Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why I 'Rocks' With Linkin Park

Good music is good music, and while nu metal/rap rock isn't my first choice in musical genres, I can definitely appreciate the unique sounds of Linkin Park that I've admittedly been rocking to since about 2000. On February 8, 2011 I will be attending my first 'rock' concert when I see them live at the Air Canada Centre, in support of their new album, A Thousand Suns.

You can hear the growth in this album, co-produced by the legendary Rick Rubin and band member Mike Shinoda. The sound is bigger, the instruments are more ominous, the lyrics are more vulnerable at times, but overall it's still classic Linkin Park sounds with elements of Coldplay or U2-esque bravado. While the heavy hip hop drums and intermittent turntables/scratching used to be prominent in their songs, I could feel that this album was striving to create a new mood. An experimental sound. The synthesizers and electronic inserts are there strongly...but so is the essence of Linkin Park that I have grown to love.

Notable tracks from this album that I really like are "Waiting for the End" and "Iridescent." I also like the way they took the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., infused with keyboards and a light backing to create "Wisdom, Justice, and Love." Brilliant.

Linkin Park is a six-man group based in southern California, who have won 2 Grammy's to date, and are listed amongst the recording artists with the most active fan base. Consisting of lead vocalist Chester Bennington, vocalist/rapper/keyboardist Mike Shinoda, drummer Rob Bourdon, lead guitarist Brad Delson, Dave Farrell, and Joe Hahn on the turntables, they are an eccelectic mix of sounds.

What drew me to Linkin Park back in 2000 with the release of their album Hybrid Theory was the song "In The End." I remember it being distinctly rock...but I remember that the beats were 100% hip hop, and spoke to me rhythmically. As I investigated them more, I could hear the guitars, I could hear the classic metal screams of Chester, but I could feel the hip hop influence. Even songs from that album like "One Step Closer" and "Crawling" still contained an element of rap at their roots to me.

And as a true music lover, I couldn't help but be drawn to these guys. I loved what they were saying, the lyrics often spoke to me, and I loved how the music felt. Pure. Original. And unrestricted. If they wanted to be rock, they could be rock. If they wanted to be hip hop, they could be hip hop. Likewise, they could easily fall into the alternative category as well. But they stayed true to their own roots, and just let the music flow naturally.

Needless to say, when I heard they were doing a full album collaboration with Jay-Z back in 2004, I was even more intrigued. After taking a poll with their active online fanbase, they asked who else the fans were listening to. The majority said "Jay-Z" in resounding numbers. So this initiated the linking of the heavyweight rapper with this heavy metal band.

The MTV special (and album DVD) took the viewer through the entire process, with Jay-Z arriving at the studio, and watching as the two entities fused their sounds into one. They mixed "Dirt off Your Shoulder" with "Lying From You"..."Big Pimpin'" with "Papercut"..."Izzo" with "In The End"...and "99 Problems" with "One Step Closer." To their surprise, the songs easily mixed. At their core, they were essentially built on the same fundamentals, and the collaborations don't stray far from the originals from either artist.

Absolute genius.

So the album A Thousand Suns is great. Admittedly, it's not for every mood...but I will definitely keep it close to my regular rotation of dancehall, soca, R&B, and hip hop, for when the mood hits me. When I'm ready to rock, they are definitely my first choice.

For someone who's never listened to Linkin Park, I wouldn't recommend starting with this album if you are to appreciate the true essence of who they are, and what they represent. Some of the elements of hip hop that were prominent earlier in the decade may be lost on A Thousand Suns.

I would recommend you take in songs like "What I've Done" and "Shadow of the Day" from 2007's album Minutes to Midnight..."Faint" and "Numb" from 2003's album Meteora and even "One Step Closer" and "Crawling" from the 2000 album Hybrid Theory if you really want to rock and roll. I also would suggest you check out the Jay-Z/Linkin Park DVD/documentary Collision Course.

Or, if you have a couple dollars to spare...join me at the ACC in February to see how they get down live. And please don't let Brad's guitars and Chester's screaming turn you off...these guys are dope.

Here's a clip from the classic mashup of Linkin Park's song "Numb" with Jay-Z's "Encore" back in 2004.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Play Another Slow Jam, This Time Make It Sweet

What happened to the art of the slow dance? The anticipation/end-of-the-night club build up? The mix tapes/CDs gifted to significant others? The goosebumps on your arms when the bass in your favourite slow jam dropped? And I'm not talking about bubbling in a back corner against a wall to some Beres, or solo-two-stepping to Rihanna...I'm specifically referring to the collection of songs that made it near impossible to not want to have an intimate connection with someone.

What happened to the SLOW JAM?

Luther. Keith. R Kelly. Brian. Aaron. Maxwell. Babyface. Dru. Jon. Marvin. Anita. Otis. Curtis. Sade. Just the sound of any of those single names makes you want to raise that hand and....shiver! Because their songs were that sweet. Always. All it took was one bar of an intro, and the vibe would hit.

I was born in the late 70s, and really grew to appreciate this music in the late 80s/early 90s. I can't say I've been very impressed since then. I've heard a few great ballads here and there...but sweet slow jams are few and far between.

Let's try these names: Lloyd. Trey. Chris. Waka. Nicki. How's that effect? Interestingly enough, those are 5 of the artists on Billboard's Top 100 R&B/Hip Hop charts this week. It's the end of a decade, but I can't say there's any significant R&B music that has defined this era.

This week in 2000, Avant, Erykah Badu, Musiq, Destiny's Child, and Mya were amongst the artists with the Top 10 R&B Hip Hop Songs.

This week in 1990, it was Whitney Houston, Ralph Tresvant, Tevin Campbell, Levert, and Hi-Five making the top of that list.

In December 1980 it was Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool & the Gang, Asford & Simpson.

