicken on one of the island's remarkable beaches.

According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, approximately 4.3 million travellers visited the island in the year 2017, which was a great increase from the usual expectation of 1 million annually. The boost in travellers over the years is also bringing a shift in habits as well. 

Earlier this year, the Jamaican Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett noted that visitors are increasingly seeking "authentic experiences" and opting to "immerse themselves in local culture: the food, music, people and communities" beyond the resorts of the north coast.

From Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, and Negril to Kingston, at any given time of year individuals are seeking the comforts and joys of Jamaica. For Calgary native Kym McCulley, it didn't take her long to discover that away from the lavish resorts and expertly managed hotels, that there was so much more to be experienced.

Kym is just one third of the entrepreneurs who founded YARD SISTERS, a Jamaican-based tour company that provides uniquely personalized and authentic experiences for visitors and Jamaican residents. Along with Jamaican residents Sheba Lindo, and Aljernon Wilson, YARD SISTERS is determined to no only provide excellent service to its patrons, but also to positively affect the communities in which they travel.

In 2014, Kym volunteered with the Canadian government within the industry of economic development, visiting Jamaica regularly. Travelling to the island solo, she'd often want to leave the confines of the uptown hotels in Kingston and instead explore the hills and valleys of the picturesque terrain around her.

Provided with a driver--Aljernon--Kym became more and more interested in branching out across Jamaica, and found herself expanding past the boundaries of her work, and into locales off the beaten trail. A genuine trust developed with Aljernon, and it soon blossomed into a partnership. While working in Portmore (just outside of Kingston), she became acquainted with Sheba (who worked training tour guides in Trenchtown), and the concept of  YARD SISTERS quickly became a reality.

Kym now travels between Jamaica and Canada many times for the year, and just returned from a 4-month stay on the island. Responsible for the photography and online maintenance of the company, she looks forward to organizing YARD SISTERS bookings, helping to plan itineraries, and also to develop what she believes is a necessary type of service for both the Jamaicans and the international visitors.

Aljernon takes care of airport pickups and driving, providing expert knowledge and awareness of the various tour stops and routes. Sheba's black caster oil farm is an unofficial home base and tour favourite, where visitors can witness the local enterprise and actively be a part of the community's development as a result.

"Come See Our Jamaica" is the slogan for the YARD SISTERS, because visitors can see the day-to-day operation of the farm and even dine under the stars. They can chat with Al about his young children and life in Jamaica while he drives across the country. By showing visitors "their" Jamaica, the YARD SISTERS hope to open up vacations to include unique and memorable experiences, as well help to build up the local economy through supporting the farm workers, community designers, and other patrons that they like to endorse.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about Jamaica is that it isn't safe," said Kym, when asked about the apprehensions that the YARD SISTERS hope to help visitors to Jamaica overcome. News stories and natural panic help to contribute to these fears, but she understands that some may be hesitant to step outside of the resort gates and unofficially explore. "Crime is everywhere, however. There are places in Calgary that I won't even travel to in the day time, let alone night!" said Kym. "Like many other major cities, I believe that most of the crime in Jamaica takes place with gang activities and being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But my experience overall has been that Jamaica is very safe, and it would be a shame to not see everything that the island has to offer because of these misconceptions."

Describing her relationship with Sheba and Al as familial, Kym says that Sheba is like a sister to her, and Al like a little brother. "What I love about Jamaica is that when a Jamaican adopts you into their world, you are a friend for life. The acceptance comes from the soul, and from the heart."

While her travels originally brought her to Kingston for work, Kym was grateful to be introduced to the island through this vibrant city. "Kingston is such an exciting city. Such an interesting, dynamic city filled with some of the most incredible performing and visual artists, and a vibrant arts and culture scene. We often encourage people to fly there, and at least stay for a couple of nights."

A part of the tour's service includes helping visitors to find accommodations, including guest houses and hotels outside of the city's core. The YARD SISTERS encourage their guests to explore, and talk with the locals to learn about their passions, beliefs, and views on life.

"Those are the real moments," said Kym. "Sometimes I like to hang out in the small bars on the roadside, have a beer, and converse with the locals who wander in and out throughout the day for a quick drink. Some of the best stories of my life, I've heard while in Jamaica."

