Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Nicki Minaj's "The Pinkprint"

There's so much good music in the world, and it brings on so many good feelings. I love reggae music, I love soca music, I love old school R&B and hip hop, I love trap music, and I can get down to pretty much anything else with a nice composition. Pop. Rock. I love music. Period.

What I love most of all is when you hear brand new music, and it hits you. Either it passes right through you briefly, or maybe you hear it but it doesn't affect you, or you immediately forget it...and sometimes you listen to it, like it and can't explain why. Sometimes the sounds completely translate into a feeling that is directly speaking to you. A vibe that perfectly resonates with you. A composition that you must hear again, and again. A noise that makes you physically feel fabulous. Well, on some level that's how I feel about Nicki Minaj's latest album The Pinkprint, that was just released earlier this month.

I wouldn't call myself a "super fan" of Nicki Minaj, but I must say that I like most of her songs to date...and her craziness really doesn't bother me. I like her, as an artist. I shouldn't...but I do. I agree that the Anaconda antics were kinda over the top, but I think it was fun and harmless. The bootie phase of 2014 will pass, and everyone would have had their moment to shake dat ass. Including Nicki.

And I think that's why I dig this album...because even with Nicki's querkiness, and odd behaviours publically, I feel she's maturing into more of a woman and less of a caricature. She used to feel like a cartoon character to me...catchy beats and a bright, colourful, and ridiculous fashion sense. She couldn't be taken that seriously...but now I think her music speaks for itself. She's growing up.

I like her music of the past because it was feel-good pop music. Trendy beats and memorable catch phases. I liked most of the hits that were hits, and it wasn't anything too serious.

But with this album, I feel a different sense of appreciation for Nicky Minaj as an artist. I can hear her growth as an individual. I can hear the maturity in her style. The increase in vulnerability in her voice. The intimacy of the lyrics. This album is different.

It starts off sounding almost like an R&B album, with Nicki singing, and with the instrumentation sounding more symphonic, and less street. The lyrics alone make it feel more personal, like she's speaking straight from a broken heart. It's a different level of emotional disclosure...and the music mimics that. It starts off more introspective...mellow beats. The album begins in a dark, sad place...and sets the tone for what's to come.

The Pinkprint gets lighter as it progresses, less vulnerable and more club. The lyrics are less painful...Drake and Chris Brown show up. Ariana Grande. Beyonce. Works it way down to Anaconda, and then closes with the Pills and Potions, signature Nicki sounding track...singing her vocals, the regular Nicki flow.

Overall, I like the way this album makes me feel. Even at a glance, there's an arch to the music that follows a nice audio story line. From darkness and heartbreak, that slowly and gradually eases into triumph by the end. There's hope at the end...and the mood of the album supports that.

I look forward to playing this album for the next couple of weeks, listening carefully to the individual songs, taking in the lyrics, and appreciating how this project was put together. Right now I am really feeling "The Crying Game" and "Grand Piano." I hear that she has released a mini-movie to go along with a few of the tracks, and the essence of these songs in particular remind me of soundtrack-type songs. Full of emotion.

I don't "purchase" CDs often, but this is one I actually got up and went into the mall to buy. Like physically made a trip to the store to make sure I had this in my possession for Monday morning, and the subsequent sitting in traffic I was about to embark in for the week. This will be my entertainment, and my inspiration. Music is amazing that never fails to bring out the creative energy in me!

After watching Nicki's Power 105.1 interview with Angie Martinez the other day, I got a different energy off of her and her story, and her behaviour as she discussed the end of her 15-year relationship with Safaree. There was a vibe she gave off in the interview that directly translated into the vibe of the album. It was a vibe of Nicki the woman, telling her story of adult heartbreak. A story of strength, but still with enough spunk to make it unpredictable.

This album sounds great, and it is a fabulous representation of Nicki's career, and even her public growth. It's nice to see an artist getting better with time and with wisdom...I'm pleasantly surprised that Nicki Minaj actually became one of those artists. I have to respect that.

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

Thursday, December 25, 2014

ENTOURAGE: Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric & Ari Coming to the Big Screen...YAY!

Eeeks! I'm so excited! The official trailer for the Entourage movie was just released, and I can not wait to see it next summer! I was a latecomer to this franchise. I jumped on the bandwagon after the HBO series had ended, but what I lost in timeliness, I made up for in dedication. I was a serial Entourage DVD watcher from seasons one through eight, until I was hooked on the stories of Vinnie, Turtle, Drama, Eric, and Ari.

What's not to love? It's no secret that I'm addicted to entertainment, media, lights, camera, and action. Especially action. I love the fanfare, I love the creativity of it all...I love the unpredictability of the entertainment industry. It comes with such ridiculous lows and such extreme highs that the paradox just fascinates me. Especially when people make it to the top. And stay there.

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) was that top.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching ol' Vinnie and his boys (played by Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Conolly, and Kevin Dillon) navigate Hollywood, as four bredrens straight outta Queens, New a part of Vinnie's A-List entourage. I enjoyed the stories, the shenanigans, and I especially loved the soundtrack. Every episode ended with THE perfect hip hop track. Everything about this HBO television series was my kinda shit.