This week in 1970, James Brown, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin (x2), Gladys Knight, and The Jacksons were charting.

And now...back to the end of 2010, and Waka Flocka.

Perhaps this is due to the influx of hip hop artists, where the category is broader and there are a variation of R&B and hip-hop songs to select from. I definitely can't downplay the role of Rick Ross or Willow Smith on the Billboard chart this week. Their songs are hot--for whatever reason--and people are obviously feeling them. Twista. Wiz Khalifa. It's their time.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I truly believe that the newer songs can't compare to the mood and the vibe and the passion of the old school tracks. I'm particularly partial to the songs of the 1990s. The artists of the 90s tried desperately to seduce you the listener, musically, and visually. They made sure to craft only the best lyrics and phrases, and out-love one another. It was cool to be smooth. It was cool to be alluring. It was cool to sing your heart out, sing about your heart, and actually express love...beg and plead...and it was addictive!

Nobody's Supposed to Be Here / End of the Road / Freak Me / I Have Nothing / Another Sad Love Song / Giving Him Something He Can Feel / Spend My Life With You / In My Bed / I Wanna Know / Let's Chill / I'll Give All My Love to You / Breakin' My Heart / Someone to Love / Anniversary / Not Gon Cry / Again / Who Can I Run To / Tell Me What You Want Me To Do... etc / etc / etc

You could sense that desperation! You could hear that begging! You could FEEL that bassline. You can't really do that anymore.

I don't have any grand philosophies on this epidemic. I don't listen to enough R&B on a regular basis to even know about the phenomenal artists who are currently pushing their music...and just not getting the same airtime and love as Neyo or Mary J.

I do know that I miss the FEELING that R&B used to give me. I missed the raw emotion and the vulnerability of the artists. I miss REAL singers and I'm tired of the poppyshows. I miss anticipating that slow dance, and knowing that the DJ could easily line up 5-10 songs, and no one would be anxious to rush outta that club the second Vybez Kartel was done playing.

They would dance until the lights came on. They'd hold on tight. They had the music to facilitate romance, because that was the standard.

I'd like to see the era of GOOD R&B music come back. Chart-topping R&B music. Music that will eventually stir up new memories, the way these songs still do...

"Comforter" - Shai

"Feenin" - Jodeci

"Can You Stand the Rain" - New Edition

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Power of Kanye West's "Twisted Fantasy"

Every artist needs inspiration.

As a writer, I depend on music for my inspiration. And 22 months after beginning my latest book, I finally found the inspiration to complete the story through listening to Kanye West's new album "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

Released on November 22, 2010, Kanye' 5th studio album gave me a feeling...I was able to translate into words. It communicated a mood...that motivated me to lock into my laptop and complete the journey of my character. It reminded me...that at its purest form, music embodies so much power.

Kanye is just a man...a little dramatic, a little delusional, definitely brilliant, and a little complicated, I'm sure. This is evident. But I'm not really concerned about his life, personality traits (or lack thereof), or wondering who his next chick will be now that him and Amber Rose split. Kanye is just a man..."but" he is a man capable of producing beautiful things. And yes, that is kinda powerful...as far as creativity goes.

The Album...

I love it. I absolutely love it. And believe me...I am far from a connoisseur or collector of hip hop, but this particular hip hop moved me. Not just the lyrical content, but the collective production.

As a story writer, I liked the album because I felt like it transcended the audio, and immediately created a visual. It told many stories. Even despite having a pre-set image of what the music would look like translated (thanks to his October release of "Runaway" the short film), I was still able to visualize beyond his suggestions.

It was rich with sound, and heavy with emotion. The album spoke to me beyond the words, and communicated through feeling.

In short:

(01) DARK FANTASY - Beautiful album intro; I love his use of strings throughout...

(02) GORGEOUS (Feat. Kid Cudi and Raekwon) - Electric guitars, you can feel the frustration in this song...

(03) POWER - A definite anthem, using majestic instruments, hypnotic chanting, and a feeling of despair...

(04/05) ALL OF THE LIGHTS (Feat. Rihanna) - Beautiful violins, heavy bass strings, and the essence of tragedy...

(06) MONSTER (Feat. Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross) - Classic sound, heavy riddim, the song is great as is but when Nicki comes in she brings it to another level...dope...

(07) SO APPALLED (Feat. Jay Z, Pusha T, RZA) - Creeping instrumentation, wonderful build up, love it...

(08) DEVIL IN A NEW DRESS (Feat. Rick Ross) - Mellow, less distracting score, nice flow...

(09) RUNAWAY - Really unique, and the live visual from performances on the MTV awards and SNL make the audio even stronger. His pure voice (sans auto tune) adds a vulnerability, and the single piano keys playing throughout give the song a rich simplicity. The latter part of this 9 minute track is a emotional string-ridden instrumental that extends the pleading tone, and intensifies the emotion of what has just been expressed.

(10) HELL OF A LIFE - This song was forgettable to me...average...

(11) BLAME GAME (Feat. John Legend) - Love this track, the lyrics, the piano, the story telling, the reality of it with the name calling and the accusations...and then of course, the unexpected highlight when Chris Rock joins in and starts talking foolishness for a few minutes...hilarity at its best...

(12) LOST IN THE WORLD - My favourite song on the album. So pretty, heavenly/angelic almost...love the composition of sounds used, the movement of the voices, and the "lost" feeling really does translate into the music...absolutely beautiful!

(13) WHO WILL SURVIVE IN AMERICA - Fitting conclusion taken from a recording of activist/spoken word artist Gil Scott-Heron's "Comment No. 1".

My impression of Kanye's work will never be a dissertation of lyrical significance, or my ability to rank him in comparison to other MCs. My appreciation is on a musical level...a communication level, and again, a level of inspiration based on the transfer of creative energy.

