Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kanye West IS a Genius. I Swear.

He's nuts! Kanye West is absolutely nuts, and I swear that's why I like the brother.

Last night I attended the last stop on his Yeezus tour, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and I am still on a bit of a musical high. It was a two and a half hour show...just Kanye. Kendrick was about 45 minutes on his own from 7:30pm to 8:15ish...and Kanye rocked the stage from 9:00pm straight to like 11:30pm. Madness.

I admit...when I first listened to the Yeezus album I was hella confused (see previous blog http://www.staceymarierobinson.blogspot.ca/2013/07/yeezus-kanye-west-huh.html). I didn't get it. I didn't like it. I bought the album as a dedicated fan...but as a music lover, I wasn't impressed.

Until last night.

Put in the appropriate context, with a bit of breathing room and media referencing, it all made perfect sense. I read articles, and I think it was his interview on the Breakfast Club (Power 105.1) that made me kinda "get" Kanye just a little bit more, at this particular stage in his career.

I am a huge Kanye fan, so I will always give him the benefit of the doubt, based on his previous projects and musical talent alone. I love his past production (don't we all?), and he's obviously got hits on top of hits that still make us smile.

I was disappointed with the initial cancellation of the November 13 concert in Toronto, but glad I didn't give in and refund my tickets, and stuck around for the rescheduled show on December 23. The ice storm and blackouts didn't keep anyone away...the house was full. Both nights, apparently.

Kendrick Lamar opened, and was fab. I'm new to his music but definitely can appreciate his talent and most importantly, his intellect. There's something about his music that reminds me of a time when I used to really love and appreciate hip hop...mid 90s when the music FELT good. Kendrick reminds me of that period in musical time. I actually appreciate his lyrics, which is more than I can say the many of the other rappers that I love and enjoy...but don't necessarily respect as much.

But Kanye took to the show to another level. The set design alone was spectacular, the snowy mountain, accompanied by the essence-of-naked female backup "dancers"/walkers...the much talked about digital screen (that was damaged mid-tour, causing the postponed dates), and then there were the masks.

The damn masks. It took about two hours for Kanye to take off his masks, but when he finally revealed his face the place turnt up!!!

Lemme backtrack.

It was a musical journey. Again, I wasn't as familiar with the album as the tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults filling up the venue (truuuust me, I'm pretty sure we were among the oldest people there)! But the music was the perfect accompaniment to the story being told. The quotations on the screen. The smoke. The eerie-ness. The solemn faces of the women (behind nylon masks), and Kanye rapping from behind his own jeweled face-covers.

I'm too lazy to try to pinpoint and analyze exactly what his artistic vision was. It is not that serious. I'm sure there was a deeper message about God, and spirituality, and image, and the soul, and going on a journey...blah blah blah. I'll read all about it on the internet later on (thanks to the non-lazy bloggers who I'm sure have already gone to great lengths to dissect this man), and I'm sure I'll appreciate the show even more when I've fully taken in the concepts.

But on a surface level, it was a very spiritual show. It felt spiritual...and it felt sacrilegious all in one. There were moments when the lady-dancer/walkers hoisted Kanye in the air to his chants of "I Am A God"...and then there was the moment when Jesus appeared (and Kanye was all, "Hi, White Jesus!") and so many crosses, and angels, and demons, and all kinds of Christian religious imagery going on. If I was the easily-offended type, I would have surely been offended.

I'm sure there are plenty Christians out there who think Kanye crossed the line. Buuuut, I'll give him the artistic pass and work with it. I'm sure the Illuminati conspiracy theorists are having a field day with this one as well.

So there was Kanye-lifting and crosses waving, Kanye's face covered in various beaded masks, and Kanye laying on the ground, and the whole time I couldn't help but think: there is no other rapper that would do this, except for Kanye. Kendrick came out and rapped, just as Jay-Z and them usually do...same shit. They come out, they rap, they talk a bit, they dance a bit, and they keep it moving.

This is what makes me realize that yes, Kanye is a musical genius. Yes, he shouldn't be the one to remind us of this (constantly), but the brother has a point. He is definitely pushing boundaries, and breaking barriers, and experimenting with sounds, and images, and ideas, and he is definitely a bit of a musical mastermind.

If his music was horrible, I wouldn't give him the honour. But because he has consistently come out with great tracks, and great concepts, and fabulous albums, and cutting-edge music videos and interpretations of his music...I'll work with it.

He kept talking about 2014, and 2024 in his obligatory Kanye-concert-rant. This particular rant wasn't very YouTube-worthy (and I did step away for a bathroom break for a bit of it), but I realize his vision. He keeps telling us to be patient, and to trust his vision...I see what he means. I understand that in 2013, listening to him rant about Nike and the Grammy's, and whatever's on his mind seems annoying and irrelevant. He said he won't have any more negative things to say in 2014.

I truly do believe that history will tell the story better. When we look back, he will definitely be iconic in the sense that he was doing something and saying something that many artists weren't bothering with.

One particularly annoying concert-heckler kept yelling at Kanye to "shut up and play the music" but I believe that his ranting, and his arrogant, and his craziness is all a part of the packaging that makes this man interesting. Of course he knows he's being irritating...how can he not know?! Of course he knows that he may be perceived like a lunatic...but the fact that he's willing to take that risk makes me like him event more.

He is so arrogant that he doesn't even care that in his arrogant he looks like a fool. He's so foolish that you can't help but almost love him because it's borderline endearing. I like the brother, I really do.

So the album, in the context of the concert, really grew on me. I dusted it off and listened to its this morning, and the memory of the concert visual, and the new storyline I can add to the musical journey...the album has new life for me. And not just Bound 2, and Blood on the Leaves. It's all sounding all right to me.

I appreciate his creative energy, and the team he put together. I've been to a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT of concerts. I've seen damn near everyone live, but this actually ranks in my top 5 (amongst Prince, Janet Jackson, and even Michael Jackson)...and I don't say it often, but there was a point in the night where I nodded my head and said, now this is a motherf*ckin SHOW!