From what I hear, the movie will pick up six months after we left the boys back when the series ended in 2011. Vinnie got married, and Ari and his wife finally had some peace and quiet in their lives...until he was offered a job to head Time/Warner. It was a nice cliffhanger, especially after knowing all of the drama Ari had in his marriage to Melissa (Perrey Reeves) and how they struggled every single season to make their relationship work. Ari, Hollywood's top agent and resident asshole on the show, was easily one of the most likeable characters, despite his arrogance and trickery at times. As a supporting actor in the series, Jeremy Piven was nominated four times for an Emmy award for Entourage, and came away with the win in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

A critically acclaimed hit, it only makes sense that the boys would return to continue their story for those of us that are ready to see where Ari and the others have gone. Who they're with. What they're doing. It's a natural curiousity, the result of a series of interesting story telling.

Of course, I loved the Hollywood element to this program. The clubs, the parties, and watching Vinnie make decisions on various projects, co-stars, relationships, and financial issues, all while carefully balancing his self-worth and his actual talent. While the Hollywood element was crucial to the show, the theme of friendship was also equally intriguing.

The dynamics between the group of four (including brothers Drama and Vincent) was great, and I loved how everyone continued to "play their role" despite the changes and successes along the way. Vinnie was always the leader; Eric was always the brains, stability, and logic behind the operation; Turtle was the cool guy, the go-to-guy and the perfect wing man; Johnny Drama was the wildcard and comic relief...while also being the elder (and chef) of the group. A great mix of personalities and the actors themselves--true New Yorkers--were believable as blue-collar Queens men on the come up.

Entourage provided the behind-the-scenes look at celebrity life with extra access, minus the calculated image management present with similar reality TV programs, striving to provide the same access. The soundtrack, the clever dialogue, the cameos (Matt Damon was definitely my fave), and the likability factor with the cast (loved Emmanuel Chriqui as "Sloan" and of course Rex Lee as "FLOYD!") made it an exciting show to watch.

It felt real. Like if there were ever four friends from Queens (or Boston, like show mastermind Mark Wahlberg, that loosely based the characters on his own life) that really did make it to Hollywood, this is probably totally how they would live (smoking weed, beaucoup females/sex, blowing money, pool parties, hanging out, blockbuster movie premieres and film festivals, and fast cars galore), and you got the feeling that as much as they were on top...that everything could still disappear in a heart beat. And that regardless of what went down, that they'd still be boys in the end.

That underlying tension of the lifestyle all being a "fantasy" was what made the show great. It made you want to root for everyone. You wanted Vinnie to only pick hit movies and hit directors/studios. You wanted Johnny Drama to finally catch a break and have his career excel again ("VICTORY!!!"). You hoped that Turtle would find his way and develop his own career hustle. And you appreciated the stability of Eric, his commitment to Sloan, and hoped that he would be able to lead the group wisely, without succumbing to the jabs and attacks from the ever-powerful Ari.

And now. A feature film! Yay! After being on the air from July 2004 to September 2011...the cast began filming the new Entourage movie in February of this year, and we'll be able to see the finished product by about June 12, 2015 from Warner Brothers.

Here's the teaser trailer...let the countdown begin:

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review: Annie (2014) aka "Black Annie"

The new 2014 feature film version of the 1982 hit movie Annie was fabulous, and I enjoyed every minute of it because of the nostalgia wrapped up with familiar music and cultural advancement. It warmed my heart.

"Black Annie" (ever since the Saturday Night Live sketch, I can refer to it as nothing else, lol) follows the original plot, where a foster kid hopelessly waiting for her parents to return for her stumbles into some luck when she connects with one of the richest men in town. Given the opportunity to spend some time with him, she manages to win the ol' guy over with her charm, escape foster care forever, and dance her way into a happy and secure future filled with true love.

Nothing has changed, story wise. The sadness of the orphanage/foster home and the meanness of the foster mother are still the same. Annie's optimism and mischief are familiar. But what happens with this version is that society has changed, and some of the old elements have a new swing. For example, Daddy Warbucks is now "Mr. Stacks" (Jamie Foxx), and aside from the obvious addition of black main characters (with Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie), there are now cell phones in the picture and funky hip hop remixes to some of the original music.

It's the music that got me. The familiar melodies to "Maybe" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" made me smile, because these are songs I grew up on. In the 80s, Annie was a movie that me and my peers watched regularly, and loved immensely.

Quvenzhane was a cute leading lady of the movie: a little girl with grown expressions and a serious comedic touch...her sense of humour was adorable, and I have a feeling that her sharp-witted Annie characteristics weren't too far off from her real personality.

I like Jamie Foxx. I'm a fan, so it was really cute to see him in this warm-and-fuzzy role as Mr. Stacks, and to see him fully commit to this musical and do it in an authentic way that never made me question him as a man, or actor. It was nice to see him in this child-friendly movie, and it was really touching the way Black Annie changed his world.

The new spin on "Daddy Warbucks" was a major change, because the cell phone empire of Mr. Stacks really helps to drive the plot. In the end, rather than scaling walls and high-speed car chases, it is a series of Tweets and posts on social media from children across New York that help the authorities locate Annie after she has been taken away by her "fake" parents--a nice update to the story.

I pretty much enjoyed this film from top to bottom...however the one thing that that didn't sit well with me was the performance of Cameron Diaz, who I normally really like in movies. Her character Miss Hannigan, as a failed 90s pop singer, did deliver a few of the movie's laughs for me, but her remake of the character was the least authentic to me. Jamie Foxx made Mr. Stacks his own, and the remix of Annie's character was definitely original...but I felt that Cameron was trying too much to be like the original Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnette) rather than trying to make this character her own.