Thanks to Kanye, I finished writing "Signature Smile" and have concluded the 8th and final book of my Urban Toronto Tales collection. This is huge for me.

Thanks to Kanye, I've gained a new appreciation for hip hop (again) and find myself becoming a new student of this genre.

Thanks to Kanye, I realize that the "power" of which he speaks is up for interpretation. Not necessarily power in the media, the power to influence (even ol' George W. Bush), or the power to irritate (see multiple pop culture references)...but I do believe he is justified in declaring a form of power, because his musical genius can not be denied.

If said genius can transcend all previous imagery, commentary, and regular f**kery...then I'd say that the power is plentiful as I continue to play the album on repeat, and put the final touches on my novel with the hopes of passing the inspiration on.

"Yeezy taught me well..."

View the novels of Stacey Marie Robinson at www.KyaPublishing.com.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oh Na Na, I Actually Bought a Rihanna Album!

She's definitely talented. Beautiful. Interesting. Even if her music and image isn't your style or taste, you can't deny that she is undoubtedly a star.

For the past 5 years she has been consecutively knocking out hits pon toppa hits, yet it wasn't until her fifth studio release "Loud" came out that I actually had the motivation to purchase one of her albums.

I'm a strong believer in supporting the cause. If I want to see a movie, I'd rather go to the theatre than buy it bootleg. If I love an artist and feel like their album will inspire me, I'd rather own the entire album than beg a burn/download off someone else. I definitely prefer to buy a book than borrow one from the library.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe in the art form, and I appreciate a tangible product received as it was intended. The overall experience is different for me when I know that I own the product. It gives it additional value, even if only in my head.

Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said it best when he declared that the "medium is the message" -- the manner in which the message is presented is acutely related to what is being communicated.

Hense, going out in the cold to cop this CD.

For the first time in 5 years, I actually believed in Rihanna's message.

I've liked her other stuff. "Pon De Replay" I thought was lame and hardly the reggae song it attempted to be as her introduction, but other greats like "Break It Off" (with Sean Paul), "Don't Stop The Music," "Unfaithful," and of course "Umbrella" were definitely hot tracks. Also worth mentioning, "Numba 1 (The Tide Is High)" from Kardinal Offishall's "Not 4 Sale" album -- great tune. "Live Your Life" with T.I. = fire. "Run This Town" with Jay-Z and Kanye...fantastic!

With that many songs on the charts though, who could really keep track of what album was what? The songs just kept coming out, and it got to the point where I just expected that her releases would be great. She has set an incredibly high standard for her career, and she has easily maintained it.

Ms. Fenty is only 22, but is argueably the hottest pop star there is right now. She's already in the ranks of Beyonce, Mariah, and Lady Gaga, when it comes to producing chart-topping sh*t and great videos, regularly.

She's won a total of 53 awards already in the span of her short career including 4 American Music Awards, 14 Billboard Awards, 3 Grammy's, 3 Much Music Video Awards, and even a Juno (international album of the year).

This particular album was pretty good. Not groundbreaking or exceptionally phenomenal, but it's a good listen that you can have on repeat a few times over without getting annoyed. The sounds and vibes are consistent, yet diverse enough that it's not just hearing the "umbrella-ella-ella-ella" yodle in your ear for an hour. Her tone changes, the intensity changes; it's a nice mix:

01) S&M - re-establishing good vs. bad, signature sound
02) What's My Name - cool vibe, unique sound
03) Cheers (Drink to That) - Avril Lavigne sampled pop groove
04) Fading - nice song, has an Enya feel to it
05) Only Girl (In the World) - feel good club banger
06) California King Bed - nice guitar laden ballad
07) Man Down - reggae vibe, cool lyrics
08) Raining Men (Nicki Minaj) - cute track, good blend of voices
09) Complicated - pop ballad, 80's feel
10) Skin - sensual, nice vibe
11) Love the Way You Lie Pt. II (Eminem) - vulnerable remix: dope

Can she keep this momentum? Where will she go from here? How many more hair styles can the chick think of to stay fresh and trendy? Who knows! But right now, I'd say she's at the height of her career, and I'm happy for her. The improvement, the growth, and watching her come into herself reminds me of the artistic journey, and the manner in which talent can expand, change shape, and develop.

So why now? Why am I finally learning her story, and interested in who this girl is? It was all inspired by her performance on the American Music Awards this past Sunday, November 21, 2010. I've seen her perform a million times, but this is the first time I actually believed her as an artist. She seemed happy. She seemed authentic. She danced her butt off. She smiled. She was in a groove, and I actually felt like this was the artist she has been preparing to be. There was a new vibrance to her, and it made all the difference in my perception of her.

I love to see people out-do themselves and exceed their own boundaries...I love knowing that everyone starts out as an average individual with a dream, a goal, and the motivation to do something about it.

Therein lies my inspiration from this album and Rihanna's journey. Because somewhere out there on the French Riviera, on a yacht with Matt Kemp, the little Bajan girl Robyn feels really proud of herself for seeing her vision through to the end.

In case you missed it, here's a clip of Rihanna's performance on the 2010 American Music Awards show where she wined like she was at Cropover, and inspired a standing ovation from the crowd of her industry peers.

The Urban Toronto Tales collection by Stacey Marie Robinson features books about life, love, and relationships in Toronto. For more information, please visit http://www.kyapublishing.com/.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Movie Review: For Colored Girls

What a phenomenal movie!

At the risk of ruining the viewing experience for anyone who hasn't yet seen the film, I won't even get into the particulars of why I loved Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls." But I will say this...I love Tyler Perry.

I love his vision. I love his voice. I love him like I've loved Spike Lee, and John Singleton...and Terry McMillan, Sister Souljah, and Omar Tyree.

I love when artists are able to take a story based on real-life emotion and circumstance, paired with social awareness, and old-fashioned entertainment...and create a masterpiece.

