Monday, March 29, 2010

Just Be Canadian (& lose the American accent)!

The other day I was listening to a local Toronto radio station, and a show participant was giving an update. It was an urban program so I wasn’t surprised when the individual began to speak…and out came a Brooklyn/Detroit/Southern U.S. accent.

Now I know the U.S. border is only mere hours away from us here in Toronto, and even closer for those living in Windsor and Niagara…but really. What logical excuse is there for continuously speaking in American ‘twang’ when you were born, bred, raised, and surrounded by Canadians--or at the very least [insert your parent’s origin here]--your entire life?

Yes, there are many born-Canadians with very natural Jamaican accents. Or those who can use Filipino slang, or put on an Indian accent at a moment’s notice. This is understandable, as living in Toronto one might easily grow up in a predominantly Chinese, Somali, or [insert your ethnic group here] community and pick up elements of the culture as a result of who they grew up around.

But who in Toronto has grown up in an African-American community? Are there even any predominantly African-American communities in Toronto/Canada? Probably not. So that leaves 1) music 2) television and 3) wishful thinking that leads these lost Canadian souls to adapt this “preferred” tone of speaking.

Why?

Maybe 15 years ago when a Buffalo, NY radio station was Toronto's urban standard, or maybe 20 years ago when Toronto didn’t have the high-profile urban media representation that it does now. The talent and potential has always existed, but I understand that there previously might not have been an alternative to emulate in the absense of our own urban culture.

But it’s 2010. There are plenty of alternatives. In fact, Canadians are making big movements across the board in entertainment: sports, film/television, and music. So, if there are so many accessible Canadian influences…why then do people still choose to latch on to the American one?

Do people living in Los Angeles try to sound like they’re from Chicago? Do those living in Houston try to sound like those from Detroit? Not likely. Because they embrace their differences, they celebrate their unique qualities, and they let it out…naturally.

Have you ever met someone who used the hardest patois, the strongest Trini dialect, or the most serious Nigerian accent…and then behind closed doors they sound about as Canadian as [insert your European friend's name here]? When the day is over and they’re in their comfort zone, that’s when they decide to be natural and just be Canadian. We all know someone like that. Someone you went to elementary school with, back when they knew they were Canadians....and somehow developed another accent in their late teens/early twenties and beyond...

I would be so impressed if the time came when all Canadian entertainers could pick up a microphone (because this is often an issue with those in the public eye) and out came….their natural Canadian-ass voice.

Even the comment “Oh, it just SOUNDS Canadian,” is something that should never come out of a Canadian’s mouth with disdain. Again, I think for years Canadian artists have tried their hardest to “not” sound Canadian. Instead they were trying to sound authentically…? From where? Atlanta? Memphis?

I once overheard someone critiquing a song composed by a Canadian artist, and his response was that he didn't like it because it "sounded" too Canadian. I couldn't help but think, of course it "sounds" Canadian; it "is" Canadian.

I think it’s important that Canadians just BE Canadians. Yes, there are going to be cultural trends coming at you from all over. Friends, family, entertainment, the dreaded and ever-influential BET, and the like…but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your natural self to adapt to someone else’s image of validity.

It’s OK to just be Canadian. Right now, more than ever.

If you’re a rapper, it’s OK to sound like a Canadian rapper, with Canadian-sounding beats. Because if you're a Canadian rapper sounding like a New York rapper...the people in Canada will know you're acting, and the people in New York will really know you're pretending.

I feel that the Canadian rappers who have "made it big" are the ones who really embrace their Canadian-ness and sound natural and confident as a result. The ones who know where they came from, and aren't trying to convince millions of Americans that they are a [insert popular rapper stereotype here].

If you’re a DJ, a radio host, an MC, or someone who holds a mic in their hand….it’s OK to sound like you’re from Brooklin…and I do mean Brooklin, Ontario. It's OK, because chances are you don't live too far from there anyhow.

It’s time to stop fronting, and start accepting that we just are who we are. Canadians need to own up to their culture, especially the growing population born in Canada. Yes, many of our parents were immigrants and we want to keep the culture strong…but it is what it is.

Don’t be afraid to embrace your Canadian identity.

Don't be afraid to build a stronger Canadian identity.