Also, while it was fabulous to hear Jamie Foxx singing show tunes, and the other musical inserts into the movie, Cameron's lack of vocal talent was a bit of a damper on things. I wouldn't have minded if they dubbed a real singer's vocals over her parts, for the sake of the movie. It wasn't unbearable, but it just wasn't right for a "musical." Cameron's a great actress, but I think in this case they could have found a Miss Hannigan with real singing talent, and less over-the-top antics emulating a character that has already been done wonderfully. Carol Burnette's role was so strong and such an iconic character in movie history, that it may have been impossible for any actress to come in and make that role her own.

But despite that small distraction from the plot and songs...the movie is really enjoyable. Cheesy...most definitely! At the end when the full cast is dancing and skipping their way down the streets of New York, I had to laugh. It's corny, but it's ANNIE! I would expect nothing less.

It's nice to see pop culture take the steps to recreate classic pieces, and to infuse realistic cast changes and visuals. I love that the generation of today's children can enjoy the story and music that I have always loved, and do so in a hip and current manner.

Great movie for kids, and for big kids like me who can relive their childhood through the adventures of this loveable little orphan. Black or white...Annie is an uplifting story.

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: LOVE ENOUGH by Dionne Brand

There is something extremely comforting about picking up a book that you can connect to by default because of a shared living experience...yet still feel as though you are learning more about yourself (and your city), and the characters as a result of the literary closeness. That is what piqued my interest about this novel.

Dionne Brand's novel Love Enough is based in Toronto--a city I was born and raised in--and it tells the stories of a few intertwining characters and their individual experiences with love and life, all to the same familiar backdrop. Toronto itself is a character in this story; for any Torontonian just the mention of speeding down the Don Valley Parkway, or gazing down Dupont street brings such recognition and an immediate understanding of at least the physical journey.

The emotional journeys are complex, and rightfully so, as each character's story unfolds. It is an authentic urban Toronto tale, highlighting the city, yet highlighting the very distinct lives of the main characters. The middle-aged June, a social worker who reflects on her lovers of the past, while reconciling her differences and connection with her current partner. There's Bedri and Ghost, the young thugs who are trying to make sense of their criminal actions while frantically navigating the streets of the city. There's the young woman Lia, battling emotions about her drug addicted mother, while daydreaming about her carefree associates out exploring the world. The characters all have a connection, yet all are grappling with issues of love on various levels, and making sense of themselves in the process.

Brand's writing style is very beautiful. Needless to say, as a former Poet Laureate of Toronto (from 2009-2012), her novel is also extremely poetic. The sadness, the anger, and the joys are described with careful precision, and poignant phrasing.

And while Toronto itself is described within the journeys of the characters, the book is fragmented as it moves between the various individuals with each chapter, and tells pieces of the story, bit by bit, jumping between locations, feelings, and story lines.

June and her lover Sydney share their space, yet have distinctly different ways of viewing the world. June is a practical woman, skeptical and realistic, while Sydney is a dreamer, a believer, and a lover. And very early in the book, Brand summarizes that despite their constant arguing and is enough to keep them together. "Perhaps..."

This theme resonates throughout the entire story...that "perhaps" love is enough.

What I love about this book is the way the elements of multicultural Toronto touch all of the figures that appear, regardless of their race. Tamil, Somali, Caribbean, Latin, or European...they range in ethnicity, yet still have a grittiness of the city that influences their daily experiences.

Along with this grittiness, is a constant feeling of longing...of yearning for something, someone, or somewhere that the characters have yet to come to terms with. While they go through their routines, work, leisure, or home sense that they are all seeking more. They are seeking stability. And, of course love on some level.

"Here again, June did not understand the mysteries of intimacy..."

"Mercede's love could not hold out against her panic of never being loved enough..."

Photo via Toronto Star
I was most moved by the character Da'uud, father of Bedri, and his thoughts about returning to his home country of Somali--his internal description of the long travel process, the switching of flights, atmosphere of the various airports, and the eventual arrival. There was a feeling of hope in this passage, when he recollected the power of being "home" and how it made all other issues insignificant, once he was back in his comfort zone.

Along with the feelings of longing for love, Da'uud's passage reflected the need for acceptance and comfort in all of the characters. Taking long journeys to find a place they were familiar with, accepted as is, and comfortable navigating. Yet despite originating from another location in some cases, the story is a reminder that they are all now a part of the big and fast-paced city of Toronto, and their moods and thought processes reflect the city life.

"The Don Valley Parkway swallows sound, it crushes time..."

You don't have to be a Torontonian to appreciate the stories, but it is the mentions of the patty shops on Eglinton West, or a character's emotional ties to the Yonge subway line for example, that makes the references so culturally significant. When the young men commit a crime, while proudly yelling out declarations of can feel their tension as they navigate the westbound 401 highway towards the Allen Express. The city is a natural part of everyone's experience, despite what they are going through.

"But if you walk down a street and find a parallel version of your life, then you must become aware of the world and being aware of it means you can do something about it..."