I love that just a few days before the relase of his movie, Tyler Perry sat on Oprah Winfrey's couch and told millions of people about his experiences with abuse, and molestation. I love that a week later, Oprah filled her audience with 200 men who had been through similar experiences with betrayal and abuse.

It's more than just entertainment, as far as I'm concerned. On the surface it's just show business, it's one man's vision being translated on the big screen. But to those of us who were touched by Singleton's "Boyz in the Hood" or Lee's "He Got Game" or any other movie with an ensemble black cast...we know the power behind the production. We know the "real life" story from which the inspiration came. We know the meaning this "entertainment" has in our real lives. We trust the storytellers, because we know their experiences.

It was so wonderful to see all of those beautiful and talented black actresses all highlighted together: Lorette Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Kimberley Elise, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, and Macy Gray. It was bittersweet because it was so wonderful...yet so rare.

The movie is based on the 1975 play by Ntozake Shange, entitled "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf." This has also been adapted into a book.

It's amazing that many of the mainstream reviews of this film, have not been great. Even more amazing...if you ask a friend or coworker who's already seen it, chances are they cried, they laughed, they think it's Perry's best work yet, and they would give it nothing less than full ratings.

You don't realize how much you CRAVE a representation of yourself in the "bigger picture," even if just a visual reminder, until you see it. You don't realize how FEW black women there are in motion pictures...until you FEEL what it's like to see more than 2 of them occupy the same screen.

The best part is that the "black" movie has evolved far beyond the hood tales or tacky comedies/parodies. It's nice to see that black filmmaking continues to grow, and be more inclusive, and more elegant, to the point where the "blackness" of it is just a minor detail.

"For Colored Girls" wasn't just a movie for colored girls. I believe any woman of any race could find herself immersed in the characters and their struggles, and as a woman...naturally find a way to relate to their pain, their growth, and their eventual personal successes.

As for the men...I'm not sure if they're going to walk away from this movie glowing and inspired, like the females have been. The few male characters in the movie, are at best...not nice people. Understanding their role in the stories of the women, it's totally necessary...but the acting was still outstanding.

So here's to the beautiful brothers, who admittedly may have gotten a bad rap throughout this film: Michael Ealy, Omari Hardwick, Richard Lawson, Khalil Kain, and Hill Harper.

What can I say? It's nice to see a good movie that makes you walk away thinking and feeling...a movie that makes you want to better yourself, and uplift those around you. If that's not the goal of entertainment/media, I don't know is. And if that's not the usual output or end result...then maybe we haven't been exposed to the right type of material.

I am a huge fan of entertainment, the media, and those who play a role in constructing it. Congratulations to Tyler Perry for hustling and writing religiously, putting out film after film after film, and now settling into the role of one of Hollywood's best.

Both his personal story, and his fictional story, will be touching millions over the next few weeks. I expect to see a few Oscar nominations, at the very least. And if the recognition still doesn't come from mainstream Hollywood, I will still be pleased knowing that women everywhere are feeling uplifted as a result of his work.

(Here's what Betsy sharkey from the LA Times had to say: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-for-colored-girls-20101105,0,258800.story).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Kanye West Short Film "Runaway" : He Did His Job

OK, so the brother's a bit weird. Weird albeit fascinating, because he manages to possess qualities of ridiculous narcissism, along with extreme vulnerability, sometimes simultaneously.

At at the risk of mentioning what's-her-face...yes, he is also occasionally a bit of a jerk. Yet somehow, I think he's so completely wrapped up in himself...that he's unaware of just how he comes across sometimes.

That being said, I DO believe that Kanye West is kind of a musical phenomenon. Even if he believes it himself more than anyone...I can comfortably say that he's totally right. Kanye at 33, in my eyes, is one of the most important entertainers of our time.

His short film, a 40-minute music video "Runaway" debuted on Saturday, October 23 at 8:00pm on a few music stations, including BET and MTV. It was directed by and starred Mr. West, was filmed in Prague, and written by Hype Williams.

It was a work of art.

I loved the way the images were coodinated with the mood and sounds of the songs. Unlike traditional music videos that tend to follow a standard pace and visual....this one seemed to move slowly, carefully, and with grand purpose.

I could have done without Kanye's acting, but I loved Selita Ebanks, a 27-year-old former Victoria's Secret model from the Cayman Islands. So beautiful... I'm still a bit surprised that this chick was previously engaged to Nick Cannon...and have to wonder what it is about Nick that WE don't know, why he seems to have access to the women most men could only dream about securing. But I digress...

I loved the songs! The only album of Kanye's I own is "808s & Heartbreak," and I have often played it on indefinite repeat because I love the energy it conveys. His ear for music, and sound, and composition, and layers, and textures, and emotion....SO strong. I think Kanye West is really good at communicating raw emotion through music. You can feel what he feels. He's that good.

And so my assessment of Kanye isn't coming from the perspective of a hip-hop afficiando by any means. In fact, my taste in rap music is extremely surface level: I like the hits, and I LOVE the old school. I'll definitely pick up CDs from Nas or K-OS (my favourite rappers)...and every now and then I'll give into the hype and buy a Jay-Z or Eminem album...but essentially, my appreciation for hip-hop is pretty mainstream.

That being said, Kanye West has moved me. There was something really strong about the way he put that short film together, the passion that was extremely evident, his online Tweeting while the film was on, and just his overall excitement about it. As an entertainment junkie, I absolutely LOVE when a moment like this happens...when an artist prepares and plans, and promotes...and then everything falls beautifully into sequence.

I'm sure this was one of the highlights of Kanye's career, and rightfully so.

So needless to say, I'll soon be buying my second Kanye album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" which should be released around November 22. I look forward to seeing the new cover, since the gatekeepers aren't feeling the original one.