And boy was I happy to see ol Drake come out, and perform alongside his idol, and also perform his new hit "All Me". That was Toronto wonderfulness personified. The crowd was soo turnt up.

It was the climax of the night, and also helped the now unveiled Kanye get back in the right old "hop hop" zone (no angels or demons around) and give us the classics like "All of the Lights" and "Stronger" and the songs I actually knew the words to. Songs with melodies, you know.

So God bless Kanye, in all his ridiculousness. His vision is misunderstood, but I believe time will tell the true story. And even if he's just a publicity addict (like his fiancĂ© Kim) and really misguided in his efforts to have everyone love him (as he declared a few times)...I will have still appreciated watching the spectacle of Mr. West as he navigates the music industry, and does a hell of a job keeping me captivated.

I live for this stuff. I swear. Fabulousness. And sooo much fun!

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wade in the Water, Trayvon

It hurts.

So many people are suffering as a result of verdict of the George Zimmerman murder trial. Not guilty. He gets to walk free, and Trayvon Martin's young life is cut short at the age of 17.

We all know the story. He was walking home, wearing a hoodie, eating some Skittles, drinking some ice tea, and Zimmerman perceived him to be a threat. He pursued him. He fought with him. He murdered him. The rest is up for interpretation, and will be speculated and discussed for weeks or months...or until another huge national news story breaks.

The jury seemed to believe that there was not enough evidence to charge Zimmerman...they did what they thought was the best thing, and let him go home to his wife and continue his life. They trusted his version of the story.

I feel absolutely terrible for Travyon's family. And I feel terrible for the effect this will have on the psyche of people everywhere. Not just the blacks, but those who feel the pain and injustice of this situation to their core.

It hurts.

It's hard to explain HOW it hurts, and WHY it hurts. I know many people are able to brush it off as "just another media event" or there are people that strongly believe that justice was served. And I'm sure intellectually they have what they think are valid reasons as to why there is nothing here to get riled up about. I'm sure many people think that there's been an over-reaction to this story, and that we should move on with life.

But there's a FEELING you get when you know something ain't right. When you live in black skin, and are made aware of your race even on the rarest of occasions, you still can't help but FEEL incidents like this to your core. You know the feeling. You've been there before. You can't explain it, and no jury would believe it, but the FEELING is tangible.

"Who feels it, knows it..." ...that quote stuck in my mind. Because unless you know what it feels like first hand...you may not know. Unless you have ever FELT your race, or FELT discrimination or prejudice, or FELT the pain of stereotyping and profiling and underestimation and how easy it is to feel condescended DESPITE your inner-strength, righteousness, or intelligence...then you may not know.

I'm not one to go on about "racism" because sometimes it seems to do more harm than good to even openly acknowledge that it exists. It feels like the "race card" even when it isn't. It feels like trying to convince someone of something that they are certain is a fantasy. So often racism is something that we internalize, and we acknowledge, and we know...but it's something that is difficult to seek sympathy on. So many of us don't bother.

They keep saying the Travyon Martin murder wasn't about race. But we know very well that had the races been reversed, that this would have been an entirely different situation. We KNOW that...but how do you explain or justify that? How do you tell a jury of all-white (and one black/hispanic) what that feels like, and the gravity of that truth?

I haven't tuned into the news much since staying glued to the television all day to hear that verdict. I couldn't bear to watch George Zimmerman's asshole brother spew ridiculousness to Piers Morgan on CNN. I just didn't want to see the smug looks on Don West and Mark O'Mara's faces as they patted themselves on the back to the media.

It was a race, a game...and the blacks lost. Again. Yeah, it sounds illogical, but that's how it FEELS. 

And you'd have to KNOW what that look on their faces did to the psyche of million of blacks around the world. It felt like a silent reminder that we will NEVER win. Yes, there's a "black President" in America right now...but I can almost guarantee that no one is comforted by this, and everyone knows that in another few years, that won't be a reality again for a good while. It's not an overt game, but it's definitely a mental one.

I'm not trying to be negative, or jump to conclusions, but I definitely felt a sense of stagnation this weekend. Hopelessness. Like years of fighting, and marching, and protesting, and praying, and speaking, and empowerment...it's still not enough. It may never be.

And then you've gotta take the argument back to the Civil Rights Movement, and back even further to slavery, and then eyes start rolling, and people start losing interest in the "old" black argument about how unfair the world is.

This morning I was thinking about the old negro spiritual "Wade in the Water," and how upon fleeing their conditions, the African-Americans would sing to keep their spirits high, and hope alive. They would send messages through lyrics, and empowerment through song. And then I thought about how we encourage one another in today's reality.

I thought about the powerful blacks in politics, music, entertainment, sports, those with lots of money, lots of influence, and lots of eyes on them. I wondered if the time had passed where it was acceptable for say a Diddy, a Jay-Z, or a Kobe Bryan to get controversial and defend their race. Was it necessary anymore? Would it happen?

The sad thing is that the leaders who are openly defiant and vocal like the NAACP, the Jesse Jackson's and the like...are often criticised for jumping on bandwagons, and often creating them. And then the Will Smith's and other powerhouses are playing their cards safely to the side, below the radar, and politely.

There's also the power of the church, and prayer, but there's a sinking feeling that makes me wonder if anything will be enough. Aside from the fools looting in the name of Trayvon in Los Angeles last night...will the protests, the speeches, the emails, the social media trends...will any of it be enough? Or will this all fade away in vain in the next month or so?

I write this because I'm frustrated. I feel hurt, but have no idea how hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination can ever be resolved. Despite the black President, despite the increase in black millionnaires and business people, educators, and decision-makers. Despite all of those great progressive changes...has anything REALLY changed?

 I don't have any conclusions or theories. But I do have this song running through my mind. It saved the slaves and brought them to freedom before...but did it really help at all? What will?