There is no "happy ending" to Love Enough. This book is simply a moment in time in their lives, and concludes just as it begins...on the subject of love, and it's ambiguity. In a state of confusion, on the brink of revelation. While the characters do not change much as individuals by the book's end, you do get the sense that they are more aware of their positioning in the city and in their lives, as a result of the constant reflection and discussion about their individual battles. So while the challenges are evident, there is a bit of hope that things will work out if they continue to analyze and progress in this direction.

This was my first full reading of a Dionne Brand book (extremely long overdue), and I was moved by her writing, her ability to create feelings of sadness, yearning, and uncertainty in the city, and yet still perfectly line it with enough possibility of love, and of being loved, that it felt real.

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

Monday, December 1, 2014

VH1's "Love and Hip Hop" is Raising my Blood Pressure

Like, whoa.
I am all for pop culture, urban culture, hip hop music, entertainment, glitz, glamour, and taking an inside look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In fact, if I have a choice...I usually choose to watch reality TV, music programming, awards shows, or something with entertainment value.

But this show! My goodness!

Fortunately, I haven't had access to VH1, as a Canadian. I've only had second-hand references of most of their television programming, or occasionally we get to see some of the shows on our networks and see what's up.

But this shit. Wow.

I thought I'd take a look at the show I've heard much about, and started with Love and Hip Hop seasons 1 and 2, from back in 2011. It was interesting, right off the bat. I can't lie, I was immediately drawn into the drama and the intersecting story lines. Most importantly, I was really digging Chrissy Lampkin and her strong personality, her values, and the relationship she had with rapper Jim Jones. I didn't know much about either of them beforehand, but watching the show really made me a new fan. I think they're adorable...and real. Without being tacky.

I read that they had their own spinoff after season 2, so I just switched from Love and Hip Hop and took it to Chrissy and Mr. Jones show instead. Besides, Chrissy and Jim were the main reason I was watching after the end of the second season, so I chose to follow their story. And I did as far as my television access could take me.

Only to discover in passing that there's yet another spinoff called Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood that was filmed this year. Instead of living in 2011 and trying to catch up on old stories, I thought I'd give this series a look. Ray J was in it. Omarion and Apryl. A few other recognizable faces, so I thought it might be interesting....but I'm only like 3 episodes in, and I cannot.

I cannot complain about a show that I chose to watch. And I certainly can't discuss it with anyone, because I don't think anyone I know is actively watching this ratchet program...

But what the eff??

First of all, they do realize they're being televised, right? What I've seen so far is soooo embarassing in terms of adult behvaiour, that I can barely watch. My own pride is hurting. My own blackness is shamed. My own sense of judgement is being questioned to the point where I just had to stop. I HAD to stop because I felt myself getting angry! Like, who behaves like that? any amount of money worth that humiliation? Do these women realize how grimy and ugly their behaviour is? Is it really that entertaining to see people make fools of themselves, all for a cheque and some fame? Is anyone going to profit long-term from being a part of this mess?

Aside from some of the few authentically talented individuals on the program who can most likely sustain a career afterwards, and who managed to keep their cool and act maturely...what is the goal with this?

What amazes me is how the most BEAUTIFUL of women can act sooooooo disgusting. Who wants to date that? Marry that? Support that? Respect that? Like, they are living in the city of dreams, with access to money, power, fame, television executives, music industry folk...and somehow this is the behaviour that they see fit to get ahead? I guess so, because I see a lot of them bringing children into the world together, co-habitating, and I guess some people really have normalized this behaviour and the lifestyle.

Maybe it's me? OK, maybe it's not that serious....but honestly!

Maybe I'm being naive, and a lot of this is scripted and deliberate, and a part of a master plan to fame and fortune. And maybe I'm sensitive to this freaking circus show, because I also have refused to watch the Real Housewives of ANYWHERE, or even allow myself to get caught up in the wine throwing, name calling, and weave pulling reunion shows and uber-successful programming that clearly millions of others are in love with. For years now.

But this shit ain't for me. I swear.

I can't even finish the season. I can't even check to see what happens to Ray J and his ex-girl, or Omarion and his mama, or Souljah Boy and Teddy Riley's daughter, or the bleach blond chic with the pink lipstick who just moved out from her roommate's apartment and thinks she's dating that dude Young Ferg or Berg...or whomever. Or the Latin dude with the two girlfriends.

I can not.

I gave it a try. Thank you VH1. Thank you to the producer Mona who is clearly getting PAID off of this very popular brand. Thank you for bringing me into the world of hip hop "behind the scenes"...but I think I'll just stick to being a consumer on the digital music end, a listener on the radio or in the club, and a passive observer of music videos and AMA performances.

P.S. I really feel for the children, teenagers, and young adults who are eating this kinda entertainment up...and I pray that somewhere along the line they can differentiate between entertainment value, and ridiculousness. Because the gold chains, the pretty handbags,the cars, the beautiful people, and the palm trees and VIP access is really enticing on screen...but let's just hope the behaviours are truly an anomaly that are captured, and that the real professionals are operating with a bit more civility.

I'm going to go back to calmer pastures, and quieter programs. I'm going to read a new book to un-train my mind from this million dollar GHETTONESS, maybe do a little more writing, and just call it an evening.



OK...maybe just ONE more episode. And then I quit. For real.

