Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hip Hop Documentary: Ice T & A Tribe Called Quest

This week I was fortunate to be able to watch two really interesting hip hop documentaries. The first being "Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" directed by Michael Rapaport, and the second was "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap" directed by legendary hip hop artist Ice T. Both easily kept my attention from beginning to end, and gave me a mini-refresher on the importance of remembering your roots, and also how powerful this culture was and continues to be.

Surprisingly, I only found out about these movies through a random Netflix browse, although I wish I had caught them in the theatre with the extra audio boost and big screen. This could be because I live in Canada and they were on limited release...or it could be because they weren't heavily marketed. Nonetheless, it was great to see the stories being told, and re-told, and great to take the familiar stroll down musical memory lane with the artists I have grown to love over the decades.

"Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest"
was released in 2011. Directed by actor Michael Rapaport, I found this to be a solid story of the journey of Tribe from their beginnings in Queens, NY--and very informative about the details of their coming together...and near falling apart as of late.

I consider myself to be a fan of Tribe, and a fan of hip hop in general. However, while I wouldn't go so far as to classify myself as a hip hop HEAD, there were probably details of their story that are well known to others, but were new and interesting to me. Nonetheless, I loved the story about how they formed as a group, how their unique style and content started a movement along with The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul.

I was in awe watching the old footage, hearing the old beats, and literally being taken back to the 1990s when this music was filled with so much SOUL. I could feel the hip hop in this my skin. I could feel the newness of what Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, and Jarobi were doing. I was getting excited as they told the old story, and my heart reminisced along with them because I know that their albums provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and teenage years.

A Tribe Called Quest is without a doubt one of my favourite hip hop groups of all times. I must have listened to my "Midnight Maurauders" cassette about a zillion times back in 1993/1994. I felt these guys. And I loved Q-Tip, because even without the other members, he still carried the essence of positive movement, and self-knowledge...and good times.

What I found the most interesting about this documentary, despite the awesome vintage footage, the banging soundtrack, and the story itself...was the rift that emerged between Q-Tip and Phife. I didn't know Phife was ill. I didn't know why the group broke up when they did. Again, these were details that I wasn't aware of with time...but were all clarified in the movie.

Testimonies and reflections by other hip hop experts like Quest Love, Angie Martinez, the late Chris Lighty, Ludacris, DJ Red Alert, and Pete Rock (to name a few) also added great context and authenticity to the story.

It was fascinating to watch the back-and-forth between the two childhood friends, hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and joint passions gone awry. Like any other family...they had their differences, and it caused tension for those around them. I admired the stability of Ali and Jarobi throughout the journey because despite what was going on between the two MCs...they kept their cool and were down for the team.

Tough to see Phife battle his issues with diabetes, but heartwarming when his wife stepped in to give him her kidney. Again, a part of the story I never would have known...but it makes the essence of the group and what they represent to hip hop culture as a whole that much more powerful.

When Tribe reunited for the Rock The Bells tour, I could feel the relief of fans everywhere, and the magic coming alive again to see them back on stage again. There are few moments in musical history, and combinations, and chemistries that make sense...but this is just one of them. And while Q-Tip is still a great solo artist, there is nothing like the combination of the group that brings nostalgia and true musical appreciation.

I think Michael Rapaport did an awesome job telling this story, infusing the music, the images, the footage, and the narration and creating an inspiring story about a group of friends who came from simple beginnings, and created this powerful force in hip hop. To this day, I don't think there are many (if any) hip hop groups who have emerged with the same influence and tangible STYLE that Tribe had. From the Kente-cloth prints and African medallions, to the pace of their flow and feel-good cadence, this documentary was a great tribute to a legendary band...and hopefully a reminder to the guys in the group that they are an amazing force when they work as a unit.

Now, the Ice T documentary took on a different tone because it was taking a look at many hip hop artists, and taking brief moments from their journey to tell his story in "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap." Released this year (again, who knew?), the movie features hip hop pioneers like Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, Afrika Bambaataa, Doug E Fresh, Ice Cube, Common, Nas, Snoop, MC Lyte and Salt 'N Pepa, and newer cats on the scene like Kanye, Eminem, and Mos Def. Interestingly enough, the artists don't get much "newer" than the latter...and also interesting, that most of the important voices were accounted for, but there was no mention or representation from Jay-Z.