Overall, the power of artistry was really vibrant this weekend. As a writer who NEEDS music in order to create anything, and as an individual who appreciates the entertainment industry and the passion and dedication mass communication takes...I was really grateful for this piece of work.

And so I truly believe that Kanye West did what he is supposed to do. He's an entertainer. A performer. It's obviously his calling. Regardless of who he is as a man, and how much money his diamond teeth implants cost (wtf?!)...the brother moved me this weekend.

His composition instantly manifested into my well-needed creative fuel.

I was inspired. I was motivated. His passion was contagious. I was impressed, and again, my love for the music industry and all it represents was strengthened. If we ask nothing more of the celebrities and entertainers in our world, it's that they somehow touch us through their creations.

Kanye West did a good ass job.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Documentary Review : "Whatever it Takes"

We've seen it portrayed in feature films numerous times: hard-edged teacher/principal saves under-priviledged students through tough love. On screen it's endearing, emotional, and succinct...in reality it's an ongoing battle that many dedicated teachers and school administrators face.

Principal Ed Tom of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM) is one of those real-life educators who has dedicated his time, sacrificed his family occasionally, and has committed whole-heartedly to the improvement and empowerment of his students.

The journey of Ed Tom from his first day as principal at the BCSM to the last day of the first year of school were documented by director Christopher Wong in the documentary "Whatever it Takes." It was featured at Toronto's Carlton Cinemas from September 24 through 26, 2010 and has won numerous accolades at film festivals, including the Asian American International Film Festival.

In what the Globe and Mail called a "case study on urban schools," Whatever it Takes aimed to highlight the suffering school system in the South Bronx, and how one man's vision made an impact in a community that otherwise lacked educational opportunities. In his feature length debut as director and producer, Christopher Wong shadowed principal Ed Tom as well as his students to gain a clear picture of their daily routines, challenges, and the strength they channeled to overcome these challenges.

At times he raised his voice and displayed an obvious frustration when students made foolish decisions, or careless judgements. Yet he left his home before sunrise each day to ensure he was at the front of the school to greet each student by name, with a handshake. Ed Tom had his work cut out for him, but stood firm in his goal to transform his school of 170 students into college bound scholars.

Along with viewing the journey from Ed Tom's perspective, one young student, a girl named Sharifea, struggled throughout the year as the documentary progressed. The oldest of three siblings, Sharifea was often responsible for caregiving, chores, and seeing that her mother (former drug-addict, suffering from hepatitis) was also well taken care of. You could see the hope and promise on Sharifea's mother face each time she spoke of her daugher: she was carrying the weight of her family, and generations before her, on her young shoulders.

And like Sharifea, there are students everywhere who are failing in their courses, yet dealing with multitude of priorities, expectations, and often conflicting responsibilities.

What fictional depictions like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers as well as this documentary always demonstrate is the importance of consistency in care and support from the school/community, to the home, to the student. Whatever it Takes often made mention of this importance, and how each member of the triangle (parents-school-student) were active--and necessary--participants in order to see measureable success.

Sharifea barely passed the school year, but still was accepted into a 3-year summer enrichment program at Dartmouth College. She found drive, despite her stressful circumstances.

Ed Tom continued to give 100% passion and support to his students, right until the last days when they displayed improved test scores in a city-wide assessment.

It's a traditional story of a dedicated mentor, and an important documentary to watch to see how much impact can be made by one individual with enough passion and vision to encourage dozens of young minds.

For more info on how you can view this documentary, please visit www.WhateverItTakes.com.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review: "Stick to Your Vision" by Wes "Maestro" Williams

He's a Juno award winner, a Gemini award nominee, he's received countless other accolades, is an established actor, the Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop, and now also an author.

Reading Wes "Maestro" Williams' new book Stick to Your Vision (co-written with his wife, Tamara) was powerful for me on many levels, but the main reason was summarized early in the second chapter when Williams said: "As we grow up...we need to feel that we are part of a community that reflects and reinforces our identity and experiences."

In the late 80s, Maestro Fresh Wes was the Canadian hip hop/urban experience, and to this day in any venue across the city, if the DJ plays Let Your Backbone Slide it continues to hit us with the warmth of nostalgia and also the recognition of growth.

Williams represents the story of building the black Canadian identity, so it is only fitting that he has shared his testament and experiences in print.

Growing up as a black Canadian, you are always acutely aware of the lack of representation from your community. As we all know, the media would be full of reflections from everywhere but here, and it's so inspiring to see that over the years...things have changed. We went from having a handful of successful Canadian rappers, to becoming the new place-to-be for fresh urban talent. Black/urban Canada has gone from suffering from an un-said identity crisis, to standing firm in our self-awareness and self-respect.

"My community and my city had never experienced one of their own being so commercially successful, so they didn't know how to be supportive." (pg. 208-209)

This book needed to be written, and I'm so glad that it was, because as a legend of the urban Canadian experience, Wes Williams truly represents the journey that started about 20-30 years ago when many of our immigrant families were first arriving in Canada to establish themselves...and it continues to the present time when "our" generation is creating a new generation of Canadian-born and Canadian-influenced citizens.

It is so reassuring to know that there is now a strong "black Canadian" identity that is thriving, and expanding beyond previous limitations and unfounded stereotypes.

Stick to Your Vision is an easy read, because it's a familiar one. Williams tells his story about his life, career, struggles, triumphs, and outlines the book as a blueprint to creating goals, and maintaining focus. It's a great reminder for those who are working hard and achieving personal success...and a great inspiration for those who are just trying to figure out who they are, and where they're going. The Canadian references and acknowledgements make the book even more personal.

I believe this book will have the strongest effect on the young generation, teens and young adults who know where they want to be, but perhaps need some guidance in how to organize their thoughts, how to build their character, and how to ensure that they do not fall off track.