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: The Poetry Express by Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete

I purchased Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete's book Shadow Walkers: The Glory of Kings at the recent Toronto International Book Fair, and received The Poetry Express as a bonus gift. I was drawn to read the poetry first, after reading the individual titles, taking a quick scan of the images, and realizing that this snippet of creations from Nabutete would be a great introduction into his other projects.

In this first edition of The Poetry Express, entitled "What Would I Want to Be?" Nabutete presents 17 pieces that explore a variety of topics, emotions, and writing styles. One thing is consistent: Nabutete is a compassionate artist, and also a thinker. A deep and critical thinker.

For me, it is difficult to assess and review poetry because the perception of each piece and each message will depend on the reader, the reader's state of mind, and their knowledge of poetry and experience with this form of writing. As a fiction writer--and someone who is admittedly not extremely familiar with the unique and beautiful art form of poetry--I was challenged to look at each piece as its own story and at the end of my reading, take a look at the collection as a whole.

There are 17 pieces, and they all resonate well on a social awareness level. Readers of all backgrounds can find familiarity, truths, and will be moved by the carefully constructed phrases, and the numerous questions that are highlighted within the writings.

In Vision, Nabutete discusses leadership, responsibility, and what we base our personal evaluations of life on. The Day I Met Myself explores the progression of life and the internal quest to self-discovery by challenging oneself. The Question is Why investigates why he has chosen the field of poetry/spoken word to express himself, while The Wave that Swept Away the Sea gets romantic and describes Nabutete's time with a particular woman and how he learned to put her needs first.

The poem The Wind That Blows explains how we never really know which direction political powers will move, and What Would I Want to Be explores the creation of Nabutete's art and how it should always evoke a positive feeling, elements of leadership, and reflect value. Few and Far In-Between investigates thoughts about time, opportunity, human hope and belief, while I Didn't Pretend continues to explore a romantic relationship and his role as a man.

How You'll Remember My Name reflects on racism, and Nabutete's understanding of Canada (I loved the line that read "they didn't realize I was a king"), and I The African Leader continues in the same direction, as he contemplates how he will create an inspirational image and legacy. The poem Nathaniel's Ode is about a childhood locale named Spruce Street, his humility and coming of age as a quiet soul, with a few words of encouragement for setting a plan and purpose for life.

Shisha and Tea (my favourite poem in the book) describes the shared pleasures between a man and woman, highlighting their deep connection, and the impact that special moments have on their lives.

The Horn of Empty, the longest piece in the book, is a writing that addresses the political upheaval in Kenya following the presidential elections of 2007, and the resulting climate. In this piece in particular, Nabutete's passion for Kenya is evident, as well as his dedication to understanding leadership, his hopes for the future of Kenya, and his recommendations for change.

Honey and Creation is a charming play on the natural beauty of honey, while comparing it to the emptiness of money and what it represents to the human soul. Coin Flip proposes that it is a sin to hide one's talents, and the importance of staying true to one's heart. Love and Joy reflects on the two "pillars that have been tried and tested," and I Took A Walk outlines the writer's reflection through his own personal history, and his journey towards self-knowledge.

From love to violence, politics to honey, internal exploration to external questioning, this book of poetry leaves you feeling as though you have touched on a variety of subjects, yet they all still hold the same central themes: understanding, awareness, progression, and purpose.

Through exploring these themes by constructing these poems and spoken word pieces, Nabutete proves to be a writer that is not afraid to expose his personal weaknesses and challenges, yet is also not afraid to celebrate his natural powers and culture, while aspiring for continued greatness. There is a quiet strength to his writing, and as a result lends to the perception that as a writer he is someone who is prepared to take on the toughest of challenges and subjects, but with the sensitivity and insightfulness to understand the bigger picture and social implications.

I was pleased with this introductory book of poetry from Elias Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete, and recommend that others use is a tool for self-evaluation through the various questions posed. It is an entertaining read, with helpful social messages as well. A great combination of Nabutete's knowledge and creativity.

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights. Top to bottom, my kind of film. All I needed to see was that Gina Prince-Bythewood directed and wrote this movie, and I knew I couldn't go wrong. She was a writer on A Different World and Felicity (two of my favourite "childhood" television programs), and of course, she is responsible for the film I watch at least twice a year since it came out in 2000, Love and Basketball.

There is a simplicity to Ms. Prince-Bythewood's stories; she always creates characters that speak to me. There is a cultural reflection that is always subtle, but definitely strong in impact. I am admittedly biased...I love (and prefer) to watch a "Black" film with Black characters, and Black writers. It is something inherent in me that I can not change. And as a story writer myself, I am moved by tales that are representative of my generational experience, whether in print, on television, or on the big screen.

It happened in Love and Basketball when Monica and Quincy were at the high school dance, jamming to Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, and then going off to college and living in the social climate that was personal and familiar to me as a viewer. It happens in Mara Brock Akil's television work as well (Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane). It is the images, and the surrounding soundtracks to screenplays like Beyond the Lights that document even the most commonplace and ordinary cultural occurrences...powerfully.

I admittedly wasn't prepared for a "love story". I thought this movie would be about the fast life, wild party scenes, and Hollywood fanfare that we are accustomed to hearing about. I watch TMZ and E! News regularly...I scroll through Instagram and Twitter, read blogs and consume products, and like to believe that I have my digital fingers on the pace of pop culture and urban entertainment.