Ice T is as old school as it gets, so I can see that his allegiance was to telling the stories of his immediate peers: the guys he came up with, and the obvious legends of the genre. Melle Mel and KRS-1, Kool Keith, and Run DMC amongst the others: he made sure to pay natural hommage to those who crafted the artform from day one.

His focus was to take a look at the art form of hip hop: the creative process, stories of inspiration, and general reflections on how the artists became who they were. Most gave a freestyle or an a capella rendition of one of their tracks, or the songs of one of their peers. The interviews were laid-back, often taken in the artist's home studio or home town, which was also an interesting feature.

It was great to see most of them in their natural element, comfortably discussing what hip hop meant to them, and what their predecessors instilled in their style. The presence of Ice T in the interviews was consistent, and the conversational tone of the film carried through as he told his own stories, shared laughs with his peers, and reflected on the journey along with them.

Ice T's direction included many aerial shots of New York City, LA, Detroit, or wherever he happened to be interviewing his subjects. The visuals were all current, with no throwback footage or soundtracks, which added to the movie's real-time authenticity. I must say, the gentleman and ladies all aged AMAZING...and it made me almost proud to see such a solid body of representatives from the genre.

The two documentaries definitely had their distinct styles. While the Tribe documentary had a definite narrative and chronological progression in story, the Ice T documentary was more impromptu, and less structured in theme. For me to scrutinize their cinemetography and directorial styles would be to take away from the main points of both films that I was looking for on an entertainment (not an analytical) level: that hip hop is a powerful force, and that it's legends and griots can not--and should not--be forgotten nor taken for granted.

What amazed me most was the level of knowledge, of artistic genuis, and the power of influence from Ice T, Tribe, and the many artists who participated in the creation of these films. I was so impressed by the art of hip hop, what it was, and how strong it's influence is today. I loved to listen to the great minds speak, and loved to see that the origin of hip hop was so intellectually charged.

I also loved the unique voices, intonations, and the one-of-a-kind characters that hip hop produced. It made me realize that while today's hip hop artists have their own individuality, there was SUCH a distinct essence to the original hip hop artists. Their voices alone! Hearing Big Daddy Kane or Q-Tip SPEAK, hearing Ice T SPEAK, hearing MC Lyte, and Common, and Chuck D, and Phife...these were voices that you will never forget because they OWNED their art. They owned their craft to the fullest: no gimmicks.

I don't know what it says about the hip hop artists of the past decade, because I didn't hear anyone utter anything about Weezy, Jeezy, T.I., Rick Ross, or any of the other money-makers that are taking the industry by storm right now...but I do know that it made me feel so relieved that I grew up in the 80s/90s and was able to experience the coming-of-age of hip hop, feel the transitions in styles and grooves, and really enjoy what it the moment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Childhood Joy & The Bieber Factor

It's been a sad week for children. Thinking about children, remembering being a child, thinking about parenthood, and just worrying about the future in general. The Sandy Hook Elementary School incident in Newtown, Connecticut has people around the globe thinking the same thing: why?

Childhood is supposed to be a protected time. A time for joy, for laughter, for friendship, and and warmth, and pleasantries. Not everyone is blessed to have a problem-free childhood, but the one thing that we can count on is innocence. If nothing else...your childhood is protected by an innocence and a hopefulness, truly because you don't know any better!

So thinking about those children who perished, and those who had to witness the murders of their classmates, and hear the destruction of their peers, and live through the heartbreak of their community and neighbours is nothing short of devastating.

Thinking about the innocence and hopefulness that was snatched away from these children is definitely almost too sad to bear. It's a reality that no one (of any age) should have to live through...yet it's even more difficult to comprehend when you think about a child having to understand the magnitude of such a horror.

It's terrible, to say the least.

While saturating myself in CNN and other news coverage of the Newtown situation for the past few days (while also home sick and stuck in bed for the most part), I decided to take a Netflix break and watch a movie or two. I passed by Justin Bieber's 2011 documentary "Never Say Never" and decided to take it in.

I had been thinking about children all weekend, and the simple pleasures that made them happy: "she liked the colour purple"...or "she liked to draw" were phrases that Anderson, Piers, Soledad and Blitzer and them were quoting throughout the day. In their short lives, these children were in love with such simple pleasures. Colours made them happy. Toys made them happy.

We know the feeling. We were all there once.