Many of the recommendations made from the YARD SISTERS are based on experiences they themselves enjoy and cherish. From having moonlight meals at the caster oil farm, to sitting under a tribal tree in the Maroon Village, enjoying drumming and dancing. Visiting the Trenchtown cultural yard and taking in a musical performance. Eating jelly, fresh from a fallen coconut, or receiving a massage at the bath in St. Thomas.

"It's all about spreading the experience around the island," said Kym. "Even on the tours, there are particular spots that we prefer, but we ask visitors to give us an idea of what they would like to do, and we work around it. From art, to photography, coffee, or music: everything is so individualized, and we work within their budget as well. We know some places that we love to share, but we also don't force our preferences on the visitors either. We help them to plan and provide as much information and advice that we can, as we put together the itinerary."

Of utmost importance to Kym, Al, and Sheba is keeping relationships and partnerships with the local Jamaican entrepreneurs intact and thriving. The individuals working on the black caster oil farms, and those who prepare meals are all members of the local communities that contribute to the authenticity of the experiences, but also help to boost their local economy--outside of the regular tourist industry's activity. Tourism is definitely evolving on the island, and the YARD SISTERS want to stay connected to the trends and changes.

"I believe Jamaica is a natural attractor, with its rich heritage," said Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett in an address earlier this year, noting that 55,000 tourists visiting Jamaica in 2017 booked an Air BnB, which was up from 35,000 in the previous year. "We have added over 20,000 new visitors with a different type of demand for experiences in our space."

Kym believes that along with following trends (like those taking place with accommodations), it's important to be socially responsible and socially uplifting with their service.

"I love the Jamaican people, the Jamaican culture, and I love to continuously learn about it," she said. "Jamaica is a beautiful country, and the people of Jamaica work hard." She is dedicated to introducing people to Jamaica through YARD SISTERS, and hoping that they walk away from their personalized tour experience with the same joy, first-hand knowledge, and inspiration that she did during her introduction to the the island. "Sheba, Al, and I want to invite everyone to experience YARD, and we are committed to showing them the beauty of the island in a memorable way."


1) Visit the YARD SISTERS online on Instagram: send a DM to say hello, and get started!
2) Send an email to kym.mcculley@gmail.com to start planning your excursions!
3) Exchange phone numbers, and chat live or via video to get familiar with your tour elements!
4) Get ready to experience the culture, beauty, and community that makes Jamaica rich!

YARD SISTERS: Come See Our Jamaica
Affordable Custom Experience Trips Now Available

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Nas Still Reigns // "Nasir" Album Review

The first album from Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones--"Illmatic"-- was released on my 16th birthday, in 1994, and it remains my favourite hip hop album of all times. In fact, Nas remains my favourite rapper of all times. As far as I'm concerned, he'll always reign in that genre of music because of who he was to me growing up, and who he continues to be in the industry. An intellectual, yet humble, yet powerful musical soul.

Yesterday the hip hop community lost two of its young contributors: Miami's XXXTentacion and Pittsburgh's Jimmy Wapo. My dedication to keeping up with hip hop has waned over the years so I'm unfamiliar with the music of the 20 and 21 year olds, respectively. Regardless, I hate to see the words "rapper killed" or "rapper shot" and know that it automatically casts negativity and doubt throughout the industry. Paranoia. Social unrest. Internal evaluation.

Hardly an expert in the genre and barely a seasoned purveyor of hip hop lyrics, I am a complete fan of music as a whole and I can always appreciate sounds that make me feel something. Now while I issued a self-imposed Kanye West boycott the other day (due to his Trump foolishness), I didn't mind taking in this Kanye-produced masterpiece. And it definitely made me feel something. Kanye is good again in my world, on a musical genius pass, and I've recommitted myself to listening to more hip hop on a daily basis. It felt that good!

I wish I could have heard this album for the first time in New York, underneath the Queensboro Bridge on June 14 with Nas and the gang. It was the perfect setting for these majestic choral arrangements and classic Nas grooves. And as much as I want to bun out Kanye indefinitely, I think the tracks would have sang out beautifully that night during the outdoor release...even with him and Kim around.

It's the 11th studio album from Nas, and the reviews I've read thus far have been mixed. Some said it fell flat, and others condemned it for being a part of the Kanye Show. As much as I'm a fan of Nas, I admittedly haven't "loved" every one of his albums thus far. Aside from "Illmatic," I've also deeply appreciated "It Was Written" in 1996, and "Stillmatic" in 2001. I really, really loved what he did partnering up with The Firm in 1997 for their self-titled album, and "God's Son" in 2002 was another good one. I recall being slightly disappointed with "Hip Hop is Dead" in 2006, and was too caught up in the deep south hip hop at the time to stay closely connected to Nas.