So to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse at this behind-the-scenes love affair with Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker) was endearing. She started off in the film with full confidence, beauty, sex appeal, and all of the glitz and glamour that we imagine a Rihanna, Beyonce, or even a Britney, or Lady Gaga having. Being on top of the world with all eyes on them, admirers everywhere, and all of the perks and access a young woman could dream of.

But Noni's strength was quickly depleted when her suicide attempt was essentially the opening scene of the film. Again, I didn't realize the story was going to look at the dark side of fame, but I realized that I was in for a sombre look at stardom, and I was hoping that the reality of it would be very clear.

The connection between both Noni and Kaz--in the midst of Noni's dramatic incident...and in the midst of Kaz's own life-changing situation, as his father (played by the great Danny Glover) consistently encourages him to pursue a life in politics--was well depicted. Again, there was a simplicity to the love story, and a real naturalness to how and why the characters connected that it didn't matter that Noni was a superstar, or that Kaz came from a circle of dignitaries that shunned her image.

Perhaps it was their differences that made their connection so sweet...and perhaps it was because they were both striving to live up to the aspirations of their parents, while still just trying to navigate daily life on their own accord. Noni's mother (played by Minnie Driver...who I have adored ever since her role in Good Will Hunting and her hilarious guest appearances on Will & Grace) was a typical stage mom, trying her best to help her child achieve greatness, while sometimes compromising her integrity in the process.

Reminiscent of Kris Jenner, of the Kim Kardashians of our day...hell, and even of Brandy and her mother back in the 90s, these are characters and caricatures that we are all familiar with, as a result of pop cultural norms. Even in the unfamiliar world of pop stardom that few of us will ever actually live/achieve...there is a familiarity in the story behind the face, and the actions that drive the machine. We have seen the end results numerous times...but we rarely get the true, tabloid-free story.

Outlining Noni's journey towards self-love, self-understanding, and essentially her mission to find her voice amidst the politics and agenda setting around her, this movie really and truly is just a beautiful love story, set to an interesting backdrop of the exciting world of entertainment. A love story between a starlet and a police officer, and a love story between a single mother and her talented daughter.

This movie didn't try too hard, or present any images or situations that would be unbelievable in today's media climate. It felt like Noni was the face of many singers we have seen come, and go, and get destroyed by the industry, and rise up again. It felt like Kaz was a brother we all know, humble and well-intended, who falls hard and loves deep. And Macy Jean...she was the mother that exists in all mothers: wanting the best for her child, and sometimes not knowing where to draw the line between support and control.

Needless to say, in the end, all situations resolve themselves comfortably, without cliche and without disappointment. There's just enough humour, enough lust, enough seduction, and enough emotion to make the movie keep your attention throughout, and still lead you through the plot with a few surprises, and without seeming predictable or cliche-ridden.

Gina Prince-Bythewood is an expert at capturing a moment in time, telling a tale to the backdrop of a perfect soundtrack (oooh, I need to get my hands on THIS's full of soul and vibes), and in conveying messages of strength, of self-respect, and restoring faith in human relations and love. Regardless of the race of the characters...they are great stories, in general.

I had to see this movie right away (it was just released yesterday, November 14, 2014), and I'm pretty sure I'm going to watch it again in the next couple of weeks, AND I'm going to eventually add this DVD to my collection, and sit it right next to my all time faves Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar. I will watch it dozens more times in the future, for sure. As simple as it is, this is definitely the type of story that drives me to write MY stories, and I left the theatre today feeling great about the power of a fabulous narrative. The inspiration alone was all I could have asked for, and then some.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: "Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive" (T.D. Jakes)

God bless T.D. Jakes. Not only is he a captivating speaker, but he's also a compelling writer and story-teller. I recently finished reading his latest book "Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive" and I love the way he's used metaphors and imagery of the jungle, personal anecdotes, and the power of the gospel to motivate, encourage, and stimulate his readers.

Much like his widely-circulated sermons, 15-second Instagram clips, and motion pictures have spread messages of empowerment, praise, perseverance, and enlightenment, this book was nothing short of inspirational.

I first got wind of the book via an Oprah special, and hearing the New York Times Bestselling author T.D. Jakes speak to some of the catch phrases from his book. The one that really spoke to me was "instinct has a rhythm." That main theme carries throughout the text as he stresses the importance of listening to your inner voice, and following your passion, your goals, and trusting the natural vibration that will lead you in a positive direction.

It was a great read, and I am better off having digested these words. Here are a few of the fabulous points from Instinct that I made note of--they have been paraphrased:

01) If we are in touch with our instincts, then we will naturally increase our endeavours.

02) Successful businesses, healthy relationships, and most collaborative endeavours require a syncopated alignment of roles, responsibilities, and rhythms.

03) It is time to find the things you are created to do, the people you were meant to affect, and the power that comes from alignment with purpose.

04) Creative careers are produced from words, images, music...require resourceful resilience, and rely on instinct

05) Actively seek elements of excellence that inspire you.

06) Instincts transform adversity into opportunity.

07) Be willing to mobilize those around us to lead in the same direction as our destiny.

08) You can't take everyone with you, just because they were with you where you were before.

09) Many can imitate, but no one can duplicate what you do if you produce outwardly what you possess inwardly.

10) He who wins the race, cannot run with the pack.

11) Don't burn bridges behind you; enough of them will catch fire by themselves.