I wonder how Travyon's parents are justifying this in their minds. How are they dealing with the murder of their son NOW that they know, that the law of a country that they live in and work for, didn't think it was a crime. It hurts, because aside from the "facts" presented in the courtroom, there is a world of pain and the heavy weight of racism that won't go away. What can you do about it? Where do you start? And what makes you think that "this time" it will make a difference.

Who's that young girl dressed in red
Wade in the Water
Must be the Children that Moses led
God's gonna trouble the Water

Who's that young girl dressed in white
Wade in the Water
Must be the Children of Israeli
God's gonna trouble the Water

Who's that young girl dressed in blue
Wade in the Water
Must be Children that's coming true
God's gonna trouble the Water

You don't believe I did begin to wade in the Water
Just see the holy ghost looking for me
God's gonna trouble the Water

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mara Brock Akil's "Being Mary Jane" is Wonderful

I rarely get this feeling from TV shows...usually from books, but rarely from television. That feeling that someone has gone inside your head and communicated the exact feelings, and behaviours, and reality that is personal to you and to people close to you.

We've learned to adapt. Black women. We've learned to watch television programs like Sex and the City, and a range of other fabulous shows that definitely depict WOMEN and their thought processes in an entertaining and relatable light. But there's something so intimately different when the story is about a black woman, and being told by a black woman.

Yes, we had Girlfriends and A Different World and a variety of other programs that had black female protagonists that we could laugh and journey through life with. But it's definitely been a while.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again...you can not underestimate the power of a good story. A believable story. And a story that has the power to move you. I must say, that Mara Brock Akil has created a FABULOUS new television series, and BET is fortunate to have this as a part of their original programming.

I mean, The Game was plenty! Yes, the characters live in a world of money, privilege, and fame...but there is something so down-to-earth and INTERESTING (and funny) about the writing on that show too. The characters are real, and the emotions are real. So it's actually no surprise that Ms. Akil and her husband Salim have executive produced yet another gem.

Being Mary Jane premiered last night, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, as a 90-minute movie. And it was fabulous. It didn't take me long to get sucked into the storyline, to see the various characters in Mary Jane's life, and to get a feel for her as a woman. Played by the uber-talented Gabrielle Union, Mary Jane is clearly every woman.

There have been dozens of television shows that I've loved over the years, and each for their own various reasons. But with this show I FELT something. It was pride, mixed with recognition, mixed with happiness, and then of course it had my attention 110%, and the experience felt bigger than just the show itself.

I loved reading the Twitter responses by readers around the continent, and how everyone could relate to what they were seeing on screen. I loved the praise that Gabrielle and Mara were receiving, and re-tweeting, along with cast member like Robinne Lee. I love what it represents to them, the stars and creators...and to us, the audience.

Mara Brock Akil is a classic individual. She's had her hand in other television programs like South Central, Moesha, The Jamie Foxx Show, and Girlfriends, and obviously is in tune with the African-American experience. She has the ability to present "real life" without perpetrating negative stereotypes or embarrassing caricatures. She presents reality. And I feel like although her track record speaks for itself, we're really going to continue to see more GREAT things from her in the years to come.

As for Ms. Union, she is definitely one of my favourite actresses, and I believe it's because she is a strong woman on and off screen. More than just a "pretty face," this woman has her shit together. She's an educated woman, and she's been consistently working for the past 20 years in every movie and television show that we know and love.

What I like about her is that she's about her business, and you never really hear any gossip about her. Yes, you see her out with other Hollywood A-listers, and her boyfriend Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat...but it's always in good taste.

I love to see a woman work hard, play hard, hold her head high, and have her work speak for itself, and I believe that's what Gabrielle Union encompasses as an actress.

So it's a sure thing, as far as I'm concerned. The combination of Ms. Akil and Ms. Union...plus a dope soundtrack, great writing, and a network that desperately needs to BE this: something inspirational, and something that is positively representative of the black community. I don't doubt that women of all races can equally relate to the hard-working character of Mary Jane, as she strives to balance her work life, family life, and reconcile her relationship issues and needs.

Most importantly, this program has motivated me. Motivated me in the type of writing I'd like to do, the type of woman I'd like to be, and the power of an image and a great story. I'm really looking forward to the season, when it begins in January of 2014.

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Yeezus. Kanye West. Huh?

Kanye West's 6th album "Yeezus" was released on June 18th, 2013, and I finally picked up a copy.

I can't lie...I automatically felt like he was pulling a fast one. Putting out a CD with no cover art, no labels, no track listing, and no nothing...but a price tag and a lyrical warning label. Then I was annoyed with that big piece of orange tape at the side that is now ripped and sticky and gross, and makes my brand new blank case look old like something from 1995. Then I listened to the first track and was like...WTF?

First thoughts: is Kanye trying to prove something? That we'll still buy his album with no promotion, and have it sound like GARBAGE and still have it hit the charts? Arrogant. Over the top.

And then I realized that I had done just that. I had bought the album just because it existed, and because I'm a Kanye fan. And that even though the first few tracks sounded like hot noise, that I would still play the disc on repeat for the next week or so until I fully tried to understand his artistic genius.

This is clearly why Kanye is Kanye. Because he can be. He can be a jerk. He can autotune. He can wear skirts. Hell, he can even impregnate Kim Kardashian...and he'll still be one of the dopest rappers ever.

He wins.

Now I love Kanye, but I'm still trying to find the groove with this one. I love love LOVED "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" back in 2010 (as per my review). I LOOOOVED 2008's "808s and Heartbreak," and I also thoroughly enjoyed the 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z for "Watch the Throne." I like everything about this dude, including the fact that he's eccentric as hell...but it gives him character.

I can sense his passion. His desperation. His creativity. His confidence. His insecurity. There is something about Kanye's soul that I really really dig. Regardless.

