Friday, September 16, 2011

"Call Me Russell" ~ the biography of comedian Russell Peters

I love a good Canadian success story...and I love to read inspiring biographies of those who started with a dream, and didn't quit until that dream was fulfilled. The biography of Canadian comedian Russell Peters, "Call Me Russell" (2010) fulfilled both of these interests, with an easy read and a familiar tale.

I miss having a good laugh, sometimes. And not the every day chuckle, giggle with friends, or sitcom humour. I miss like real hearty, eyes-watering, can't-breathe type of laughter. The type that only a true comedian can give you. Russell Peters is one of the few comedians who has been able to provide that type of laughter for me over recent years, and I'm proud that he is one of "our own."

Of course we have Trixx and Jay Martin, Jean Paul, and a few others in Toronto who are definitely consistently hilarious, and provide comforting familiarity as well. Then there are the American greats like Katt Williams and Kevin Hart, also kinda making their come-up as stand-up headliners lately.

One of the best parts about the story of a comedian, is watching it grow from brief performances on stage with a mic in hand, a few dollars compensations, and tiny localized audiences of supporters...and then seeing them explode into multi-millionnaires with international appeal and blockbuster marketability.

We saw it happen with all of our faves: Chris Rock, Martin, Dave Chappelle, and even Eddie Murphy who has just been annouced as the host of the upcoming Academy Awards program. We love to see them succeed, because we watch them develop, we watch them mature, and we owe a great deal of our laughter and entertainment to their creative minds.

I remember back in around 1998 or 19998, I was a student at the University of Windsor, and a "board member" of the ever-political and ever-dedicated Black Youth Taking Action group, founded on the campus by the then-infamous Brother Noel. As a student organization, we did our best to maintain a sense of culture, peer unity, and bring diverse events to our temporary home-away-from home, in an effort to keep the students entertained and socializing.

One of the best BYTA events we had was hosting the F.A.M.E. All-Star Comedy Tour. I can remember voicing the commercial down at CJAM 91.5fm (the campus radio station), and excitedly announcing appearances by Russell Peters, Ron Josol, Jean Paul, and Marc Trinidad. I had no idea who any of them were at the time.

We sold tickets, and we packed the campus Pub that evening. An event of that kind hadn't been around on campus yet, and comedians that so intimately knew our culture and our generation were such a rareity.

I laughed like I had never laughed before. The show was an absolute HIT. And I can remember thinking, this Russell Peters guy does the BEST Bajan accent I've ever heard...that accent is not an easy one to duplicate. I immediatley rated Russell for that. His Jamaican accent, Trini accent, and of course the beloved Indian accent were off the chain. He knew all of the cultures so intimately, and I was so impressed with his ability to recreate and retell stories of things that we were all so closely connected to. As Canadians (of all races) I was impressed with how fluidly he spoke of his cultural experiences.

Everyone LOVED him. And I think we maybe payed the collective group about $250 for what was one of the funniest nights I can ever remember.

Fast forward to 2011. I started and completed this book pretty quickly because I enjoyed reading about how Russell came from the guy we essentially "hired" back as a broke-pocketed student org, to the guy that is selling out Madison Square Garden, and impacting the comedy world on a level few will ever reach.

I don't have much to say about the book was a good read. I kind of expected some hilarity and punchlines, but it was really just a casual conversation between Russell and his fans, and easily could have been an afternoon conversation.

The book doesn't follow a set chronology, beginning to end, but it does break his life's experiences down into themes, sagas, individuals, and stages of his journey.

You get a good feel for the challenges he faced, both personally and professionally, as well as the sights he has now seen, and the hard work he put in to perfect his craft, develop his identity as a comedian, and sustain a remarkable career spanning around 20 years.

What touched me most with his story was Russell's sense of family. His love and respect for his late father, who passed away in 2004. The deep connection and awesome working relationship he has with his one sibling, his brother Clayton. The pride of his mother, the closeness of his extended family, and the fact that at this stage in his life, he is able to easily provide for all of them.

His parents, Anglo-Indians (which is a demographic I knew nothing about until reading this book), and their journey to Canada marked the beginning of this biography, which immediately made me think of essentially everyone I know...a first-generation Canadian, sons and daughters of immigrants.