12) It is not the money, it's the confidence you gained while getting it. It's never the prize, it's what it took to get the prize.

13) God doesn't give details, he gives instinct and opportunity.

14) Never allow other animals to overwhelm you to the point where you lose your way to where you belong. Know your base. Be true to your purpose; never lose sight of your center.

15) Don't spend too much time investing in areas that are not central to your core purpose and passion.

16) Don't walk away from a 20-foot opportunity because of the chatter from 2-foot thinkers.

17) Be aware that you often take on the attributes of the group you gallop with, which will influence your outcome and destination.

18) The giraffe seldom bends low.

19) Strengthen what's within you to change what's around you.

20) Trust your instincts to release instructions.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

MTV 2014 VMAs - Superstar Beyonce & Nicki's Anaconda

Beyonce Knowles Carter just came in and stole the entire MTV Video Music Awards show! Just stole it. To the point where I forgot it was an awards show, and felt like I was at the "On the Run" tour itself. And it's a good thing she came on stage, because I was feeling otherwise pretty dismal about the state of popular music and the images these poor young females are being bombarded with.

It was all pretty unsettling...but then Queen B came out and did the damn thing with the right mix of confidence, talent, sexuality, and stage presence that these girls can learn from. She paid her dues, however. She did the Destiny's Child thing as a young woman, and has now proven to be a lady of class and grace, so even with Beyonce shakin it up and down the stripper pole on stage...there is enough context of her behaviour and her persona as a performer, that it was embedded in the right amount of context to make it OK. Great performance.

The appearance at the end from Beyonce's hubby Jay Z and that super duper cutie baby Blue Ivy was fabulous...what more can we say? Any more questions? Any more speculation about their divorce? That display of family affection as they presented her with the night's most prestigious honour (The Michael Jackson Vanguard Award), and the look of humility on Jay's face...Beyonce's genuine tears of gratitude. Even if they ARE divorcing, that whole episode was touching enough to make you not want to speculate about their woes right now. You want to believe they're a happy Hollywood family. You want to believe that the image presented has been true and solid as a rock. It was a nice touch to end the show.

As for some of those other performers (by the way, WHERE were the men tonight??)...not as captivating. Not enough history, not enough respect yet, and definitely not enough clout in the entertainment world for me to stomach their antics and outfits and nonsense. They haven't build up enough context yet for their personalities and actions...what we see is what we get, and that's what concerns me.

I'm so glad I am not a teenage female trying to grow up in the midst of this mess. The entertainment lover in me couldn't help but tune in for the overall adolescent MTV VMAs tonight; the "journalist" in me loves to see the reporting from the red carpet, reading the live-Tweets, and of course watching the post-awards recaps and reading the next-day fashion reviews. It's all good fun for me, and this awards show in particular is always full of excitement and headline-worthy moments, each and every year.

But Ariana Grande and them make me feel sad, because the tight leather, the bodysuits and high boots are too much for a like...14 year old? How old is she? It's too much. She obviously has a fabulous voice, but it just seems like too much sexuality too soon.

Even Miley Cyrus and the whole tongue and Twerking thing last year...she did something great this time around, bringing the homeless man on stage to speak during her acceptance award speech time. Nice gesture, and I suppose she really had to make up for last year's fiasco. Had it not been for that moment, I would still just look at ol Miley with disgust.

Every action, every pose, every outfit...everything is so closely emulated that you can't help but cringe sometimes when you see their actions, or hear them speak. My main thought is that I wish these young women would just be YOUNG women. Cute. Subtle. Even if they're in their 20s, it's still OK to at least hold on to some of that innocence.

Chances are, even though they are in their 20s, most of their fans are pre-teens and teenagers that will try so hard to emulate them, without the maturity or understanding. Last year's "Twerk" fiasco was a prime example...everyone took what they saw, misinterpreted the dance and ran with it based on that one performance. Just too much. Fortunately Miley kinda toned it down this year, but last year's scars are enough to disturb me for a lifetime. The "trying-too-hard" image is in abundance, and I don't know if it's because I'm OLD...or because I know that young women need something a bit MORE to emulate, and something with some substance, and some innocence, and some class.

I can't lie...I don't mind Nicki Minaj. And that's me as a 36-year-old saying that I like her music, and I think she's an original. She'll never be Latifah, MC Lyte, or Salt N Pepa, but it is refreshing to hear a female rapper...and Iggy ain't cutting it. Sorry. But OMG, what do the young girls who watch Nicki think? She's suddenly so hyper-sexual, yet so completely mainstream that it's really really disturbing! Fine, for a grown man/woman to see Nicki shake her ass...but how does a 14-year-old take that "Anaconda" video/performance in?

I'm sooo glad I grew up in the era of TLC, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and them where it was all baggy jeans, bandannas, and absolutely no nudity and sexuality-in-your-face. Yes, TLC wore all those condoms on their clothing...but they wore a lot of damn clothing, as well! Doc Martin boots, over-sized baseball jerseys. There was no pressure back then to have perfect makeup, a monster bootie, and a flawless mid-drift. All by the age of 18.