"If people you normally roll with are not elevating you--pushing you to reach higher and celebrating your achievements--they are stunting your growth." (pg. 153)

There are questions, examples, charts, exercises, and guidelines that will surely be beneficial to helping readers [re]-organize their personal "vision" and subsequently blowing away the "blockades and barricades" that they might face.

As a fellow writer, I truly feel Williams' need to tell his story, and to share it with others. Seeing your own experience--or a similar experience--in print/media is extremely motivating and inspirational to those who may not have any other examples to turn to. As Williams said, "Knowing your story is essential to understanding yourself and your aspirations..."

Thank you Wes "Maestro" Williams for writing this book, and contributing to the growing collection of black/urban Canadian success stories. Thank you for shouting out Ron Nelson, Michie Mee, Farley Flex, and the other legends of your industry and our Canadian experience. I love that over time the respect has been overwhelming, and again, I thank you for acknowledging and documenting an authentic Canadian story that inevitably turned into a great human tale.

Williams' story is our story, and to see it in print by a mainstream publisher (McClelland & Stewart) is indeed another great phenomena. Every industry and community has their pioneers, groundbreakers, and visionairies who unknowingly pave the way for the generations that follow. For that reason it's great to see the career and impact of Wes "Maestro" Williams come full circle with this important contribution to our culture.

"Let Your Backbone Slide" (1989) - Maestro Fresh Wes

Monday, July 12, 2010

AfroFest Toronto: Beautiful People, Beautiful City

After the madness of the G-20 summit, it was nice to see Toronto looking and feeling back to normal, and celebrating one of many cultures in the city at the 22nd anniversary edition of AfroFest at Queen's Park on July 10 and 11, 2010.

Presented by Music Africa, a non-profit organization that supports and promotes African music and culture, AfroFest is the largest African music celebration in North America.

The weekend features a marketplace for arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, books, and other items, along with a variety of African and Caribbean cuisine, concerts, dancing, drumming, and rides and activities for children.

Kya Publishing was there for the second year, featuring my book collection the "Urban Toronto Tales" (pictured below). There are so many African-Canadian writers, poets, and artists who also have stories to share, and voices to be heard; AfroFest provides a great platform for this type of networking.

The beauty of the AfroFest is that small business owners, entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurants all have a venue to display their hard work, and share their passion and culture with the African community, as well as the Toronto community at large.

As Toronto Mayor David Miller said in his message to the festival, "Events like these are an integral part of our city's culture growth and are essential to the enjoyment and liveability of Toronto." Sponsored by Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council, and Canadian Heritage, the event is well-organized, and the positive energy and musical upliftment has a strong effect on all who come out, as witnessed by the yearly increase of attendees.

The main stage featured ongoing performances by artists like Masaisai (Zimbabwe), Doody le Tigre (Haiti), Nati Haile (Ethiopia), and Muna Mingole (Cameroon). Canadian artists Kaysha Lee, Humble, Chris Rouse, and others performed on the Baobab Stage, hosted by Hajile Kalaike aka Lotus. The Drum Stage featured the Shangaza Performers from Uganda, Sani-Abu & ijo vudu from Nigeria, and DJ music sets by DJ Biggy, along with others.

The excitement was the ongoing, the laneways were busy, and only got busier as night fell, the crowd was peaceful and supportive, and variation of music and entertainment provided the perfect backdrop to the activities throughout the weekend.

The AfroFest, also titled the official headquarters of Toronto's African World Cup Party, had a special area to watch the final match of the World Cup, celebrating the first FIFA World Cup to take place in Africa. Hundreds of fans had the opportunity to watch Spain's victory, on the lawn of Queen's Park where the game was featured on a large screen.

There is nothing like summer in Toronto, where the activities are ongoing, and for no fee at all individuals, families, and participants of all ages can find entertainment and opportunity to be out in the community and celebrate all that is wonderful about this city.

AfroFest is just one of many festivals and events that make Toronto a great place to live, and remind the city of the beautiful and creative people that make it unique. Our strength is in our culture, and the beauty of our strength is evident when we all learn, and grow from experiencing elements of each other's heritage.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Roots" Rock the Toronto Jazz Festival

The Roots are fantasic. True musicians. Expert performers. On Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at Nathan Philips Square (Toronto), The Roots gave an amazing 2-hour performance as part of the Toronto Jazz Festival.

To say they are legendary would be an understatement. There are so many hip hop artists and entertainers that come and go in the music industry--many are forgotten, many lack the ability to maintain a career that spans more than a few years, and many just simply don't have the genuine talent to keep their audiences engaged, and their fanbase active. The Roots are exceptional in all areas.

Gathered under the tent at the festival's Toronto Star Stage, the crowd seemed to become increasingly electrified as the show went on. Original band members MC Black Thought and ?uestLove on drums, along with guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas, bass player Owen Biddle, keyboardist James "Kamal" Gray, percussionist Frank "Knuckles" Walker, and tuba player Damon Bryson aka "Tuba Gooding Jr." delivered an impeccable musicial journey from start to finish.

Seeing The Roots perform was a reminder of what music is in its purest form. Instruments, naturally strong vocals, and vibes! The show followed perfect sequence as the band took their long-time fans back 20 years, and into the present time, featuring tunes from their 11 studio albums, including the latest album "How I Got Over" that was just released last week.

The show was a reminder of how music should be. Each instrumentalist could hold their own, and were individually featured on various songs. There wasn't a moment's delay, pause, or fumble...no gimmicks, and constant grooves. Most importantly, the band radiated extreme passion. Their love for the music was evident on their faces, as they danced, performed, and kept their fans fulfilled.