And so I watched Justin Bieber's journey from he was an infant, until his first show at Madison Square Garden...and I can't lie, it was really really interesting for a few reasons. Number one: that kid is really talented! He can sing, he plays a few instruments (well), and he worked hard before he became the scream-inducing adolescent heart throb we see today. Number two: his family support, and the team around him really helped to shape his character, which appears to be really pleasant and humble. Number three: it reminded me that you can ..."Find out what's possible if you never give up." as the movie's tag line says. It was inspiring for me as a grown woman...and definitely inspiring for the 9-year-old girls who probably packed the theatre on opening day in February of 2011 to catch the movie on the big screeen.

I'm no stranger to mass hysteria and poster-making at concerts, believe me. As early as the 5th grade I was a hardcore New Kids on the Block Fan. There wasn't an album I didn't have, a concert I didn't attend, and a poster of Danny Wood I didn't have up on my bedroom wall. I was all about that life.

It was about 1988 to about 1991 (5th through 7th grade) and I allowed myself to be lost in the whirlwind of excitment that came along with being a super fan. Looking back, I can remember feeling shame at times (being a "black girl" NKOTB fan, for starters...having people classify me--an otherwise mature and responsible young lady--as a foolish teenybopper), and I can remember getting older and approaching the 8th grade and feeling guilty for still caring about what they were up to. I was cool listening to Black Sheep, Chubb Rock, the UMCs, Salt N Pepa, and LL Cool J...but I was embarassed for being a New Kids supporter!

But I can still remember the FEELING. And when I watched lil Bieber going through his career motions, and making girls cry, and dance, and sing, and have the experience of a lifetime every time they saw his face or heard his voice...I remembered how great it felt to be happy in that moment.

As a child, it doesn't take much to make your day a good one. It doesn't take a lot of money, or a lot of planning, or structure...but sometimes it's just one simple thing, song, or group that can bring you that FEELING of safety, of happiness, and just uncontrollable joy.

The Bieber Factor. It all made so much sense to me when I watched him. The power of childhood, and the power of innocence. The simplicity...and yet how easily that simplicity can be completely complicated and ruined.

Murder. Assault rifles. Substance abuse. Neglect. Abandonment. Hunger. Fear. Those elements should never enter the world of a child! It's hard enough to deal with them as an adult...but as a child, if you can count on nothing's those few years of protection from the "real world" and the ugliness that it contains. If nothing else...children NEED the simplicity.

My personal New Kids on the Block era was magical. I can't front. When I look back at those years, I remember nothing but pleasantries. Making new friends (other fans via pen pals around the world, some of whom I still keep in touch with!), experiencing elaborate concerts, and being a part of something bigger than my world. It was a movement, and at the time it was a few protected years of good memories, what we believed to be fantastic music, and the ability to love something and have faith in something that would never disappoint you.

I'm glad I have those childhood/adolescent memories. Because as we all know, after the 8th grade and into high school and beyond...shit gets a little bit complicated. People get complicated, and layer by layer, we start to see the world, our families, our "society," and all of the intricacies, flaws, and confusions that accompany life.

I'm glad I had Joe, Donnie, Danny, Jon, and Jordan (yeah, I still remember their names!) just like I'm glad the little girls of today have Justin Bieber. If he makes them HAPPY, then so be it. Because guess what...there is a community of children in Newtown who might not remember what happiness feels like for a good while. And there are children in Chicago, or in the West Indies, and in Toronto that also may not have the opportunity to know what it feels like to scream with joy and cry tears of extreme happiness over complete foolishness! They may never have a chance to be so carefree to be classified as a teenybopper. They might have other things to worry about.

So if they can have it...let them have it. Let them have the fanfare!

Back in 2008, one of my old-school girl friends called me up to see if I wanted to check out the New Kids on the Block "reunion" tour. Yes, I'm a grown ass woman...and yes, I was totally down for the movement. No second thoughts.

Months later, we met up at the ACC with about 18,000 other grown ass women...and to my surprise, I wasn't the only adult who had paid $50 for my ticket. I can't even lie...the atmosphere was so ridiculously pleasant and nostalgic that it warmed my soul. And what I loved most, was seeing the other 30-something-year-old females toting their young daughters along with them for the experience. They wanted to bring them along back to re-live those "magical" New Kids moment with their young Bieber fans.

So pleasant.