Don’t be afraid to set a new trend: sounding like you’ve always sounded…like when you were a kid and hadn't yet realized it was cool to sound Guyanese, or to sound like you were raised on the streets of Compton like Ricky and DoughBoy (I'm pretty sure that's when a lot of this imitation started)...

It’s OK to just BE Canadian. Let someone else try and imitate our sound. Set it in stone, and work with it. We’re here for a reason, and it’s to establish our own reason for being...not borrow someone else's sound and hope that it fits...it doesn't.

Other cultures can't and won't respect us and our products (particularly our urban products), unless we respect ourselves. So just be Canadian! It's so much easier.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Alicia Keys in Toronto

I like Alicia Keys. My appreciation of the 29-year old-singer started back in 2001 when I first heard "Falling" during an end-of-the-night-slow-jam-set at Guvernment night club in Toronto. I fell in love with the song immediately, and became an instant fan.

The first time I saw Alicia Keys live--April of 2004 in Detroit for the "Verizon Ladies First Tour" with Beyonce, Tamia, and Missy Elliot--I remember watching her on the empty stage with a perfect piano, and perfect acoustics to listen to her compositions. I'm pretty sure I was jealous. I wondered what it felt like to play a piano that beautiful, in a venue that huge, with a sound so big, and share her personal creations with so many people.

The second time I saw Alicia Keys live was at Casino Rama (north of Toronto) in March of 2005. It was the "Diary Tour" and was supposed to feature John Legend, but he decided not to perform, leaving many fans disappointed. (See my review of the Diary Tour, published in Pride Newspaper - "Alicia Keys Rocks, John Legend Rocks on Canadian Stop of Diary Tour: Tour Insider, Chris Rob, Shares the Details.")

There were a few more tours that I didn't get around to seeing...but I made sure to find myself at the "Freedom Tour" last night, March 10, 2010, as it stopped in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre.

What can I say? It was a great show! The arena was sold-out, the energy was nice, and it was a pleasure to hear her play and sing live again. I'm always amazed at how good a lot of performers sound when you hear them live, and I think this is why it's essential that I see my favourite arists perform on stage. While the albums are enjoyable and the videos are entertaining, you really can't experience the full range and potential of a musician until you are in their space, and giving them a couple hours of your time to see what they can do to convince you that they're worth the album/ticket expenses.

I almost forgot how many great tracks Alicia has from her 9-year history as a recording artist. From songs like You Don't Know My Name, to Superwoman, No One, and the new favourite Sleeping With A Broken Heart...she has really proven to be a superstar.

There aren't many artists who have consistently put out great albums, hits after hit, and still managed to stay humble, and display evident growth, both musically and socially.

What I like about Alicia is that while she keeps the elements the same--the piano and the soulful grooves--she still manages to bring a new layer of musicality to each record she releases. The songs on 2009's The Element of Freedom album are more complex than those of 2001's Songs in A Minor, but yet still classically "Alicia Keys" material.

I like that she keeps it cool. Her songs are never too sexual, too controversial, too ignorant, or too simple. They are the right balance of reality, of love, sensibility, and social awareness...and they make you feel good to hear them.

The best part about the show last night, despite the amazing sounding Yamaha grand piano with those heavy bass notes and clear treble keys...was the stage design. I haven't seen a light show like this at a concert in a good while, and I definitely appreciated the efforts made to make this a real sight.

I loved the consistent messages taking place along the backdrop. While she sang, talked to the audience, and danced her ass off (along with who we think were former So You Think You Can Dance contestants, as backup dancers), there were messages lighting up her set.

It made everyone realize that not only is Alicia Keys a beautiful woman, a talented woman, and really a great singer when it's just her, a mic, and a piano on stage...but that she's also still got something going on upstairs. You can tell that she really feels her messages, her charity (Keep a Child Alive) and humanitarian efforts aside from her music career. With many other female artists (not naming names)...what you see is often what you get, and sadly, all there is.

And Alicia she didn't beat us over the head with preaching, beg for donations, or lecture us about our charitable activities; she let the stage, the words, and the on-screen images of past leaders and freedom fighters, speak for her.

It was a nice combination of good tunes and uplifting themes. I love that over the past decade, Alicia Keys has managed to remain a professional, and prove her worth not through words or through visual validation...she is living proof of what she believes.

