Monday, December 26, 2016

4 Ways I Can Totally Relate to "Awkward Black Girl" by Issa Rae: Book Review

I borrowed Issa Rae's book "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" from my friend's 13-year-old daughter, and couldn't help but feel a sense of joy that at such a young age she would walk away with the gift of knowing that an "Issa Rae" existed.  I knew that at her age--during her first year of high school--or at my age (25 years older), that we could both receive valuable lessons from the writer and creator of the new HBO series "Insecure."

The book is great. I knew it would be great from the moment I heard about it last year. Let me backtrack, from the moment I heard about Issa Rae herself from a few friends who insisted that I "HAD TO" check out her work, I knew that I would like this woman. I knew that whatever she had to say was something that I would most likely relate to because I, even at the age of 38, definitely knew that for the majority of my life (and still, currently?) I was her and she was me: an awkward black girl.

So easy to say now...but at the age of 13, or throughout high school, and even in the early "college years," issues of race and identity were anything but simple. Particularly growing up in Canada. Particularly growing up in Ajax, Ontario. Particularly when you come from an upbringing that is not visible in the mainstream media, or when you look at a reflection in the mirror that is not one that is popularly circulated.

Yes, there were televisions shows, some movies, and a few characters that were around back in the day for young black girls to relate to...but they were few and far between. And they definitely weren't media mavens, building empires, collaborating on television projects for huge networks, and writing NY Times Bestsellers. So while the "image" of Issa as a black woman isn't new...what she represents is totally something groundbreaking.

She's only 31, a native of Los Angeles with a Senegalese heritage. She's Stanford educated, and through a series of trials and errors, moves cross country and back, and a variety of entertaining and humourous life experiences...she has become THE Issa Rae. The Queen of Awkward Black Girls.

In fact, Issa Rae is so incredibly appealing that she makes you want to embrace your inner Black Nerd, and wholeheartedly celebrate your awkwardness. Once you read about her life...even pushing forty...you realize that maybe you weren't so alone all along. Great for me to read this at 38...even greater for my friend's daughter to read it at 13.

Here are 4 ways that I can totally relate to this author, and why her book resonated so strongly with me:

1) Issa listed Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Love & Basketball" as one of the movies that shaped her mind and changed her life as a young woman. "It was the very first time I had seen a woman who was just normal black on-screen..." she says, which completely echoes my thoughts about this movie (one of my all time favourites) as well as "Brown Sugar." While it was great to watch the 'hood flicks like "Juice" (another fave) and "Boyz in Da Hood" (everyone's fave), there was something so sweet and casual about the average black romantic comedy that didn't put blackness on blast, and showed our people as just regular folk, without the dramatics of ill stereotypes taking over the plot. These are the types of movies that drove my personal writing of Canadian Urban Fiction, and the movies that continue to resonate with me: everyday tales of people that look like me.

2) Issa attended a predominantly white elementary school, before moving to Los Angeles where she was shell shocked by what she refers to as the "hair hierarchy." Um, where to begin with this one? Sometimes you don't realize what you're going through, until someone else clearly outlines it almost word for word, and you can't help but nod your head in recognition. Yes, I too attended a school that was mainly white, with sprinkles of ethnicity. At the time, I loved it. I was comfortable. I didn't know any better, after all, and I didn't even feel out of place among my peers. In fact, it wasn't until moving outside of that environment (much like Issa's move to LA) that I became acutely aware of the "hair hierarchy" and the judgement that went along with it. I love this quote: "Despite whatever was trending, I couldn't understand why people were so concerned with how my hair looked when it grew out of my scalp." As a child, I went along with the "perm" and other hair practices forced on me...but when I was old enough to get "woke"...I quickly stopped the relaxers (during my twenties, during university) and eventually transitioned into locs (after graduation). Did I fully understand what Issa refers to as "the history and social implication of my natural hair"...maybe not. But I did somehow end up on the right side of my personal righteousness, despite the fact that the vast majority of my peers were experimenting with bi-weekly hairdresser visits, weaves, and wigs...while turning their noses up at my transitional nappy head and basic styles.

3) Her obsession with the internet. These particular examples made me laugh. Out loud. Because in the secret spaces of early-age social media (MySpace and Hi5), and the chat room renaissance era...I was quite the pro. Again, these are circumstances and practices that I maybe wouldn't have thought twice about, but reading Issa's adventures online and the creative freedom it provided her with as a writer...I totally found a parallel with the comfort and ease I felt in meeting new people, through words and writing. Not to the catfishing level...but just the comfort zone of communication. And lots of it.