So there we were: 18,000 grown ass women singing out loud to our old favourites like fools, and grooving to the memories of year's past. It was the first stop of their 30+ city North American tour where venues like Madison Square Garden in NYC, the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, and Mandalay Bay in Vegas were being sold out. It wasn't just the crazy ladies in Toronto taking a stroll down memory lane. It was women everywhere! Mothers! Wives! Professionals! Black women too (I wasn't alone)!! Plenty of them.

Cheesy, possibly, but 100% genuine for sure. I FELT the power of that moment. Coming together as adults, and going back in time 20 years to a place where we were all resided in an innocent musical bliss simply by watching them boys dance, and hearing them boys swoon.

So low Bieber. Low the other young boy bands, and teen heart throbs. Let people have their fun. Let children get caught up in the moment...because even though the moment might seem like a joke, seem superficial, or un-important...sometimes we hold on to those moments of complete purity to get us through the rough times down the road.

And I'm not talking about scandalous Rihanna, or law-breaking Lindsay do have to draw the line with celebrity appreciation and obsession because it CAN be dangerous. But when it comes to something pure, and innocent, and something that helps to raise the spirit and put a smile on someone's face, it's so worth it.

Because the good times don't last forever. As we know, the innocence only lasts for so long.

I think of those children in Newtown, and I wish they could only have to wake up tomorrow, or next month, or next year, and only have to worry about loving "Justin 4eva" on their minds.

The world can be such a scary and unstable place...and it sucks to be reminded in this way. I'm praying for more good memories, good feelings, and good moments for the children of Newtown and for us all. Everywhere. We might eventually lose our childhood innocence, but we should consistently try to bring feelings of joy, love, comfort, support, and protection to the children (and adults) in our lives.

We need to save our souls. Preserve the magic. Facilitate the joy.

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Kevin Clash, The Royal Baby, & the Video Light

I love the media. It's no secret. I admittedly watch "E! News" daily to stay up with Hollywood, I watch those fabulous The Breakfast Club (Power 105.1) interviews regularly to keep up on what the hip hop and R&B world is saying, I check out TMZ online to see the breaking news, and I am awards show addict and Kardashian watcher. In short...I enjoy the worlds of music and entertainment. Immensely.

But every now and then this feeling of disgust takes over, where I look at how completely terrible the spotlight/aka the "video light" can be, and what it does to the lives of otherwise innocent people who are really just trying to achieve their goals, live their lives, and make a few dollars in the process. Every now and then I am disguted by our media-hungry "society" (of which I am obviously first in line), and feel guilty for even caring about what happens in anyone's life outside of my Toronto circle.

Like Kevin Clash. It was just a little over a month ago when I watched his documentary "Being Elmo" and was completely moved by this individual. I didn't know much about him, but automatically felt proud of him. He has a unique talent and passion, and managed to translate that into a legendary 28-year career with Sesame Street as the infamous voice/puppeter of the beloved Elmo. What a nice character, that Kevin! Someone who loved to entertain children, and someone who seemingly had such a kind heart and pure aura. UNTIL...the freakin sex scandals broke out. WTF??

I literally knew nothing but nothing about this guy...and so it was a shock to my entertainment soul to like him so only days later find out that these young men were alleging that he messed with them when they were underage.

Gay, straight. Whatever. But when the underage talk starts, it becomes really really unfortunate. And equally unfortunate is that this instant media spectacle will forever taint Kevin Clash's otherwise brilliant career and legacy. In just a matter of days, one (or three) desperate, fame-seeking "models," and so ends the career of a talented man.

Yeah, I'm disappointed that Kevin Clash didn't have better judgement (IF the allegations are true), especially given his public profile AND the sensitive nature of his work (the education and entertainment of a nation's children). But I'm also disappointed that after years of knowing that the situation was potentially not right, that the victims waited until now, essentially the height of Kevin's career to break the news.

It's a tough call with victims and manipulation and broadcasting the news and the timing of it all. I don't doubt that it was hard for the younger men to air their business like that. BUT, I do think there is a way to go about things that wouldn't require the public embarassment on either end, and a personal resolution of the problem. Not to take sides, but something can definitely be said for discretion...especially since the allegations are years old, and that Kevin, Sesame Street, and children EVERYWHERE could potentially be influenced by this adult story.

Bad taste all around. And it's very sad.