Good show, despite missing the opening performance by Melanie Fiona and a guest appearance by Kardinal Offishall. I did get to catch that sensual Robin Thicke, and will be picking up his album very soon, as a result.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again...I don't know how much more inspiration I can take! I love love love to see my generation taking their artistic talents, and making major movements with their works.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Madea, live in Chicago!

God bless Tyler Perry.

On Saturday, March 6, 2010, I had the pleasure of watching his play “Madea’s Big Happy Family” at the Arie Crown Theatre in Chicago.

The second I heard Tyler Perry was going back on the road--after 5 years--I made sure to secure some tickets. Of course, living in Canada, we often do not have the luxury of seeing tours, performances and movies in the same timely and convenient manner that our American neighbours do.

So I did what I normally do in search of uplifting entertainment, motivation, and most importantly, inspiration…I got myself a plane ticket and made plans with my friend in the Windy City for a weekend on the town.

I admit, the first hour or so, “Madea’s Big Happy Family” could have easily been “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” or any other number of Perry’s great stage shows-turned-motion-pictures. And while I’ve laughed, sang, and cheered with the best of them watching his previous stories, this particular one at first seemed like, well, a typical Tyler Perry production.

And rightfully so. While the story and the characters didn’t necessarily move me in the beginning, by the time they got into the second act, I began to get the familiar goosebumps and creative energy that I regularly crave from theatrical and musical productions. When the character of Shirley (played by Chandra Currelley-Young) died, and sang her way to heaven, I remembered the recent passing of Tyler Perry's mother and began to really feel the spirit of his message.

Cassie Davie was there (Ella on “House of Payne”), Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley was there (also a regular in Perry’s productions), among many other cast members. Please note: it’s an absolute prerequisite that before you even step foot on Mr. Perry’s stage, that you have the ability to blow the roof off the venue with your voice. This cast could SANG!

Jeffery Lewis, as Byron, and Zuri Craig, as Donnie, particularly stood out with their vocals. These two young men were selected for the production after Perry discovered them singing on YouTube.

So singing, acting, and story-telling aside, what really made the night was Tyler’s un-scripted portion of the evening where he, as Madea, spoke to his family after Shirley’s funeral. With a captive audience, and a vulnerable on-stage family, he preached.

And boy, did he preach!

He said it all. If you were heartbroken, financially challenged, a single parent, a single woman, a hard worker, a discouraged youth, he had a message for you! And there’s something about the way he speaks that made you forget everything else that just happened, or is about to happen on stage. With the confidence of a pastor, the humour of a stand-up comic, and the heart of a real family member, he made sure to get his messages across.

He spoke to the youth about excelling in life, and even threw in a chorus of “lookin’ like a fool with your Pants on the Ground” (from recent American Idol fame). He spoke about mortages. He spoke about eliminating family secrets. All without breaking character, and while still cracking jokes in Madea's familiar tone.

This for me was the key moment of the evening. Remembering that Tyler Perry--who was hours away from catching a flight to present at Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony--still found it important to tour the country and share his words of encouragement.

Perry, who is the first African-American to own his own motion picture studio. Perry, who has achieved Hollywood success and fame. Perry, who really didn’t have to take a step back and bring Madea to life on stage again, since he’s been doing it so well on the big screen. But he was still dedicated enough to his fans and to his craft, and humble enough to get up there like it was 1997, and give his people a great show.

Below, Tyler Perry thanks the Chicago audience for their continuous support, and talks about his appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony the following night.
This is why I admire this man so much. Because he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, the people who made him who he is, and he made sure that despite the other great things going on in his life, that he put himself on a tour bus for a few months to reconnect with his loyal fans.

It was a great night! I’m glad I made the trip, and I’m glad I got to experience the play with hearty crowd that cheered, sang, hooted and hollered, and clapped along with the message and music.

The music! The last scene consisted almost entirely of various cast members singing R&B classics as the family members reminiced at the end of the funeral scene. I saw hands waving in the air, heard people in the audience singing along to "I'm Going Do-wn" in full voice, and just felt the love and the pride in the room.

I felt great being there. What an experience, finally!! And everyone else felt good....like family. It's great that Tyler Perry has consistently been able to make audiences feel that way, and sell out shows regardless of where it is...or how far they have to travel to see him.

Definitely worth the trip!