The album...not so much. I mean, don't get me wrong. I'll listen to it UNTIL I like it, or at least tolerate it. Or worst case scenario, I'll put in on the shelf with countless others that never make the heavy-rotation of my car, and just wait until the music videos come along and make the singles a little easier to tolerate.

I listen to new albums (when I do actually purchase them, which is for a rare FEW artists)...in phases. First off, I do the general scan through and overview. Then I find my favourites, and play them on a repeat a few times to really get into the vibe of it. Surprisingly, the songs I usually love in the beginning, are usually not the same ones I love in the end after I've given the album a listen for a week or so.

Then I take it to a lyrical level, and try to hear what the artist is saying. And yes, this comes AFTER the musical level, because if I don't feel the musical element, I won't even bother with the lyrical one. After listening to the words, I try to internalize the artistic vision, and the bigger picture. What does the album represent for this artist. What are they trying to say? Is it effective?

With some artists, this can all take place very quickly. With others, it takes weeks for me to really understand wha gwan. With this particular album, I don't know if it will ever happen.

It's just weird. No matter how many times I listen to the first few tracks, I just find it creepy, scary, and downright odd. I love the reggae samples, and hearing Capleton's voice on a Kanye album was cool, but hearing it mixed in with the eerie rhythms and screams in "I Am A God"...not so cool. Loved hearing Beenie Man's voice, and other odes to Jamaicans, but in the context, it doesn't do the artists much justice other than bragging rights.

What can I say? I want to be able to glow about this album, but I really have to chalk this one up to a Kanye experiment gone terribly wrong. Kanye's all into fashion now, and Europe, and he's in love, and expanding his horizons and apparently feeling himself right now...but I just hope that the next album has something with some melodies, a little beat you can dance to, and a little bit more life. This one reeks of gloom and horror, although I don't think that was his intention.

I do enjoy Track 10, which after some quick internet research (so inconvenient to not have it right there), I learned was called "Bound 2." Something really catchy about that one. And Track 4 "New Slaves" is all right in a classic Kanye kinda way. All the rest are just a blur or hard instruments and scattered phrases.

I'll give it another week. After that, it's either I have a revelation of his continued genius and bump it for the rest of the summer...OR I use this convenient blank case to store another CD that I actually don't want to get damaged, and put ol' Yeezus on the shelf to mix in with the other label-less discs that may never hit my airwaves again.

BTW, here's the mystery track listing, that doesn't appear anywhere near the physical product:

Track 01 - ON SIGHT
Track 03 - I AM GOD
Track 04 - NEW SLAVES
Track 05  - HOLD MY LIQUOR
Track 06 - I'M IN IT
Track 08 - GUILT TRIP
Track 09 - SEND IT UP
Track 10 -BOUND 2

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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sister Souljah's "A Deeper Love Inside" ...Book Review

She done did it again.

This woman can write! Sister Souljah has created yet ANOTHER classic novel with the Porsche Santiaga Story, "A Deeper Love Inside" released in January of 2013.

Re-reading "The Coldest Winter Ever" helped to bring the characters of the Santiaga family back to the forefront of my mind. Winter, the spoiled and beautiful princess, Lexus and Mercedes, the twins and babies of the family, the stunningly gorgeous queen of the family, Lana, and of course the charming and powerful Ricky Santiaga...legend, respected drug lord, and eventually the fallen soldier who's demise is the downfall of this envied clan of Brooklyn's finest.

And then there was Porsche. Younger than Winter, older than the twins...she fell in between and was almost an oversight it seemed. Her most impactful moment in "The Coldest Winter Ever" was in the last scene, at the funeral of Lana Santiaga when through Winter's narration, we see Porsche arrive at the funeral, decked out in high-fashion, driving a Benz, and confident. She had blossomed, yet with Winter's tale we never had the opportunity to find out how or why. With Winter's finale thoughts at the end of the book, she wishes she could have warned her younger sister about the lifestyle she had chosen, assuming she has followed in her footsteps of crime, criminal associations, manipulations, and lusting after the fast life. Winter realizes that Porsche would have to learn on her own.

Naturally, with that last glimpse at Porsche, it seemed only natural that she would follow in the footsteps of her glamourous mother, who had been married to the drug don and could rival any fashion model, and her pampered sister who only allowed herself to associate with the finest things in life, and the most important people.

In the slight pause I took between re-reading "The Coldest Winter Ever" and beginning "A Deeper Love Inside" I wondered about Porsche's life, and the lessons she would learn. I originally assumed she might have travelled the same path as Winter, but then also realized that she couldn't...because THAT particular story had already been told. Winter had learned her lesson, or at least had to suffer the consequences of her poor choices. There was no way Porsche would learn the exact same lesson through the exact same circumstances.

Now many of us almost pigeonhole Sister Souljah into the category of "urban fiction" simply because "The Coldest Winter Ever" is SUCH a staple in that genre of literature. But what I've realized through the Midnight series, and now through Porsche's story is that Souljah is taking her readers away from "the hood" where it all began with the Santiaga family, and expanding our minds and experiences through different locales and cultural experiences.

Midnight was in Brooklyn for a good portion of his stories, however he also journeyed to Japan, and Korea, and allowed us to become heavily embedded in the practices and beliefs of Islam. There was nothing inherently "urban" or "hood" about Midnight other than his place of residence, and street smarts/awareness. Likewise, the story of Porsche takes us out of the neighbourhood, and into a juvenile detention centre. And to a Native reserve. The environments are different, and force us to understand and adapt to other cultures.

The "hood" and "urban" factor in these stories has now almost become an oversight, or a minor technicality. These characters are put in situations that challenge their own ideologies, and as a result, bring the reader along for their life lessons. What I like about this approach is that the character (and the reader as a result) is forced to adapt to different cultures, and adjust their own views and values in accordance with a bigger picture.

The codes of the street, or the culture, or the family are no longer enough ammunition to interact with and navigate situations. The rules of Brooklyn may not hold any weight in the detention centre, or any other centre. What I love about Porsche Santiaga is that she is the family member that was challenged to adapt to a new environment, and this is where she came of age.

Porsche. I expected her to be a snob, like Winter. I expected her to be vain, like her mother Lana. I expected her to love money, and power, and luxury, and have her way with men, and be everything that a ghetto princess would be. Like her family influences pre-determined. Due to truly unfortunate circumstances, arrests, and court-ordered separations of her family members, it was almost a saving grace that Porsche was forced into foster care, exiled into detention, and left with no choice but to raise herself, and create her own method of understanding and dealing with the world.

This was a sad story! Really sad. Because here was an abandoned little girl that really and truly did nothing to deserve the horrific circumstances and ill treatment that she received. She was forced to grow up quickly, and at times you forget that the narrator is a child...instead she comes across as a grown woman with years of wisdom and worldly knowledge. But she's a child, and she's tough as ever as a result of her environment.

Self-preservation. Throughout the entire story, Porsche is fighting. Fighting for her sanity. For her independence. For control. For understanding. She is fighting to stay alive, and her only desire is to be held by her mother, to take care of the twins, and to be in the company of Winter and her father Ricky again.

But she's alone, and her family is nowhere to be found. In fact, despite her love and longing, it is near impossible for Porsche to get in contact with them. This entire book is about Porsche's desire to reunite with her family, and be loved. Genuinely.

While in detention, Porsche obtains a great number of skills that aid in the development of her character. Never once does she rely on her beauty or talents to get by, unlike her sister Winter. Even without any particular efforts in formal education, her survival skills allow her to grow into a financially savvy business woman, her pride makes her work hard for everything she earns, and creatively plot to gain more money at all times.

She has an eating disorder, but the contradiction with the pain she is instilling on her body is that she is also a graceful dancer, built strong, and confident in her movements. This provides an interesting paradox in the book because she clings to her dancing for strength, yet often does not have the strength to do much else, collapsing regularly as a result.

Friendships gained by Porsche are rooted heavily in loyalty and awareness. Porsche only befriends those she can trust, those who can help her, and those to which she also have benefit in their lives. As her character makes these choices, it is evident that she is not playing by codes of the street, as her family once did. She is determined to build a system of support that will also help her reach her goals of uniting with her people.

There's Riot, and Suri, The Diamond Needles, and the Gutter Girls. Now I'm a fool for not realizing until the end that Suri was a manifestation of her imagination, and possible sign of her schizophrenia, but because we are so heavily rooted in her thought processes and actions, even Suri is believable, a necessary addition to the plot, and also accepted/welcomed by not only the reader, but also those closest to Porsche in the story.

The writing in this book is so detailed that no character element is left unturned. We understand the poor circumstances of the girls in the detention centre, and are able to root for the eventual success and liberation of each of these girls, despite their violence, their manipulation, and their erratic behaviours. We understand them, because the author allows us to realize that they are a product of their environments, but really and truly just fighting for their lives.

I love Sister Souljah's ability to bring you RIGHT in the location along with the characters. Walking the straight lines, on the right, at the detention centre. The girls' eventual escape and the gruesome circumstances of this risk. The beauty of the Native reserve where they find shelter and solace after their escape. The terror of the crack houses back in New York City...

The emotions created are also developed strongly as we also feel the love that Porsche has and the desperation in which she longs to be with her family. We feel the building of loyalty and friendships from the beginning, and how the young girls stay true to their promises and act with dignity and strength when it comes to supporting one another.

The emotion that is the strongest and most powerful, to the point where it's almost too painful to bear, is the love and dedication that Porsche has towards her mother, Lana. After returning to New York and discovering that she has an addition...Porsche's life continues to centre around nursing her mother back to health, and making plans to reunite her family. She desperately clings to this possibility, and it is the driving force behind all that she does, and sacrifices.

Sadly, Momma don't care about much. Winter hasn't reached out to find her. She has difficulty getting in touch with her father and the twins, since she is on the run. It is an unfortunate circumstance, to say the least, but yet the strength of this love is the essence of Porsche's journey. Unlike Winter, it's not a love for herself, instead it is an unconditional love and hope for the well being of her family members.

I love love love who Porsche becomes, as a result of this journey. She has every right to develop into a bitter, pessimistic, angry, and hurtful individual, but the opposite happens and she grows into a pure hearted and selfless woman that is able to find authentic love, build a career, and finances, and a comfortable and safe environment for herself all without compromising her dignity or family values.

After escaping from the detention centre, and spending time on the Native reserve under the guidance of  NanaAnna, we really see the nurturing and skills that will help Porsche to become such a woman. She learns to cook, is familiar with nature, and yet still maintains her hard-working spirit and stubbornness to make and earn her own wages and way.

By the time she meets Elisha, despite being afraid to fully love him, she can't help but be a kind-hearted friend, and eventual wife to this ambitious artist.

While her mother passes away, she is able to reconnect with her father and with Winter, and it seems almost anti-climactic because Winter is still a bit of a selfish bitch, and her father is still locked away for life without much contribution to her daily living. Yet she still cares for them, and still has an undying love for them.

The greatest triumph is that she is able to reunite with her twin sisters, who are now under the guidance of Midnight. The story telling is so complete, that with this piece of information, you can only imagine what their journey was like...yet know enough about Midnight as a man, that you trust that they have been well taken care of.

It's like a love and interest that will never end, the saga that is the Santiaga story. And while each story is complete in and of itself, there are still so many anxious questions that you can't help but wonder. For example: how did Midnight transition after his return from Japan with his wives Akemi and Chiasa, to now being the guardian of two young girls? Who is Midnight's 3rd wife, as mentioned? How did the twins adjust to life, after their father's capture? What will become of Winter, after she is released from prison?

Even after the book was complete, I love that while Porsche's story is complete, the tales of this family could be indefinite. While visiting Toronto in May, an audience member asked Sister Souljah if she would stray away from this network of characters and develop a new saga, and her response was simple: why? She basically stated that there were so many branches and elements of this network, that she could write so many more stories as a result.

I agree.

Sister Souljah has challenged me into thinking about the depth of my own story-telling, and the level I go to to understand the characters and their journey. Each of her characters has such a unique and complicated story, that makes their actions and circumstances so real and justified. You never have to second-guess their authenticity, or wonder what they stand for, this is always extremely evident as a result of their life experience.

After reading this book, I believe the story of Porsche is complete. Not because I don't think she'll have numerous adventures and worthy incidents in her life worth writing about...but I trust her character, I trust her judgement, and I know that she'll be OK in the end. I closed this book satisfied with the woman she had become, and satisfied with how this stage of her her journey ended.

She becomes a professional dancer, and is able to support the type of lifestyle and her mother, Lana, and her sister, Winter, never had the intelligence to create for themselves. While they had the street smarts and the looks, they still didn't have the independence to create their own lives. That is why Lana met her demise, and became a victim of her drug addiction. That is why Winter, even while locked up, is still cold-hearted, and still a selfish girl.

Sister Souljah's books have provided me with such insight! She has transcended being an "urban fiction" writer, and is a novelist in every sense of the word. She creates worlds, educates, teaches life lessons, allows you to travel, and gives her readers invaluable lessons about life through character osmosis.

I closed this book feeling satisfied, and feel inspired. "A Deeper Love Inside" was such a powerful example of what a story should be. Empowering. Emotional. Thorough. Filled with escapism. Unpredictable. Liberating.

I've said this many times, and will say it again, Sister Souljah is the type of writer that makes me want to be a BETTER writer, simply because of the feeling of her words and the ease in which I'm able to read and digest them. And think about the characters still, days, and weeks later!

As usual, I look forward to reading the next part in the Santiaga saga, and continued the exploration of this family and their activities. This was yet another TRUE story from Sister Souljah, where the feelings and lessons were so universal that you can't walk away without being changed, by the end of the journey.

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

Re-Reading Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever"

I read this book over 10 years ago, and it was an instant favourite. In fact, I've never met a person who read this book and didn't automatically crown it as the best book they had ever read. This story was phenomenal. It was groundbreaking. This book, these characters, and this author were the foundation of many great things to come.

Now despite loving this book so much, I actually didn't remember much about it when I found myself ready to read Sister Souljah's latest novel, "A Deeper Love Inside." So with my autographed copy in hand, I realized that I couldn't read Porsche Santiaga's story until I had revisited the journey of her older sister, Winter.

It was like I was reading the book for the first time, all over again. All I could remember that Winter was beautiful, and the story was gritty and an exhilarating page-turning journey...but the details had been forgotten. After entering the world of Midnight and his family and adventures in Souljah's following novels, the only things I remembered about Winter and her tale were the basics: she was stunning, she came from a powerful family, and she was someone that everyone wanted to be.

As a 30-something, now re-introduced to Winter Santiaga and her tale, I was surprised at how my perspective had changed over the decade since I had last read these words. I recalled Sister Souljah, during her visit to Toronto last month, saying that so many readers approach her saying how they want to BE Winter...and I'm pretty sure back in the day when I read the book, I may have shared the same sentiments.

However, reading the book now was a different journey. While it was beyond interesting to see how Winter enjoyed being a "bad bitch"...I could honestly feel the difference in understanding between what that would mean to a teenager or someone in their early 20s, and what that means to a grown woman.

This time around, I really identified with Sister Souljah's character in the book: she was in the midst of the celebrity world, and familiar with life around her from all sides of the spectrum, however she kept her cool. I could appreciate what it means for Souljah to put herself into the story, and send her message without "sending a message."

The character of Sister Souljah was a fabulous contrast to Winter, because she essentially had the access, the power, and the connections that Winter wanted...however she had obtained them through honest means and respectfully so. This time around I really felt how COLD Winter was, because despite being presented with alternate methods of achieving success, with solid people, and with genuine opportunity, she still remained bad-to-the-bone and still was all about self.

I couldn't empathize with Winter. And the amazing thing about having a main character that you can't relate to or even root for, is that you're able to see their perspective, hear their voice, and know their challenges...but still maintain a separate sense of right or wrong, despite their choices. So while Winter was ridiculously interesting, and it was fascinating to see her achieve, and see her manipulate and work to get what she wanted...deep down, as a reader, I still knew that what she was doing was not right...and may not last or benefit her in the end.

Of course, the lesson is learned by the end of the book, at least by the reader if not Winter herself. You can clearly see that deceipt, and manipulation doesn't pay in the end. You can see that "it all falls down" and her father's empire crumbles, and she (as her father's daughter) also meets her demise due to the nature of her business associations, and the cold-heartededness in which she approaches life.

The message is clear: nothing lasts forever. Especially when rooted in deciept and destruction. And I believe after reading the book the first time, I was probably disappointed that Winter didn't end up the bride of a movie star or famous rapper, or the glamourous and important woman she desired to be. I'm pretty sure as a twenty-something year old, I had rooted for Winter, and hoped that she would have found what she was looking for: permanent financial stability. This time around...I knew that justice had been served.

Now my views on Winter as a woman did not alter my reading experience in any way, despite how my feelings towards her had changed. It changed my level of empathy for Lana Santiaga, and for the twins, and there was an element of sadness attached to it as this exciting and important family fell apart.

The book is still fabulous, and will always be a classic piece of literature. Since discovering Sister Souljah's writing back then, I have still yet to find another author that tells a story like she does. What I most love is that the book took on practically two different meanings for me, based on where I was in my life.

The book was the same, but the context was different. The lessons were the same, but the spirit of it was different. The level of self-reflection was different. The value of choices, and association, priorities and self-worth were now evident. These are lessons that were loud and clear, as a result of Winter's journey, and lessons that will manifest differently with each reader.

Like any book, the meaning, and the lessons will of course vary depending on who picks it up, and how the words speak to them. So again, I'm now looking at this book and realizing the layers of messaging, and examples, and the context of various situations, and how much thought was put into the construction of this plot and the sub-themes that were communicated as a result.

It's more than just Winter, her beauty, her boyfriends, and her vanity. This book is representative of so many woman, both young and old, who allow themselves to focus on the wrong strengths and strive towards achiving the wrong type of security in life. This book is a testament to all women about what is truly inmportant, and what qualities should be exhaulted and cherished.

God bless Winter Santiaga, because her story was the foundation of so many branches of storytelling and the creation of so many other rich characters, and interesting locations, and juicy plots. Her story was the spring board for an entire network of character development, and it's so crazy looking back at the book that "started it all" and seeing how the layers of the story are set.

Through Winter, we meet the Santiaga family: the twins Lexus and Mercedes, the father Ricky, the mother Lana, and all that they represent. We meet young Porsche, and her silent-yet-stunning presence at the end of the book serves as a subtle cliffhanger of more to come. We are introduced to the strong and intelligent Midnight, and get to learn about him. Through Winter's eyes, opinions, and activities, an entire world of interaction is established. And it was so important to see this society and their choices through her eyes because she is so representative of the world they live in, and the miseducation and guidance of many other young girls.

I enjoyed reading this book again, and TRULY look forward to seeing this movie production unfold. While in Toronto, Sister Souljah mentioned that the pre-production of the film was underway, and already I am anticipating who will play Winter, how the characters will look on-screen, and how the story will translate live.

This book, and her others are so influential, without being preachy. So cultural, without being "ghetto" or excessively "urban." She's a fantastic writer, and each time I finish reading one of Souljah's books and close the back cover, I am reminded of the power of story telling, and how a great writer will leave you feeling like you want to change your life, make better choices, and be more aware of your surroundings. Through the eyes and interactions with Souljah's characters, I am able to walk away with a better understanding of human nature, and also self-reflect.

This is why her books are so fantastic. It's more than just the story, it's the message and the method that speak to you long after the last word's are read. Literary brilliance.

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Exploring Muslim & Mexican Culture in Film, in "Mooz-lum" & "From Prada to Nada"

I recently watched two movies I had never heard of prior to last week, via Netflix, as a result of a casual browse...and I was really fulfilled by the viewing experience.

The movie "Mooz-lum" was released in February of 2011, and was written and directed by Qasim Basir. It's a story about a young Muslim man, Tariq (played by Evan Ross), and his journey to college and battle with his identity. Raised by a strict Muslim father, Hassan (played by Roger Guenveur Smith), and separated from his loving mother Safiyah (Nia Long) due to her problems with Hassan, Tariq grew up under religious scrutiny from his father and abuse at the private school he was forced to attend.

He knew no other life, and various flashbacks from his childhood show that Tariq always battled his Muslim identity. He was teased in school, he often took off his Kufi cap whenever he was not in the presence of his father. It was an obvious battle, and made him extremely introverted and visibly disturbed throughout most of the film.

Now while his mother, Safiyah, was a pleasant and spiritual Muslim woman, she took Tariq's younger sister and left Hassan while they were children, to be able to exercise even moderate freedoms. She didn't agree with all of Hassan's rules, and while she was still serving Allah, she did so at her own pace.

There were so many important things happening in this subtle look at an American family, living in Michigan. It wasn't overtly preachy or filled with stereotypical artifacts or attitudes...it was a moment in the life of a Muslim-American family, and an interesting insight into the challenges this particular family was facing.

It could have been any culture, any religion...and any family. But I LOVED the fact that it was a Muslim family, because it made me realize that these are images we RARELY if EVER see on the big screen, small screen, or any screen. I love that it was an African-American family, because it was a reminder that people of the Muslim faith come in all ethnicities and races.

So there were power struggles of man vs. woman, religion vs. secular culture, and even battles of keeping the family unified. There were issues of childhood peer pressure and bullying, and coming-of-age as a young man in America. Again, nothing over-the-top, but definitely what I believe to be honest depictions.

When Tariq heads off to college, he is placed with a Muslim roommate (as his father's request), however, is quick to shun his background and traditions, and instead try to blend in with his peers. Blending in proves to be difficult because Tariq is completely unsocialized, having spent most of his time in mosques and religious schools and environments. He doesn't have a protocol for how to behave around a woman he likes. He can't handle his liquor, the first time he goes out drinking with some classmates. He is shy, and awkward, and you can tell that his cultural identity is weighing heavily on him.

So after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, Tariq's campus (like most of America, at the time) becomes heightened with cultural tensions, and anti-Islamics sentiments. This brings about the climax of the movie when Tariq is faced with a choice: to embrace and acknowledge his roots and defend his culture and family...or to continue to blend in with his classmates and attempt a life of "normalcy."

I really enjoyed this movie because the problems were heavy, however the solutions were quite simple. It took one of the most fearful and uncomfortable eras of recent American history, and humanized it. Humanized the family members, and their experiences, and showed the beauty of their religion, which is something that is often forgotten in media hoopla and negative circulated beliefs.

I commend this film for presenting the story as a day-in-the-life American tale, and not a sensationalized series of events with radical results. I appreciate the deeper understanding of Muslim life/culture just by watching the young Tariq washing his feet in the bathroom sink, or his sister taking off her hijab when she arrives at school and fixing her hair before class. The personal moments. The real moments.

There should be more of these on screen.

Now the movie "From Prada to Nada" (also released in early 2011) was definitely more lighthearted with occasional attempts at comedy, but the cultural take-away was just as fulfilling to me. This is a story directed by Angel Gracia, based on the plot of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility."

It's about two "rich" Mexican-American sisters who are forced to leave their lavish lifestyle and spending habits behind after the death of their widowed father. They move from their Beverley Hills mansion, to East Los Angeles to live with their estranged aunt (played by Adriana Barraza). The sisters, Nora (Camille Belle) the academic law student, and Mary (Alexa Vega) the superficial shopaholic, couldn't be more different, but the adjustments are huge for both of them.

Nora is focused on finishing up school, and her internship, and trying not to fall in love with Edward (Nicholas D'Agosto) who would inevitably take her away from her career goals. She is embracing the change and aware of her culture, but so focused on succeeding that she forgets to take care of herself at times.

Mary is the typical privileged child, who is in denial about her Mexican roots and unaware of her culture to the fullest extreme. She is afraid to move to East LA and a definite snob when it comes to her neighbours, their lifestyles, and of course the local handyman-turned-love interest Bruno (played by the ever-hot Wilmer Valderrama).

It's a predictable-ass story, but I easily sat through it, and actually enjoyed it. I loved to see even these seemingly "white" American girls have to deal with culture shock, and identity, and finding out who they are and what it means in a context outside of Rodeo Drive.

I enjoyed seeing Mexican culture intimately, albeit fictional and possibly very surface, I did like to see how they got down. Again...this is not something that you see on a "day-in-the-life" basis regularly on television, so it was refreshing to see these cultures normalized on screen.

So needless to say, Nora eventually gives in when Edward gets engaged, expresses her love for him after much resistance, and the two of them get married and open a free legal clinic in her aunt's Mexican neighbourhood. Pleasantness.

Mary falls for a hot Mexican assistant professor, Rodrigo (played by Kuno Becker) because he's rich, he is planning to buy a home in Beverley Hills, and he is a ticket out of East LA and back into the lavish lifestyle she is accustomed to. But low and behold...Mr. Perfect already has a WIFE, he BUYS Mary's father's house that they were exiled from (by her mystery half-brother and his bougie wife...long story), and Rodrigo dismisses Mary and their love affair in public, breaking her heart.

But wait...she DOES get into a car accident, and rusty Bruno from the neighbourhood cleans up nicely (this IS Wilmer Valderamma we're talking about, after all) and he's by her side the entire time. They kiss. They fall in love too.

OK, so "From Prada to Nada" isn't as morally rich as "Mooz-lum" was, but it was equally rich in culture, which is what I walked away with from both films.

After an afternoon of movie watching, I really felt like I had new insight. I felt like I had seen something that I have rarely seen, and had spent time looking intimately into the lives of those we rarely get media access to...let alone positive media access.

Without the stereotypes, or controversy, or over-the-top depictions, I think that both movies were just common stories of American life. The additional labels are important...but also a non-factor. At the root of both movies were human tales about acceptance, about identity, and about realizing what is important in life. Simple things. Family. Love. Support. Self-respect. This is the same no matter what cultural lens we use. It's just nice to see different versions of the same tale.

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Who Knew About The Movie "LUV" Featuring Common?

Wow. Why did I not know about this movie until now? It's been almost two days  since I finished watching the 2012 film "Luv" and it's still resonating with me.

What a powerful film! It was great. I wasn't sure what to make of it initially, having never heard of it...kinda expecting a typically low-budget/"ghetto" black ensemble film, BUT I was quickly drawn into the characters and plot.

Starring hip-hop-artist-slash-actor Common as "Vincent" and the adorable Michael Rainey Jr. as "Woody," it didn't take long to connect to the gentlemen and their aspirations. The acting was phenomenal from the jump. Just a few minutes in, I could tell that I wouldn't be disappointed with their performances...and I wasn't.

The tale is about 11-year-old Woody missing school one day, to hang out with his uncle Vincent who has just been released from spending 8 years in prison. Vincent takes Woody along for a ride as he handles his business, starting with getting fitted in a new suit, applying for a business loan at the bank, and making stops at his old stomping grounds with his former associates.

Vincent is determined to show Woody how to be a man, and it's an endearing journey through the hours as the family members reconnect. He lets Woody drive his Benz in a parking lot, shows him how to shoot a gun, and spends the day giving him tips and pointers about life and how to conduct himself. Vincent was a highly respected drug dealer...but quickly learns that things have changed in the 8 years he's been off the streets.

It is evident that Vincent wants to start on a new path, correct the actions of the past and apply his dreams to his future. He wants to show Woody how to conduct himself as a man, and puts him in many adult situations...that no school-aged boy should ever be subjected to. Vincent's mission is clear: to become a businessman, and make his crab house restaurant and banquet hall a reality.

Woody's grandmother and guardian only appears in the beginning, and we are told that his mother lives down in North Carolina and is "working on her life." Woody's longing to see her is evident from the beginning of the film, and a constant theme throughout as the promise of driving down to visit his mother and his unconditional love for her are displayed on his face each time she is mentioned, and at the forefront of his mind as the days continues on. Uncle Vincent promises to bring Woody to see his mother at the end of this long day. They are in Baltimore...but it's a promise that Woody is clinging to.

And then things get real. Quickly.

The movie takes place during one day, and in that one day it's amazing to see the characters grow, change, and develop just in matter of hours. The cast alone is worth watching the movie. Again...who knew? I was sold when I saw that "Common" was the star, but I had no idea that the movie would also feature heavyweights like Meagan Goode, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and Dennis Haysbert.

The movie opened in theatres in January of this year, was directed by Sheldon Candis, and written by Candis and Justin Wilson. I can't understand why it didn't get more attention or recognition than it did, because I think it was not only beautiful to look at with an equally moving soundtrack, the acting was great, and most importantly the story was MOVING.

I can list a half dozen other films that should have NEVER hit the big screen, but who am I to comment on the politics of Hollywood, and the age old debate of true art vs. commercially viable fluff.

My review is simple: this is a great movie. I don't have much more to say other than I think this movie needs to be seen. I still feel the character of Woody in my soul, and think the young man was so captivating that he deserves to be recognized for his work in this role. It touched my heart. I'm still thinking about it, and still impressed by the storytelling in general, and the overall film-making. It wasdisturbing...yet refreshing.

It's one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. It's just a shame that there are so many bogus films that get attention and publicity, and gems like this fly under the radar.

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