A lot has changed in hip hop since 1987 when the Philadelphia-based band first emerged. While they have evolved, taken on a new gig as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and they've developed supporters in other venues (@QuestLove has 1.3 million followers of his hilarious and brilliant Twitter commentary online)...they are still true musicians at heart, and have stayed true to their original essence.

The genre has grown and developed, the The Roots have proven that real music and real talented individuals can stand the test of time, maintain relevance, and still excel in their delivery. They are music. They are hip hop, and an essential cornerstone of the heart of the genre and everything that it is supposed to be. Real.

A few video highlights from the show:

Stacey Marie Robinson is the Membership Director of UMAC, The Urban Music Association of Canada, and author of the "Urban Toronto Tales" books, Canada's first and only urban fiction novel collection available at www.StaceyMarieRobinson.com.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tired of the Urban Toronto Radio Drama

Is it really that complicated? Toronto is a major metropolitan city. The 4th largest North American city, after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. So why is it such an impossible mission for "us" to defend, achieve, and maintain a decent urban radio station that caters to the demographic that obviously exists here?

I am not an expert in CRTC legislation, radio programming, or advertising. I don't know the politics that go on behind closed doors, in the boardrooms, on the air, or in the DJ's studios.

What I do know is that I'm an average Torontonian who wants to be able to depend on a decent radio station for her news, entertainment, and a RELEVANT reflection of her lifestyle. The lifestyle of my peers, and the tastes of my generation and my community. I want to be able to hear what I like 24/7.

This isn't even a concern or second thought in other places where they have at least two "urban" stations. Some cities have one station exclusively for hip hop, an additional station dedicated to R&B and oldies, and then they'll throw in a third station for that mix of "urban" and pop.

Now...on the flipside, in one standard week (or day!) of Toronto radio listening, one can easily alternate between 3-4 stations just to have a complete experience.

Certain days have certain shows, and we bounce from community radio, to commercial radio. We do one station for their morning show, another station for good reggae content, another station for live soca vibes, another station for commentary and news/sports talk, another station for accurate traffic and weather, and another station for the hosts.

Kind of ridiculous, year after year.

I am tired of changing the damn dial! I just want one radio station (OK, or maybe two) where I can hear all of my favourites without jumping around hoping to get reception as I travel from east to west. I would also like to know that the hosts and DJs are AUTHENTIC...and the ones that have been HUSTLING hardcore for 15+ years in this city get the compensation they deserve. They work hard for our loyalty and they provide the soundtrack to our experiences...the least we as a community can do is thank them accordingly for their life's work.

Why are we still constantly trying to prove our value and justify our presence? Shouldn't this be automatic by now? I love Toronto, but I'm tired of the bulls--t:

  • No big advertisers want to support "the community," so we're forced to listen to bootleg commercials and suffer accordingly...eventually losing all funding potential.
  • DJs get fired and rehired OR have their slots moved around arbitrarily from FREE services that they've been providing for over a decade, while community stations force us to listen to amateur garbage in its place.
  • WORLD CLASS Toronto DJs and MCs are not getting their due respect and compensated, even though they have a dedicated following, they have crafted the very blueprint of music in this city, and they are skilled in a variety of genres.
  • Giving in, and listening to generic "commercial" radio stations because they have more structure and consistency than the stations that are supposed to represent me.
  • Seeing the same DJs getting airtime when there are dozens and dozens of "other" DJs that also deserve just half a minute in the spotlight as well...in some cases, they deserve more.
  • Watching community leaders struggle for YEARS to make their mark in the city, seeing them get through...and then witnessing them eventually sell out, get beat down/bamboozled/overpowered, or lose focus once the opportunity is finally presented to them.
And these are just my random thoughts, driven by more emotion than fact perhaps...but the frustration is unavoidable at this point. Something has obviously gone terribly wrong with the radio industry in this city.

We are a city of outstanding people, bursting with talent....and an infrastructure that can barely keep up, recognize, appreciate, or understand what's really going on.

So some big things are going on...big news getting out. The game is about to change!

Major change...new ventures, new voices, new opportunities...there is hope yet again for Toronto radio. But the community has a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable! If we are going to support a new radio station in Toronto, we have to support it the right way, every step of the way. Like UMAC (The Urban Music Association of Canada) states "you can't complain, if you're not in the game!"

Do the Right Thing! Pay attention. Have your voice heard. Write letters. Make phone calls. Do something. There are no more excuses for why the state of Toronto radio is in the condition it is. We can not allow certain things to happen. We have the power to do anything under the right leadership and guidance, and with the right intentions.

If we are not actively helping the situation, then we are inevitably contributing to the problem. Let's get rid of this drama once and for all, and make sure we get what we want and deserve from our radio providers, across the board. Respect, acknowledgement, and reflection.

The Urban Toronto Tales novel collection features stories about life, love, and relationships in Toronto. For more information, please visit http://www.staceymarierobinson.com/.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"A Reflection of Urban Music in Canada" @ NXNE

On Saturday, June 19, 2010 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown Toronto, UMAC (The Urban Music Association of Canada) hosted two panels dedicated to uplifting and educating musicians through expert commentary and group discussion at the North by Northeast (NXNE) conference.

The first panel, co-presented by the McKee Agency, featured (l-r) DJ Carl Allen, Michie Mee, Will Strickland, Derek Brin, and Chase Parsons. The Canadian music industry legends participated in a discussion entitled "How We Got Here: A Reflection of How Urban Music in Canada Got to Where it is Today" and shared their wisdom with the NXNE attendees.

Moderated by Will Strickland, UMAC President, the guest speakers shared their experiences and perspectives on where Canada's urban music industry was as they were beginning their journey in the business, and also articulated where they believe the industry can and will go with the right support.