Another unfortunate situation, this Royal Baby. I've never been a Royal Watcher, or someone who followed the monarchy aside from common news reports, so to hear about Kate's pregnancy was kind of a non-event for me. What did sadden me was that she was forced to release the news of her pregnancy before she hit the comfortable 3 month mark that most women swear by. It's sad that even just as a regular-ass woman, that her body, her personal clock, and her privacy were instantly shared with the world (in the worst way) just because of nosiness and spectacle.

Yes, great to be royalty. She knew what she was getting into when she married Prince William. But so terrible that even the most precious joys and personal comforts of womanhood were robbed from her. And now she's up for at least 7 months of complete and excessive speculation, violation, and stress just because she so happens to be doing something that women everywhere have always been doing.

Again, she knew what she signed up for...but it's sad. Sad that their lives are SUCH a ridiculous fiasco. Sad that Princess Diana lost her life because of the same fiasco. AND EVEN incredibly TERRIBLE that the nurse at the hospital who answered the phone of those Australian prank-calling DJs has now supposedly taken her own life?!

I can't.

When I heard that news yesterday, my heart literally hurt. I thought about the pressure, the disappointment, and the shame this poor nurse must have felt as a result of innocently answering a phone call. I thought about how she thought the lives and protection of the Royals was more important that her own life, and it just hurt.

So Kate had morning sickness and was ill. Nothing too secret or invasive. But for whatever reason, this nurse (Jacintha Saldanha) thought it would be easier to die, than to forever face life as "the nurse who picked up the phone."

Sad. Sad. Sad.

Another annoying (yet fabulous) tool of media addicts and public folk...Twitter. I love it because you stay up-to-de-times in sports, local news, international news, entertainment, music, and especially for the real-time just a matter of minutes. It's great. A wonderful way to keep updated, and a quick check.

It is so extremely abused though, if put in the wrong hands! For example, Rob Kardashian this past week. What a fool! Airing his laundry in 140 characters, throwing his ex-girl Rita Ora (who I still don't fully know about or understand...what does she do?) under the bus, and doing so in a manner that only made him look bad.

Heartbreak: I get it. But I just had to shake my head when I read what was going on, and how in another 2 weeks (if not already) he's going to feel extreeeeeemely stupid for wearing his emotions like a 12 year old. Love hurts: I get it. But it sucks to have to let errrybody know your business, and the intimate details (true or false) of other people in your life.

Whether you have 20 followers or 2 million, Twitter is a dangerous ass tool. Must be used with caution. Big time.

Speaking of love and heartbreak on Twitter...can someone tell Rihanna and Chris Brown to calm the f*** down with the picture posting already? I can't watch. Truly. If they want to be in a relationship, all the power to them. I don't have a strong opinion either way on what they want to do with their lives. They're young. They're rich. They're talented. The've got the world at their fingertips. They can either turn their story into a powerful legacy and redemption story by surviving the odds, and making great music together and sustaining awesome careers long until their 70s...or they can take this crazy love affair into a tragic story.


Even as a grown woman, I love Rihanna's music. It's fun, it makes me feel good, and I can dance to it. Good stuff. I don't care if she wants to go back to her abuser. She's like 23. Of course she'll make foolish decisions...she's only human. BUT DAMN. They don't have to flaunt it, and get boasie about it, because if this goes sour again...what a backside!! It will be a shame of extreme proportions.

Discretion, folks. Discretion.

And how can you be discreet if your entire livelihood is built on you being in the public eye? How can you be humble, and private, and live your life when so many millions of people are so interested in your every move? Either to profit from it, to exploit it, or to make a mockery of it?

That "Video Light" is a dangerous thing. That fame, that money, that power, that status...everything about it comes with a price, if not executed correctly. Show business is a funny thing, but I guess that's what makes it interesting! You have those who navigate it with class, with dignity, and quietly make their millions and build their empires, and raise their families over the decades and you don't even know anything aside from their work. Some are masters at just doing their jobs, doing what they love, doing it quietly, and doing it gracefully.

And then there's those who truly just go "YOLO," do what they wanna do with no regard for consequences, backlash, or potential scandal. Living life in the moment and letting things fall as they may.

That's the biz, I suppose. As much as I love it, and enjoy it, and entertain myself with it has also given me a headache this afternoon as I ask myself if any of it is worth it?! It's such a fine line between huge success and all of the potential downfalls...and the fear of the other extreme: being irrelevant/mediocre/etc.

I love the media...I just fear it's destructive powers.