Again, it could be a generational thing, but I believe something can be said for leaning more towards the side of modesty and class and good-old-fashioned talent, rather than the gimmicks, the over-exposure, and the sexual antics. More personality, less "persona"... more talent, less trickery. More humility, less diva-ness. Some of these young girls need to earn their stripes, and come up authentically. Put in a couple decades of work before claiming their spaces. They need to look at the examples before them, and focus more on their art than the sale of their image.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for the "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Trouble in Paradise - the Celebrity Relationship Facade

I'm the first to watch it, first to believe it, first to be inspired by it...and first to be upset when it all falls down.

Back in July of 2012 I wrote about the powerful image of the celebrity couple, and how folks like Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, or Beyoncé and JayZ, could motivate and inspire us commoners to find love, sustain beautiful relationships, and create empires based on mutual interests and such.

I totally believe the hype! Every time! In fact, I enjoy the hype. Kim and Kanye...fantastic! A great mix of egos, and expensive clothing and vanity and beaucoup bucks. Completely entertaining as far as I'm concerned...but, if the current patterns of power coupledom are consistent, even those two will be wrapping up their nuptials by about 2018.

I don't take celebrity world too seriously, but I do enjoy it. As I've often stated, I can appreciate the power of an image, a message, and the brainwashing and manipulation that goes along with the presentation and reporting of these events and individuals. I watch reality television probably more than I watch scripted shows, and I take it for what it is: entertainment.

What stands out to me at this particular moment in celebrity history is the strong images that were projected about the couples in turmoil. For example, Beyoncé and Jay Z. No one else projects perceived perfection and power like those two. Just thinking about the "billion dollars in the elevator" and the amount of influence that the two of them possess separately, let alone together, makes them a couple worth watching.

With their recent "On the Run" tour, it seems to me like even fans started to tire of looking at the frozen smiles and staged photos. It all became too much. The secrets. The cover ups. The blatant PR spins, and of course, their inability to just keep it real and show their spectators a human side to them. As much as they are in the public eye and commanding respect and financial contributions to their seemed like they weren't willing to give much in return. Just more dancing. More boasting. And they drew the line at that.

As a fair-weather Beyoncé fan, I just grew tired of her. I love love love her music, have most of her albums, and obviously think she's a star like no other. Gorgeous, a great dancer, entertaining to watch and seemingly charming...even with all of that celebrity weight, she still get real annoying to me. Too much smiling. The perfectly timed Instagram photos. The staged outings and courtside NBA appearances all with a plastic grin and couture outfit. Not believable.

I always figured I was just a hater...but it seems like I'm not alone. After a while, the people want someone to believe in. Someone real. The entertainment takes you so far, but at the end of it, there needs to be an element of inspiration as far as I'm concerned. And the inspiration is only possible when authentic communication is taking place...and these people were starting to seem really really phony.

Another couple in the news this week is my beloved Mariah Carey and her little boy toy/husband Nick Cannon. They're apparently heading for divorce, and these rumours seems a bit more advanced and substantial than the "speculated" Bey and Jay rumours.

What interests me about the Mariah/Nick saga, is that within the lyrics of her latest album "Me. I Am Mariah" seemed to be some animosity towards him. Not directly, and I didn't read any dissections of the songs that would lead to these conclusions...but I could sense irritation. I could sense that maybe Nick was loving the celebrity limelight a little bit too much, that he was fronting a little bit too much, and that Mariah was far too successful (and mature) to be on that teeny bopper 106 & Park hype level with her man.

When they first hooked up it was really cute. On a Christian tip, and on a new love tip...Mariah finally finding love, and Nick hooking up with the woman of his was an adorable and romantic tale. As successful as Nick is, his shit seemed to turn up big time post-marriage, and I was impressed with his work ethic. He seemed to be everywhere, doing everything...unstoppable! Great for him, but with Mariah at home with "dem babies" it did even (from an un-informed distance) seem like...why is this little boy running around town, to Vegas, NYC and back getting jiggy, DJing and hosting 101 shows while he has a family to raise?

What do I know, as a stranger a million times removed looking in? Nada. But despite the fortune and fame...there is still a man, a woman, a family to raise, and basic expectations. And I guess Nick fell short. Most women might stick around and deal with it...but a woman of Mariah's stature ain't got time for that shyt. Been there, done that. Money's been made...she probably doesn't have the energy nor time.
WORSE that this little mf was on-air bragging about his former celeb conquests like Nicole Scherzinger and Kim Kardashian...tacky. Not acceptable. I'm not surprised that Mariah was like...uh uh. Enough is enough.

This is all speculation of course, but I'm sure in the next couple of months all of these rumours will become a reality. It's the nature of life...and the nature of the celebrity gossip cycle.

I don't wish anyone unhappiness, and I'm definitely not trying to make light of people's relationship difficulties...but it is a damn shame when the picture is painted so beautifully, when the images make you feel inspired, and the combination of power is enticing...and then the façade fades away, and (womp womp) the illusion is no more.

It's been happening since the beginning of time, and in another few months a new batch of "hot" news stories will be in circulation (there's always Rihanna, more Kardashians, and the countless other A-list celebrity faves to watch)...but right now I think the potential Beyoncé and Mariah separations are huge.

The key will be the way the stories are summarized, and the lessons learned post-breakup, if it gets to that. There still might be an opportunity to learn a lesson or two, or gain some insight as to how a relationship can manage to fail despite the ample access to resources, getaways, opportunities, financial stability, professional help, and the support of millions of fans.

Such is life in the fast lane...and I will stay tuned in to see how it all concludes, one way or another.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for the "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.