The great thing about contemporary Canadian stories, is that we all on some level have the same story. The same ambitions. The same purpose. Our parents arrive in this foreign land, often with only a few dollars and maybe one or two good links that they can call...and they are determined to make a life for their family. To find opportunity, and to open doors and associations to them that they may or may not have had access to "back home."

And that's why I love a good Canadian success story, because we all carry the same emotional baggage...knowing that our parents made great efforts to move to Canada, and that we as their successors have an obligation to take their courage, and take their dreams, and to work hard to fulfil them. We have an obligation to continue the legacy now as "Canadians" for our children, and nieces, and nephews, and neighbours, and do so with a pride that would make our families, and our ancestors proud.

Sounds like a lot of weight to carry, but I do believe that this is the mission of the majority of "us" take what we can, our gifts, or talents, or even just our need to work hard and build...and create new legacies. Here.

So Russell's book was a nice tale. A nice story of a humble guy from Brampton giving his all to his craft, and seeing it through to monumental levels. It really just an honest look at his life (porn obsession and all), and a testament to what hard work, family love and support, and wise choices can do.

He's a self-made man, and his lessons in "Call Me Russell" can be implemented by any of us. Russell Peters has done his family, and his country, exceptionally proud.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson, author, and founder of Kya Publishing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What are "Urban Toronto Tales" ?

The word "urban" is a sticky one. It's extremely general, has multiple definitions that mean multiple things in multiple instances...yet it still manages to define an entire culture, movement, and demographic.

Yes, "urban" at it's core means "of the city"...however, over the years it has also come to specifically mean "emerging and developing in densely populated areas of large cities, esp those populated by people of African or Caribbean origin."

Hip-hop culture or "black" culture used to have strong racial connotations...however, it's fair to say that while culture does play a huge part in the composition of an "urban" entity...the culture no longer specifies race or heritage. The culture is a movement of it's own, and is easily comprised of individuals from a variety of ethnicities.

The "Urban Toronto Tales" are specifically about the urban/city culture of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and those who are a part of. The people of Toronto who have built the urban culture from conception. The first- and second-generation Canadians of African, Caribbean...but also South Asian, Filipino, and other cultures that are just as much a part of the creation and maintenance of the culture.

The people of Toronto are urban by nature. By location. However, in the spirit of the culture is strongly based on African and Caribbean traditions and musical influences. Perhaps the "black" culture is more closely tied to urban culture...however, it is not mutually inclusive.

I have written the "Urban Toronto Tales" novel and short story collection predominently from a "black" perspective, only because it is the perspective that I know. One of the early lessons I learned as a writer was to "write what you know" and the authenticity can not be questioned.

I know Caribbean culture, from a Canadian perspective. I know "black" culture, and the elements of growing up as a first-generation black Canadian. I am intimately connected to this experience, therefore it is the basis of what I write.

I write these stories from a place of familiarity. I write these stories from a place of passion. I write these stories from a place of love. I write these stories becuase the Canadian "urban" culture is one that I have seen develop, and grow, and begin to define itself...and I want my stories to represent the interpersonal experiences, the conversations, and the slight nuances of this culture that may not easily be captured in other mediums.

So while the music, the fashion, the entertainment, and the overall character of what it means to be "urban" Canadian continues to expand and define itself over time, my stories are a literary snapshot of what this means as a citizen of Toronto, developing alongside the culture.

There are currently 8 stories in this collection (possibly more) that each reflect a period in time. From adolescence in the early 1990's, high school in the late 1990's, college/university life in the early 2000's, and then firm adulthood, matured relationships, and career building in the late 2000's. The stories have grown with me, as I have observed the culture growing.

Reflecting our "urban" culture in a way that has not yet been captured in literature. Putting the experiences on pages, and documenting them as a part of our Canadian history. My testament to a city I love and respect, through characters that reflect the heart of the culture, and the true faces of our beloved city.

For more information about the "Urban Toronto Tales" novel and short story collection by Stacey Marie Robinson, please visit

Friday, September 9, 2011

Partnerships in Omar Tyree's "Pecking Order" and Ice Cube's "Janky Promoters"

I haven't read a good Omar Tyree book in a while, so I was glad when I discovered a copy of "Pecking Order" (2008) at my local library. Two of his previous novels, "Just Say No" (2001) and "Diary of a Groupie" (2003) are easily amongst my favourite books of all times...this one also didn't disappoint.