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

Monday, December 3, 2012

An Annotated Introduction to Alicia Keys' "Girl On Fire" Album

I'm already a week late. Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire" album was released last Tuesday, November 27, yet I just heard it for the first time last night. I usually like to catch the albums of my favourite artists hot-off-the-press, but was glad that I had my first listen to it the way I did.

I stumbled upon the video on YouTube: "Alicia Keys Premieres 'Girl On Fire' with Live G+ Hangout," and was locked in for a solid two hours at the unique in-studio listening session that was live streamed by Google on November 20th.

Brilliant. While I would have really enjoyed catching the event in the moment, I was still pleased to be able to get the track-by-track breakdown from Ms. Keys herself as she sat in her New York studio, surrounded by friends, co-collaborators, and international online attendees (including ultra-sultry soul brothers, Maxwell and Miguel) to go through each song and take her fans watching online through the album's journey.

It was like watching the commentary version of your favourite DVD...before you've even watched the movie. And while it's great to find out the behind-the-scenes bloopers, why certain shots were chosen, and the inside scoop of other anecdotes of  films on screen...I found it so fabulous to go through the same process for a musical recording. In fact, I think it was great that I was introduced to the album this way because I will be able to mentally refer to the context, the rationale, and the process behind that track. It can only make my listening experience of this album that much richer, going forward.

What I like about this album (which is what I like about all of Alicia Keys' albums) is the emotional journey through sound and lyrics. From her first album in 2001 to this album, over ten years later, you can hear the musical growth, vocal growth, and the mental growth of Alicia as a woman and an artist. And as a fan and a woman in her age group, there are so many paralells that can be drawn from her compositions that make the musical experience even that more personal.

As a pianist...I can't wait to get my hands on the piano book version of the album, which is also an important part of my experience as a supporter of her career: being able to sit at my own piano, and play the songs back note-for-note and enjoy another level of fulfillment from her compositions.

I've got em all. CDs. Piano books. So this process for me is almost ritualistic at this point, and filled with gems that I'll always love to play: Songs in A Minor (2001) - Pretty notes, simple pleas..."Falling" and "A Woman's Worth" are two of my favourites to play from this album. The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003) - Full of emotional..."Diary" and "If I Ain't Got You" are my piano faves here. As I Am (2007) - Ooh, what was better than "Like You'll Never See Me Again?" classic! The Element of Freedom (2009) - This album had great energy with "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and the wonderful broken down version of "Empire State of Mind," not to mention "Unthinkable." Great album.

Girl on Fire (2012) - Now I've only technically listened to each song once or twice, but my general impression of the album at this early stage of listening is that it's right up there with the others. In fact, there were pieces of "old" Alicia that I heard on a few songs. And by "old" Alicia, I mean the young Alicia and her piano ala Falling. Simplicity. Beautiful lyrics. Rich soul-tugging chords. Clear vocals. There was something about this album that made me feel the essence of the Alicia Keys that I love: the pianist.

(1) DE NOVO ADAGIO - What's an Alicia Keys album without the classic piano interlude? I like this idea as an introduction, because it ensures thaty ou remember her roots as a pianist, and the foundation of her musical creations.

(2) BRAND NEW ME - Love love love the lyrics to this song, and it's the kind of track that many will be able to relate to on a personal level. This to me is classic Alicia Keys...she is always able to sing the right songs for the right moments, and I think this is the perfect moment for this song to become a hit because of the era in which it exists. It reinforces her maturity, it explains her strength of character, and also lyrically sets her a part as an artist that is so in tune with her own self, that she is celebrating it. As a personal testament, and a great message to others...this song is a guaranteed hit.

(3) WHEN IT'S ALL OVER - This song has a nice groove to it, it's funky, and has great drums and an underground house feel to it. It was produced by Jamie XX (who also produced "Take Care" for Drake) and has an awesome bounce to it.

(4) LISTEN TO YOUR HEART - A mellow track, produced with Rodney Jerkins, it reminds me of the kind of song you play on a summer evening, taking a slow drive and enjoying the air. Breathing. Living. Nice vibe.

(5) NEW DAY - This single, although I've heard it many time already, still hasn't moved me. It's classic Alicia empowerment song, built on a heavy beat. A feel-good song, but actually one of my least favourites. Not because it's terrible, but because it could have been sung by any artist at any time...