Now, 24 years after I first fell in love with this legendary lyricist, I feel like "Nasir" is an album that I can ride with in the car, and make an effort to enjoy in a way that I haven't with new Nas music...in years. I'm relieved! I'm happy. It feels like home...like I can again fall into a hip hop trance from an artist that I respect, and know well.

TRACK ONE - NOT FOR RADIO // The deep choral intro is beautiful and majestic, and the history lessons and bold declarations that "they're scared of us" are fitting, coming from an artist who has lived life through various tax brackets, and has the age and financial wisdom to speak about it confidently. It is the wisdom that points out how fortunate he is that God gave him/"us" compassion and forgiveness, and he articulates this instead of bashing his country's forefathers. "F--- your proclamation" was recognition enough. Always great to hear Diddy, keeping it cool.

TRACK TWO - COPS SHOT THE KID // It's repeated indefinitely on a Slick Rick sample..."the cops shot the kid". It's timely, and necessary. I look forward to a poignant video and widespread circulation of these lyrics and most importantly, this important cultural message. Accountability. I'm here for it.

TRACK THREE - WHITE LABEL // What I love about Nas, and also Kanye, is their love for instrumentation. The horns are awesome in this song and highlights Nas' personal history with his jazz musician father, Olu Dara. The song is otherwise steadily mellow, but lyrically strong as can be expected. My favourite line is Nas noting that he knows the consumer behaviour. He has, in essence, created the culture.

TRACK FOUR - BONJOUR // Beautiful contributions from Tony Williams on this track. Of all the songs, this is where Nas gets the most personal speaking metaphorically about women/his ex-girlfriends and experiences, and projecting the best for the growth of his children. His advice is strong with recommendations and warnings.

TRACK FIVE - EVERYTHING // So far, this is my favourite track on the album. It's hauntingly beautiful, and reminds me of the best of both Kanye and Nas, musically. The messages of acceptance and inclusion are most memorable, and the pleading to young black boys not to cry (along with Kanye expressing that if he could change anything, he'd change EVERYTHING) remind us that regardless of the success of these gentlemen (including The Dream, who is featured) that times still get rough. Lyrics I love: "Know your worth, and speak your truth. Let them come to you." and "Inclusion is a hell of a drug."

TRACK SIX - ADAM AND EVE // I know Nas is in the midst of some drama and accusations with his ex. I can appreciate that he didn't drag his thoughts too deeply into the album, and prefers that his private life remains private. I'm definitely not condoning any of the allegations, but I also can't afford to be distracted by the personal life of EVERY artist because let's face it: they've all done some shit. Some made it to TMZ...some never will. So while he raps about Adam and Eve, it's a classic-sounding Nas flow over a beautiful old untuned piano loop. This may be as intense an explanation of his domestic affairs as we'll ever get from Nas, and I'll leave the dissection up to those who will surely read beyond the chorus of Adam and Eve not falling too far from the apple tree. This song also features The Dream.

TRACK SEVEN - SIMPLE THINGS // He concludes the album with a bit of bragging, but well deserved acclaim. Like he says, he drops lines that "prestigious schools read to their students," and the slow jam vibe and easy bounce are a fitting end to this short project. A simple track with a simple message: he's worked hard, he'll teach his children the importance of his journey, and he's already proven to the world that he's a legend of his craft.

I'm happy to still be a hip hop fan, but truth be told: the last decade has been sticky. As a result, I've fallen slightly out of touch with the Migos and Post Malone era. What I love about getting "old" as a music lover is that the artists I grew up with are also getting old...but are still remaining relevant. It's reassuring to know that Nas, Jay, Puffy, and Ye are also getting greys, and getting wise. It's even more reassuring to know that they're still ascending, they're still keeping up, setting trends, and that they're able to bring me (an occasional hip hop skeptic) willingly back into the scene.

I'll patiently wait for his tour to be announced, and will be one of the first to purchase tickets for this iteration of his legacy. Nasir. This album will have a permanent place in my musical rotation: it's officially Escobar Season again!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.