Chase Parsons, of Chris Smith Management, believes that this generation works better together than previous Canadian artists did, a sentiment that was shared by the other panelists. Chase stressed that maintaining this unified front would be beneficial not only to individual artists, but to the Canadian urban industry as a whole. He encouraged honest critique, and noted that he would like to see more interest from the urban community in other areas of the music business, aside from just performance, in order to strengthen the infrastructure in preparation for future growth and development of the urban genre.

Rapper/actress Michie Mee, a pioneer of the urban music scene in Canada, recalled that as she was starting out as a performing artist, that the urban "industry" didn't exist. Each artist worked independently trying to figure out their way, and learn as they progressed. Michie encouraged artists to know themselves, know their craft, and believe in their art...if an artist doesn't have a true sense of who they are, she stressed that the audience "will call you out" and question your authenticity.

Carl Allen, restaurant owner, DJ, and long-time CKLN radio host, believes that urban Canadian artists have now surpassed the urban Canadian music industry. The power of community radio in Canada was praised, as this outlet is what has kept artists relevant, and also accessible. Carl believes that the community has a great role in supporting, encouraging, and lifting their artists up.

Producer Derek Brin reminded artists that they need to develop their brand and be consistent in their approach. He encouraged collaboration, reaching out to as many relevant individuals as you can, and taking risks and making an effort to travel, go out of your comfort zone, and connect with others to increase you knowledge and opportunities. Derek also noted that sharing information with your peers should be a part of the process, helping to bring others up as well.

In closing, Will Strickland also encouraged attendees to utilize their resources, network, and get to know the people in their field. "The industry you seek is in this room right now," said Strickland. "Before you jump across the border, look right here."

The second panel of the afternoon, "Ya Heard?! Demo Listening Session" was moderated by UMAC Vice President Dwayne Dixon, and featured (l-r) Flo King (TO-FLO blogger and radio host), DJ Mel Boogie (DJ, radio host, and UMAC Communications Director), Chris Perry (songwriter/producer), Kyron "Kid" Clarke (Urbanology magazine columnist), and Priya Ramanujam (editor in chief of Urbanology Magazine).

Musicians had the opportunity to submit their demos for feedback from the panel and other attendees. The following suggestions were made from the various panelists:

*Packaging is important, make sure your product is polished and professional before submission (Flo)

*Personal relationships matter, make every effort to connect with people you are submitting to (Mel)

*Songwriting, lyrics, and melodic hooks are important elements when composing your songs: make sure they are memorable (Chris)

*Be consistent in your approach, and try to stay away from gimmicks and cliches (Kyron)

*Give depth to your story, and provide another element aside from your music to draw people in (Priya)

For more information about UMAC, The Urban Music Association of Canada or to become a member, please visit www.umacunited.com.

For more information on the conference, please visit http://www.nxne.com/.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Movie Review: Sex and the City 2

I love Sex and the City...the TV show. I love Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. I love how they think, how they interact, and of course what they wear! Sex and the City has meant so much to so many women. That's why it was disappointing that the storyline of Sex and the City 2, the movie, didn't do the ladies, their men, or their lives, any justice.

We don't want our favourite characters to get into conflict, but as any story-writer or movie-watcher knows, good conflict is necessary for character growth, development, and well...entertainment.

I found myself glad to be watching the ladies again, however, still feeling like I didn't get the point of what I was watching.

The opening wedding scene was beautiful, the landscape in the Middle East was beautiful. The shoes and the outfits were fabulous, as expected. But what good are fancy clothes and exotic locations without a good plot?

Without giving the events away, I will say that:

1) The ladies were not faced with any significant challenges, and the challenges they did have were neatly and quickly resolved. In fact, a single regular-season episode contained more grit and mystery than this entire 2 hour movie did!

2) The men had little to do with the storyline. Yes, they were there: Smith, Big, Harry, and Steve, looking good...but having little action. Even Aidan was there, but his appearance was a little unrealistic and not as juicy as it could have been. While Big did have a significant role in the film, it still seemed like all the years and hours and countless discussions about these complicated relationships and complicated men...left them boring, with no controversy, and really, no purpose.

3) The group co-dependence was a little disturbing. It was cute and endearing ten years ago, but after marriage, children, and well, adulthood, I actually found it a little weird that grown-ass women would STILL run to each other minutes after an encounter to get opinions, advice, and feedback from one another. Yes, I realize that "girl talk" and "sisterhood" and "advice" is kind of the theme and point of Sex and the City...but after a marriage and being in an established relationship for a few years, I would hope that maybe they would have a bit more security in their actions and their partners. It felt like all those years of growth on the television show left them silly and erratic...yes, they will be best friends for life...but have they not learned to at least make their own decisions yet?

I took this photo of the SATC billboard in Times Square on May 24th, 2010.

The best part about the movie was the anticipation, knowing that I would be going to see it with two of my best friends while on vacation.

The highlight of the experience wasn't actually viewing the movie, but instead walking out of the theatre into the hot and humid Miami heat (even at 2am!) at the AMC Theatre at the gorgeous Adventura Mall in South Florida. The palm trees, the smell of the ocean, the tropical breeze, and the pretty lights on the buildings around me.

The movie flopped, but I still enjoyed this stage in the life-long Sex and the City experience--especially knowing that I was able to experience the movie with friends, discuss it at length...and know that we'd wake up the next morning and watch the classic Sex and the City reruns that NEVER disappointed, with 100% satisfaction.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Caribana 2010 - The Band Launch

The Toronto Revellers released their costumes for the 2010 Caribana parade, last night (Saturday, May 8) at Everest Banquet Hall in Scarborough. This year's theme "Disco Fever" included colourful patterns, plenty of silver beads, disco balls, and music of the 70s, as the models displayed the selection of ensembles for Jamaal Magloire's (above) team of masqueraders.

Ain't no stoppin us now!

For registration information and official photos, please visit the Revellers' website at http://www.torontorevellers.com/.

Here are the highlights of each song-themed section: