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.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Trixx "Unspoken Words" Comedy Show

Trixx is a funny dude. No two ways about it. And what makes him hilarious is that everything he talks about is so fundamentally TORONTO that you can't help but relate.

On the evening of Saturday, May 11, 2013 at the Janet Mallett Theatre (St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts), Trixx performed a two-hour one-man stand-up comedy show to a packed house. No opening act, just a musical introduction from DJ Lissa Monet, and he jumped right into it...starting with Drake's "Starting From the Bottom" and immediately started discussing the thoughts we ALL have about the song and video...

The unspoken words.

You can count on him to speak his mind, and that's what made the show great. From the taboo topics like oral sex, to the familiar subjects like raising children, Trixx had a conversation with the audience, and naturally spoke about the things we all discuss, and the events that we're all aware of. And he did it in his expected hilarious form, and didn't miss a beat.

No one was safe, from the latecomers to those sitting in the front rows, he went from his routine, to audience interaction effortlessly, and never once did it feel like he was performing a "set" of jokes. It was all fresh material too. Things I hadn't heard yet, and judging from the outbursts of laughter and applause, the jokes were new to everyone.

It was a fun night. Like really fun. I've seen him live before, and gladly pay my money to support his shows and endeavours because he's super talented, and because I love to see people from Toronto working hard, following their dreams, and doing it well! And staying humble.

Hip hop artist Kardinal Offishall was in the house that evening, enjoying the show, and I immediately thought about how we all went from seeing Kardi on the weekends, out at the club like the rest of us...or performing at Windsor Sports Weekend...a familiar face, amongst familiar faces. And then I remember the day I saw Kardi on the Jay Leno show with Lindo P and other familiar faces right there on stage supporting him. I remember how PROUD I felt. Not because I know these brothers personally...because I don't. Not because I feel obligated to like them because they're from my hometown...because it's more than that. I felt this overwhelming sense of pride because they stuck to it. They hustled, they worked, they created, they performed, they were visible, they were relatable, and after years of pursuing their passion...their efforts exploded. They made it. They were exactly where they should be: receiving recognition.

So when I see Trixx, I feel similar sentiments. Like here's a brother that's been around, we see him on TV all the time, and he's someone who's career growth is taking place right in front of our eyes. Someone who is destined for greatness, and it feels good just to be a part of the process, and to be able to support the journey. I feel it's our duty as Torontonians, as people of the community, and as recognizers of true make sure we help catapult him even further forward.

The last time my friend and I saw Trixx live, we nearly dead. Eyes watering. Foot stomping. Struggling for air. Etc. I realized there is no greater joy than extreme laughter...and the best part about laughter is when it is so innately connected to your life experience, that it is speaking directly to you. Just like a good song, or a good book...when you FEEL the message on a personal level, it makes it that much more unique.

So despite his YouTube videos that I browse on occasion for a good chuckle, I was happy to be a part of his growing in-person fan base...again at the Jane Mallett Theatre. And as per usual, Trixx had me in tears!

Like where else are you going to hear jokes about the Dickie Dee (ice cream man), about how different ethnicities respond to their national "shout-outs" at the club, and punchlines told in Ghanaian, Jamaican, or Canadian accents. Discussions about Brampton, Degrassi, riding the TTC, and stories about the attitudes of Toronto males and females. The combination of themes, dialect, ideologies, and pace was sooo ridiculously TORONTO that it was just funny by nature.

Trixx is a funny dude. Like, I can't stress this enough. And the reason I keep writing about him, and supporting the cause is because I believe it's our responsibility to MAKE SURE that the talented people who are driving our culture forward, giving us a secure Canadian identity (as blacks, and as an "urban" community as a whole), and really and truly just being positive role models...receive and deserve our support.

I feel this way about the writers, the musicians, the DJs, and the entire creative community, because I know that it's not easy. It's not easy to come to the conclusion that being an artist is THE way you prefer to make a living and pursue your goals. It takes a special individual to turn their back to conventional methods of employment, and put their heart and soul into an industry that is riddled with anomalies and insecurity. It ain't easy atall.

So when we have someone like Trixx who won't quit, who's hustling, and who's doing a good job at it...we are responsible for his success. We are responsible for making sure that his stories are told, that his jokes are shared, and that the feelings of joy, and laughter, and upward mobility are shared and supported.

We have to buy tickets to his shows, and then come back the next time with additional friends. We have to let people know how good he is, and openly celebrate his successes. We have to be the force behind him, and many others, because it's that energy and love that brings out the best in all of us.

On Saturday night I laughed. I laughed from 8:30pm, straight through intermission, and into the second half of the show. I laughed at the ease at which Trixx told his stories, and casually moved between themes and jokes. I laughted at the reactions of the people around me, and the impromptu incidents that sparked additional comments from the comedian.

It felt good, because it was all new material, and new insights into common and familiar incidents. It felt like home, being surrounded by your peers, hearing about things you could relate to, and knowing that everyone in the room was there to support and stand behind Frankie Agyemang as he continues to soar towards stardom.

I can't wait to turn on the TV one day soon and see Trixx following in the footsteps of Russell Peters and the countless other Canadian comedians as they share our stories with the world. It's all about being proud of our culture, and Trixx efficiently represents the face of Toronto, and the voice of our people...regardless of what background you're from. It's that cultural pride and cultural responsibility that helps us to drive our culture forward. Shout out to his management Ree Ree Productions for always moving real professional.

All elements help us to define our place in Canada, to promote and strengthen our identity internationally, and to celebrate the unique stories and people and experiences that we all have. It's great to celebrate these things, it's great to be able to laugh out loud, and I really look forward to seeing what's next for Trixx. So far, so good!

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

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sister Souljah's Visit To Toronto

It was like meeting Michael Jordan. Or The Rolling Stones. Will Smith. It was like the opportunity of a lifetime, being able to connect face-to-face with THE top of the writing game, and the woman who has single-handedly written a collection of books that have defined a generation of urban fiction. Sister Souljah's visit to Toronto this weekend was legendary for me. I got to meet my literary role model. I got to connect with a tangible example of what I would love to achieve: storytelling genius.

I can't remember exactly when I first read "The Coldest Winter Ever." It wasn't long after it's 1999 release. I just remember hearing SO much about this book, that I had to pick it up. And when I picked it up...I couldn't put it down. It was freaking fantastic, from top to bottom. That story moved me on so many levels that it made me forget about the dozens and dozens of other books I had read in my life. This book was the TRUTH.

After discovering this gem, I went back to read "No Disrespect" around 2004. Again, I was captivated by her personal story, and motivated to improve my own writing skills. This woman was excellent at her craft, and the experience reading her work was just EXPERIENCE.

Those two books left me on a mental high after reading the last pages. Leaving me pensive. Inspired. Curious. It made me realize that I needed to READ good writing to really understand how to BE a good writer.

I'm admittedly extremely under-read, for someone who has dedicated her life to story-telling and publishing. There are so many classics, and great books that I am almost embarrassed to admit that I haven't turned the pages of. One day I will...but in the meanwhile, I am a very picky reader with a very short attention span.

Sister Souljah's next two books "Midnight: A Gangster Love Story" and "Midnight and the Meaning of Love" just blew my mind. Through her words, I was literally taken to another world. Back to the 80s. Into Islam. To Japan. I was introduced intimately to various cultures that I had never taken the time to analyze in any depth. But through her stories, I was taken there. I was educated.

Needless to say, the minute I read that Sister Souljah was coming to Toronto, I made my plans to reach. Thursday, May 9th at York University, and Friday, May 10th at Knowledge Bookstore: I was going to hit up both appearances. One group of friends accompanied me on Thursday, and another on Friday...and I'm grateful I got to experience the author in both environments.

At York University, it was a packed auditorium (Curtis Lecture Hall) of mainly black university-aged women, sprinkled with other fans, readers, and professionals from all ethnicities. She introduced her novels and their origin, and then opened the floor to questions.

My original plan was to come equipped with notepad and camera, prepared to almost "report" on the experience...but due to her request to not be photographed, I put away my Canon Rebel T3, and decided to just sit back and take it in.

To even attempt to reiterate her messages would be impossible. There was so much said, so much asked, and so many wonderful discussions happening in that room that I was literally having one of the rare moments of EXTREME motivation that only happen on occasion in my life. Of all the musical and creative inspiration I receive on a day-to-day basis,  I can count on two hands the POWERFUL moments that have changed my psyche, and shifted my life paradigms by the time I have walked through them.

This was one of those moments.

Listening to her speak, hearing her knowledge, feeling her love for the empowerment of women, discussing the various characterizations and messages in her novels, all of these things were processes and thoughts that literally drive my life. For example, why am I a writer? What types of messages and images and I trying to create and sustain? What type of identity am I attempting to build for myself, and my community through my activities?

As much as I know my goals in life, and know what types of activities I enjoy and respect...I do appreciate the opportunity to have these processes reinforced and strengthened. Like, Sister Souljah covered topics from polygamy, to Pan-Africanism, to community violence, media images, hip hop, and the role of religion in relationships.

One intelligent question led to another insightful response, and you could literally feel the buzz of positive energy in the room. As much stimulation as we receive...there was something particularly stimulating about the conversation, and the gathering of like-minded individuals in the one setting.

The 1.5 hour wait after the session for her book signing was more than worth it. I can barely remember what I said to the sister, but I hope that my gratitude and respect was evident: this woman is one of the reasons why I am inspired to continue writing, and inspired to be good at what I do, and to do so being a woman of character and strength.

She embodied all of those things.

To repeat her messages would be impossible...not because I don't remember then, but because they were so rich with wisdom and compassion, that I would be doing her injustice by trying to recreate them.

Even on Friday night, at Knowledge Bookstore, her words and information conveyed to the group of  attentive writers and community members was equally powerful. Questions took on a different angle, more about her writing process and experiences with travel and American culture...and again, I was able to take in her thoughts and see how she has successfully manifested her experiences and observations into an amazing collection of literature.

I got my book signed on Thursday. I ordered "A Deeper Love," her latest novel that was just released in January, and was fortunate to see it arrive in the mail just days before I found out she was coming to town. I'm ready to have the story of Winter Santiaga's younger sister Porche unveiled in this sequel to "The Coldest Winter Ever" and I'm excited that I have another level of inspiration and spirit-moving words to digest.

As a writer, this is what I live for. Information. Inspiration. Forward movement. Strong ideologies about life, culture, and interpersonal relationships. I THRIVE off of positive energy, and especially when it is communicated to me well. It's like my drug.

It's not often that I feel this...this vibration of extreme liberation. Like this feeling of empowerment where I just KNOW that my path has just been made a little bit clearer, and my purpose has become a little bit more identified. It's not often, but when it happens I am eager to roll with it.

The main thing I received from hearing Sister Souljah speak was that her books are just a vessel for sending messages and images out to her readers. With roots in politics, community service, and a strong educational foundation, she has the ability to produce pieces of work that are full of gems and thought-provoking circumstances that you can't help but walk away feeling strengthened.

Shortly after returning home, from her trip to Toronto, Sister Souljah expressed her gratitude for Toronto on Twitter, mentioning that the people of our city treat their favourite authors like rock stars. And rightfully so.

The words of Sister Souljah have moved me, like any song, movie, or book ever could. The subtle messages, and the gripping story lines are the perfect vessel for creating images and ideas that can be utilized in day-to-day life.
That is my wish for myself. The gift of transitional writing. The ability to be able to manipulate words and feelings and sociology and intention, into beautiful tales with beautiful characters.

It is so important to have a tangible example of seeing this done successfully. If I had never read a story that made me FEEL this feeling, I would never have the desire to create a similarly moving piece of work.

So again, after seeing Sister Souljah on two occasions this week, I am feeling so full of gratitude, and my passion for the written word has increased. I thank God for her talent, and for giving her the ability to inspire change, inspire movement, and encourage progression. A part of who I aspire to become is due to the admirable manner in which she has already paved the way.

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

God Bless Ms Lauryn Hill

If she never sings another song, wins another Grammy, makes another dollar, stars in another film, or poses for another cover photo again...she will have still been one of the most powerful and influential musicians in my life. Ms. Lauryn Noelle Hill is still phenomenal, even in her absence.

Needless to say, I was so excited to see her face and hear her in the news again this week...but so disheartened that it was for her legal troubles. Lauryn has just been sentenced to 3 months of jail time after pleading guilty to tax evasion, for $1.8 million dollars owed between 2005 and 2007.

In her open letter to fans on April 26, 2013 via Tumblr, she stated that she will be starting a new label with Sony, and that she is working on new music. She's described her absence as a battle between "art and commerce," and her fight for financial freedom. After briefly touching on the inquity of the music industry, and manipulation of business arrangements, she hinted that more would be said.

And I can't wait to hear.

Lauryn is just a few years older than me, and will turn 38 at the end of this month. A relatively young woman, a mother of 6 (5 of which are children with Rohan Marley, son of Bob), an actress, a rapper, and a singer...Lauryn has already seen probably the best and the worst of what life in the music industry has to offer.

The recipient of 5 Grammy awards, it's amazing that having only really released one solo album (plus an MTV Unplugged album), that she is still so legendary, and still so untouchable. There hasn't been anyone even remotely like her, since.

Lauryn Hill can do no wrong, as far as I'm concerned. And despite people questioning her mental state, her financial state, and her marital state, I still can not allow myself to look beyond the fact that in 1998 she released one of THE most powerful albums in "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" of my lifetime. That in the 15 years that have passed since that groundbreaking moment in her career, I have yet to really find a group of songs that spoke to me so clearly, or represented such a moment in time like this album did.

I saw her live at the Molson Ampitheatre in August of 1999, and remember that hit after hit after hit, this woman was on fire. Again, with just ONE album, and a few Fugee hits under her belt. I felt she was unstoppable. That one album sold 19 million copies, and will forever go down in history as a hip hop/R&B classic. Few can dispute that fact.

So despite her musical significance, it does hurt me to see that the sister is struggling. I've heard that despite the legal/financial issues, she's also developed a bit of a reputation for showing up to shows late, singing unrecognizable renditions of her classic tracks, and fans seems to be disappointed with the evolved version of Ms Hill. They want to hear her sing "Ex-Factor" in its original form, and see the pretty, Hollywood version of an urban artist, just like we're used to. Polished. Clean story. Rising fame. The fans wanted to see Lauryn grow, and blossom according to their own standards of what a musician/celebrity should be.

And rightfully so. She touched SO many lives and souls with her music, that it's only natural for listeners to want more from her. Expectations were sky high. We would probably demand it from her if we could. She owes us that much! She owes us to share that talent! That VOICE! That spirit. Especially given the selection of female "role models" we have today in the music industry.

But Lauryn had enough. From she entered the scene as an actress in the early 90s with appearances on various soaps, television programs, and of course that memorable role in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit in 1993. She went on to two fabulous albums with the Fugees in 1994 and 1996, and of course by her solo move in 1998...she was unstoppable. Or so we thought.

After we grooved to "Lost Ones," "That Thing," and "Everything is Everything"...we had no idea that Lauryn would soon vanish from the public eye.

Yes, she appeared on a few movie soundtracks. Showed up in Dave Chappelle's "Block Party" movie. She's toured a bit. Made a controversial comment at the Vatican Christmas concert about the corruption of the church. She's been around, but stories of her apperances and activities have been negative, speculative, and confusing. The Lauryn we heard about didn't sound like the Lauryn we [thought we] knew and LOVED. The erratic, dishevelled Lauryn with too much blush on, wild hair, and an apathetic attitude didn't sound like the Lauryn we admired.

So what went wrong with Lauryn? Absolutely nothing.

This totally reminds me of the Dave Chappelle situation. He was hotter than hot, funnier than ANYONE, and again, at the peak of his career...he vanished. There were stories about his mental health, and demonizing of his actions and thoughts. But the thing with Lauryn and Dave is that they have remained consistent in their explanations: the industry ain't what it seems, and money ain't everything.

Sure, there are MANY who enter, navigate, and conquer the entertainment industry with ease. People like Will Smith come to mind. Mariah Carey. Beyonce. Jamie Foxx. "Urban" entertainers who have just the right mix of personal and professional...charming and relatable, and consistenly make "good" career moves. They continue to rise to the top of their game, and you never hear anything too controversial coming from their camp.

All the power to them. The industry was made for them, and they own it. They have learned to manipulate it to their advantage, and have the lavish lifestyles and fat pocketbooks to prove it.

But not everyone is about that life. Not everyone is equipped to play the game, and study the art of entertainment on that level. Dave didn't want to dance for anyone anymore. Lauryn didn't want to pose for the camera and smile anymore. They both saw something funny going on that didn't sit well with their spirit, and they had the COURAGE and the STRENGTH to walk away with their heads high.

They walked, when 99.9% of people, if placed in their shoes, would have rode that wave as long as possible.

The sad thing is, that their actions were never perceived to be actions of character or self-preservation. Immediately they are mocked and ridiculed for doing something that was hard to understand. On the surface, they seemed like fools. Going into self-imposed exile and leaving the lifestyles of the rich and famous behind them. They sought simplicity. They sought escape. And they were penalized for this.

Dave Chappelle is still a hilarious motherfucker. Lauryn Hill can still sing her ass off. So why have they been reduced to reputations LESS than their talents demand?

Misunderstanding. Miseducation.

Lauryn said she was being compromised "for the sake of the machine," and I believe that's all anyone needed to hear...from either of them. That their personal worth and integrity was far more important to them than the wealth and perceived riches of fame and entertainment industry success.

God bless Dave. God bless Lauryn.

Bless them, because their examples--while anamolies--in their industry are so RARE...but also so powerful. I have learned way more as a woman, as a creative being, and as an individual from Lauryn Hill's example a decade ago, than I ever will from a Beyonce or Mariah (although I respect both of those ladies, and their music to the core).

I have gained more insight and mental stimulation about life from Lauryn's MTV Unplugged Album (2002) than I have from a combination of the top 10 best selling female artists in the past decade combined. Songs like "Mr. Intentional" and "Just Like Water"...songs like "Mystery of Iniquity" and "I Get Out" blew my mind. How bold and amazing was Lauryn to even put out an album like that?

She released a song over the weekend on iTunes called "Neurotic Society..." and it's...interesting. I've only heard it a few times but it is RAMMED with lyrics. Like tooooo much knowledge and it moves really fast. Lyrics like "superficial vanity, borderline insanity, out of order humanity, crime committed to passively."

"Hypocritics on salary, idle hands, devil's agency..." like this is the shit running through her mind right now. NO WONDER the woman can't exist in the mainstream pop world anymore. She has some things to say! Things to say that most people don't want to hear when they turn on the radio, or lock into the Grammy performances. Ms. Lauryn is going there. Hard. Calling it as she sees it:

Hypocrites can't even see their own part in this...

Too much addiction, no consciousness...

Man is not a product...

Like she said on her Unplugged album: "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need. I've just retired from the fantasy party."

It's been only a couple of days since she was sentenced, but I am really hoping and praying that this is the beginning of the emergence of Lauryn in the public eye. I think people need to hear what she has to say. Yeah, "Neurotic Society" ain't pretty. It doesn't sound like it belongs on the Billboard Hot 100. It's not going to be the background to an endorsed Pepsi or Cover Girl commercial any time soon. It might not win any awards, or bring in a couple million dollars. The new music will not sound like the old music. Guaranteed.

But what it will do is force people to pay attention to what she is trying to say, and has BEEN trying to say. It will open up people's eyes to a new perspective, rather than force them to accept the flaws in the industry and perceived ease at which others navigate it.

God bless Lauryn Hill, because whether she comes out of prison ready to conquer the world again...or not. Whether her forthcoming album is a hit...or not. Whether she smiles and poses for Essence, or presents at the MTV video awards, her legacy has already been set. Her message--to me--has already been heard, loud and clear.

Bless her because people talk so much shit, yet fail to see the real underlying message that she represents. Whether she's a religious fanatic or not, she IS saying something worth listening to.

So I will defend Lauryn Hill to the end. As far as I'm concerned, she can do no wrong. Her mark has already been made in my musical mind, in my spirit, and her creativity continues to be an inspiration to me. Whether it's the 1998 R&B princess Lauryn, or the 2013 inmate Lauryn, I still think she's the bomb, and someone to be admired.

God bless her for showing us that you can be yourself, and play by your own rules at all times DESPITE what people say about, despite what the standard protocol is, and despite what the perceived outcomes and benefits are. She's doing her thing, setting her OWN standards...and I wish her nothing but the best with the next phase of her life, once this ordeal is handled.

Bless her because it can't be easy to do what she's doing, fighting so strongly to just be HERSELF. It can't be easy, but she's doing it. Lauryn is being Lauryn, and I will always support her for that.