(6) GIRL ON FIRE - Loved this song instantly. Love the heavy beat. Love the lyrics. Love everything about it. Had it on repeat for hours at a time one day without even minding. It makes me feel good. It's inspiring. Very fitting for this stage in her career, as Alicia continues to get hotter as an artist an icon. Unstoppable!

(7) FIRE WE MAKE - Hello Maxwell. How can you go wrong with the two of them on any track. Fabulousness. Beautiful. A definite baby-maker in the making.

(8) TEARS ALWAYS WIN - This song has an old soul, not surprisingly because it was co-written by Bruno Mars who is excellent at transcending time and making great new music with an old spirit. Pleasant song...almost forgettable, but just a sleepy, nice tune.

(9) NOT EVEN THE KING - This song has awesome lyrics, really a great love song and I really enjoy the simplicity of the composition, the piano, the vocals. Really nice, and a classic song that could work in any era.

(10) THAT'S WHEN I KNEW - This is a beautiful old-school traditional R&B song that just oozes with the sounds of co-writer Babyface. It has his classic sound that never gets old, really pretty simple and romantic lyrics, and is just waiting for a slow dance. Damn, I miss that Babyface guitar of the 90s! It could do no wrong, and still has that effect! Alicia's voice is great on this song.

(11) LIMITEDLESS - Written in Jamaica, this reggae-ish song is aright, still. Has a nice bounce to it. It may not be heavy in a dancehall setting, but with a bit of remix work can be a big tune based on the riddim and movement of it alone. I like that Alicia keeps coming back to her island roots, especially after the smash "Ghetto Story" remix with Baby Cham. you can tell that this type of flavour is authentically in her spirit. I do have a slight issue with non-Jamaicans putting on that "reggae voice" but because the song has a cool groove, it's not too distracting. It's so a few elements and influence of a few other classic reggae it's difficult not to like and appreciate the effort to make this a genuine reggae track.

(12) ONE THING - Pretty song. Soft. Nice melodies.

(13) 101 - This is the one that blew me away. I loved it within seconds, and loved that it would automatically become one of "those songs" that I'll always go to when I'm looking for that feeling. Those goosebump-inducing chords, and unpreditable jazz vocals. This song, co written by Emelie, is wonderful.

Now knowing that Emeli Sande co-wrote a few of the sweetest songs on this album, I am--needless to say--extremely curious about her work, and definitely going to look into her music soon.

Collaborations with Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, make this album really representative of the "new" soul and flavour of R&B with some of the most unique and talented singer/songwriters of the past few years (including Maxwell and Miguel). Just when you think that R&B is dying, and will never be the same or as good as times past, an album like this with contributions like theirs comes along, and reminds you that R&B may have changed...but it definitely still has the same consistent elements of soul, passion, and fire that are essential to the art form.

There are a lot of young "pop" stars out right now making great music. Music you can dance to, music that makes you feel good. Music that makes you want to sing out loud, etc. But what I really admire about Alicia Keys is that amongst all of the Twitter-scandals and media hoopla, she manages to stay true to herself--consistently--true to music at it's most pure form, and a really classy representative of her generation. I look forward to listening to this CD in my car over the next few weeks, and really being able to take in the intricacies and sensations that I probably missed in yesterday's YouTube viewing.

This is the power of music. I can already feel the inspiration that this album will continue to bring me.

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why Toronto Needs an Urban Book Festival

Kya Publishing was initially established to support the books I (Stacey Marie Robinson) have written and to provide an outlet for me to share these works with others, with the hopes of seeing Kya Publishing develop into a natural home for other urban Canadian writers who have not yet established a place within the current Canadian literary market.

I am a writer, and have been an “aspiring author” since adolescence. I had the ideas, the passion, and the determination, but was not always presented with an opportunity. The Toronto Urban Book Expo (TUBE) is my way of giving an opportunity to writers like myself, and including myself, so that we have a consistent venue to display our work, and share our art and voice with the greater society.

The importance of being a supporting voice in the Canadian urban literary and cultural community was reinforced for me when I was invited to attend a Toronto Public Library event in celebration of Black-Canadian writers in February of 2010. Through recommendation from author/scholar Dr. George Elliott Clarke and invitation from the TPL, I had the honour of sharing the stage with Dr. Clarke, legendary author Austin Clarke, contemporary writer Dalton Higgins, and another emerging writer, Yvette Trancoso, on a discussion panel about being a Black-Canadian writer.