Overall, I found the book to be a bit too long. I loved the story, and was definitely interested in seeing what would happen to the overnight sensation, commoner-turned-celebrity promoter Ivan David...but I found that it took a long time to get to the end.

Around 500 pages in length, "Pecking Order" is a story about a California accountant who is tired of being just a regular guy. He wants to be on the VIP list. He wants to side-step the lineup at the club. He wants to ball with the ballers and begins to yearn for recognition and status in the town of San Diego where he works and resides.

After glimpsing the beautiful and intriguing Lucina Gallo outside of a local event, he is jump started into his mission to be a top-a-top man in his city.

His journey is interesting: he plans, he networks, skillfully builds relationships--and surrounded by gorgeous women, professional athletes, and the city's richest business people, he quickly rises to the top of his game.

What I love about the Omar Tyree books that I've read thus far is the element of entertainment fantasy. By reading these three novels (by no coincidence) of his over the years, I really and truly appreciate how he recreates the "inside look" into the lives of the rich and famous. It's fascinating to me in real life...and fasinating to me in fiction as well.

However...and this is a big much as I enjoyed the book, a part of me was waiting for at least a tiny glimpse of reality. As Ivan David rose to the top of his game, hooked up with models, and secretly yearned for his business partner Lucina...I kind of expected at least something to go wrong. I mean...isn't that how stories go? There's a rise...maybe a little fall...a bit of redemption, and then inevitably a lesson learned or some relief/redemption at the end?

Not this story. Ivan got bigger and better, his website blew up to a multi-million dollar corporation. Even situations with females didn't turn out as disastrous as they could have (and should have!)...and in the end, well, Ivan is on top of the world.

Everyone loves a happy ending, but something about the constant success, and consistent ease with which Ivan's success came proved to be a little bit disappointing almost.

Furthermore, I didn't even really like Ivan. He got cocky, he hardly showed any sentimental moments that made me trust and believe in his integrity...he just continued to be a hard ass business man with a brilliance for numbers and accounting. And I guess that's why he became the face of San Diego...and not just another accountant stuck behind a cubicle, wishing for "more" of out life.

Nonetheless, it was a great read, and I truly did need to get to the end of that book (desperately) to see if Ivan would fail. But he didn't. And he even got the girl. No problem. Easy stuff.

A funny contrast was Ice Cube's movie "Janky Promoters" (2009) that I happened to watch while in the middle of reading "Pecking Order." HORRIBLE movie, but because of Ice Cube's fine azz and the cutie Young Jeezy...I watched it from beginning to end.

I know the first time I saw Cube in "Friday" I thought it was also some stupid s***....and then it turned out to be one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen when I caught it the second, third, (twentieth...) time. "Janky Promoters"...not likely. I had a few chuckles, but overall it was pretty dumb and it will not be on repeat.

But because of my entertainment selections, promoters have been on my mind hard. What does it take to make it as a promoter? What does it take to be a respected business person? And both "Pecking Order" and "Janky Promoters" really made it evident. At the core of both stories was one thing: a partnership.

The partnership between Ice Cube (Russell Redds) and Mike Epps (Jellyroll) was a joke. There was no trust, bad communication, and a complete lack of knowledge and experience. But with the partnership between Ivan David and Lucina Gallo, there was great judgement, sharing of strategies, and a loyalty that couldn't be shaken.

So no huge life lessons or light-bulb "ah ha" moments from either, but I really did love the strength of the partnership between Ivan and Lucina in the book and felt that it was the most powerful message of the text. Despite the money, the status, the yachts and luxury cars, partying with celebs, and taking over the city...the one thing that felt satisfying throughout was that when all was said and done, Ivan had maintained a solid relationship with Lucina.

If nothing else, that was inspiring. Because as we saw with Russell Redds and Mike Epps, having the right people on your team really does determine how well you are going to do in life sometimes, and even how quickly and efficiently you are going to do it.

So Redds and Jelly got Young Jeezy to perform...Ivan and Lucina got a house in the hills, and the partnerships proved to be the real prize in the end after all the fiascos and plotting that it took to get these promoters to a pleasureable plateau.

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