While attending this event, I recognized that while Austin Clarke and his peers had led the movement of Caribbean- and Black-Canadian literature, it was evident through discussion and through research (or lack thereof), that the ongoing devcelopment and emergence of writers of my generation was not yet commonplace. As a "designated" representative for the “new voice” of Black-Canadian literature, I realized that I must seize the opportunity to create an environment of support, celebration, and awareness for not only my own writing, but also the writing of my peers.

In order to increase visibility for my writing and the genre of urban fiction, I have been present at numerous cultural festivals and literary events in the city of Toronto, including: AfroFest, Word on the Street, the Irie Music Festival, and University of Toronto black history month celebrations.

While support has been great at the above-mentioned events and the opportunity for communication assisted in exposure for Kya Publishing, I felt that a specified event for urban/Black-Canadian literature would be beneficial: having materials and products to share in an exclusive venue with a centralized location, and invited international authors and guests as well. Also, the fees to participate in the above-mentioned events can range from $400-600 per vendor booth (which can be pricy for an amateur writer who just wants to expose his/her work) and the visitors to the booth are not always necessarily readers or fans/aware of the urban fiction genre.

Toronto Urban Book Expo would allow for a dedicated audience, as well as decreased participation fees.

Having enjoyed the opportunities to promote arts and urban culture in Toronto, I travelled to the United States of America to investigate the structure of their literary opportunities. Due to the larger urban population and greater popularity of urban fiction, there was no surprise to find that there were already numerous urban book festivals underway in the U.S.

Since the genre of urban fiction is relatively new in the international literary world, most of the festivals had only been established within the last 5 years. Of the biggest urban books festivals was the National Black Book Festival (NBBF), in Houston, Texas. I attended this festival in May of 2010 as a vendor. The NBBF—and research and conversations with the festival’s founder, Gwen Richardson—inspired me to pursue producing a similar event in Toronto. After attending and connecting with authors and urban fiction readers from across the country all under one roof, this confirmed that not only was there a huge market and support in the United States, but also that the American writers were extremely unfamiliar and under-exposed to urban-Canadian authors.

Also in May of 2010, I travelled to New York City to attend Book Expo America, the largest book trade show in North America. In the “African-American Pavilion” in particular, I was able to connect with the prominent authors and publishers that were present. Along with research, conversation, and investigation with those in attendance at the two major book festivals, as well as follow-up communication with the numerous urban fiction authors I encountered, I discovered that Toronto was the only major North American city that did not have an exclusive urban/”Black” book festival on the same scale.

A few of the festivals where urban fiction authors converge to share, sell, and celebrate their works (some, in cities much smaller and less diverse than Toronto) include:

Las Vegas Black Book Festival (Las Vegas, Nevada) – February
Baltimore Urban Book Festival (Baltimore, Maryland) – April
National Black Book Festival (Houston, Texas) – May/June
African American Book Festival (Austin, Texas) – June
Harlem Book Fair (New York City, New York) – July
Atlanta Black Book Festival (Atlanta, Georgia) – August
Los Angeles Black Book Expo – (Los Angeles, California) – August
North Carolina Black Book Festival (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) – October

While “urban” culture and Black-Canadian culture are not mutually exclusive, there is a connection between the celebration of culture and the sharing of values and experiences that can be communicated effectively to many Canadian cultures, particularly the culture of first- and second-generation Canadians who share a collective identity as urban Canadians with common experiences.

Toronto needs an urban book festival because it is so important to nurture and celebrate these experiences, and the documented voices of contemporary urban Canadians.

It is important to provide a regular opportunity for urban writers to share their books, develop a readership, and network with their peers in order to see this genre grow and develop in Canada as it has in other parts of the continent.

Toronto needs TUBE because the voices of contemporary urban-Canadians and their experiences need to be documented and recognized in the greater literary community. Kya Publishing is an ideal presenter of this type of festival because for the past few years we have been one of the only voices of "urban fiction" in Ontario, and have thus far developed the passion, education, and expertise to ensure the growth of the related urban cultural infrastructure through opportunity and visibility.

 Kya Publishing’s mission is to give Canadian urban authors an opportunity to share their work while promoting, documenting, and developing urban Canadian culture. The vision of the Toronto Urban Book Expo is to introduce Canadian and international readers to the Canadian urban fiction literary market, and to support the growth of this culture through stories and opportunity.