4) Her obligation to write about race is hard to ignore. Ditto. Issa mentions that "It's as though it's expected of me to acknowledge what we all already know. The truth is, I slip in and out of my black consciousness, as if I'm in a racial coma.. Sometimes I'm so deep in my anger, my irritation, my need to stir change, that I can't see anything outside of the lens of race." Nuff said.

That is what makes me admire her so much, and feel like we are somewhat on the same creative journey. There's the acknowledgement of growing up feeling like an "unconventional" black girl, just based on environment and circumstance alone. Then there are elements of overcompensating in an attempt to "fit in"...which I would have NEVER EVER admitted in the past, but can clearly see now. And then, there's the adulthood/maturity lens and the racial lens that continues to guide decisions and the overall life journey: there is no way you can avoid talking about all of these things.

There's no way to be an honest artist, and ignore the impact of race in your life and your experiences. There is no way to acknowledge "being black" without HONESTLY acknowledging that even within that blackness, there are stages and levels, degrees of racial performance, and rituals, and lessons every step of the way. These are lessons that most of us had to learn on our own, growing up, and dealing with life day by day. Again, thanks to Issa's book (and her web series, and her TV series), there is a generation of young black woman (awkward, or not) that have references to look at. They have examples, and success stories, and a variation of types to draw from.

My black female role models in the media growing up were primarily American (via A Different World, The Cosby Show, Martin, Living Single, etc.) or were hardcore Jamaicans (via music and video). Issa, and many other "millennials" growing up in this era are lucky because they have NUMEROUS examples to choose from without feeling like they are failing miserably at one, or constantly seeking an alternate viewpoint.

It's all a part of life. Of maturing. The changing face of pop culture. Trends, and opportunities. It's brilliant to watch, and refreshing to see implemented.

Other elements of the book that are worth mentioning, although not particularly "my experience"...

The chapter on Black Women & Chinese Men is hilarious, yet so on point. She notes that they're both on the "bottom of the dating totem pole" in the U.S., and the reasoning is jokes. In conclusion: she recommends that they get together...and make Blasian babies.

Her references to ordering CDs from Columbia House, downloading music from Napster, and logging on to the internet through AOL were just great to read. These references are so generational, and the window of hypeness so small for each of the individual phenomena, that either you get it...or you don't. In this case, I totally did.

God bless Issa Rae. She's dope. I look forward to now backtracking and checking out her web series that started in 2011, and eventually getting up-to-the-times by watching "Insecure" her new show, that just started in fall of 2016.

Most importantly, I look forward to the awesome opportunities that will be there for my friend's daughter, and for my nieces, and other young black girls dealing with varying degrees of identity issues, as they navigate the world as black girls with different talents, tones, family constructions, and experiences...and already start out with solid reflections of themselves all around. There's Shonda (Rhimes), there's Ava, (DuVernay) there's Mara (Brock Akil)...and now, the brilliant Issa. Thank God for them all!



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

Friday, December 2, 2016

The "Gilmore Girls" Reunion Was Awesome

The latest installment in the Gilmore Girls saga, "A Year in the Life" was outstanding. Brilliant, even. I enjoyed every minute of the four-part series.

What a great trend we've stumbled upon lately, thanks to our friends at Netflix: revisiting old television shows, bringing beloved characters up to the present time, and completing the circle. Unexpectedly. It's a nice treat.

This particular special juuuust came out on November 25, and it definitely didn't disappoint. It was everything a Gilmore Girls fan could want, with all of the eccentric characterizations and Stars Hollowism's that you could dream of.

It made me laugh, it almost made me cry (I was close, though!), and it for sure gave me all the warm and wonderful feelings of joy, and great soundtrack music that I came to expect from this program.

If you didn't like the show originally, chances are you wouldn't appreciate the additional four episodes that we old school fans were blessed with. And if you DID happen to watch the program when it originally aired for seven seasons from 2000 to 2007, then this latest look at the Gilmores was well worth the wait.

It was great to see Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) still together, still in love, and really still looking like not much time had passed at all.

Fabulous to see Rory (Alexis Bledel) as an "adult," although unfortunate that her career--or her love life for that matter--didn't work out the way we as viewers would have imagined. I enjoyed watching her journey, and flaws, and totally LOVED the surprise ending that has me hoping and praying that in another few years we'll get another television special to see what becomes of her special situation...

Even the unlikable and snooty Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop) became endearing in this episode, figuring out her new life while mourning the loss of her husband Richard (Edward Herrmann, who passed away in 2014) whose death in the program was a major element of each character's transition.

Kind of impressive that the vast majority of the characters in this show (including superstar Melissa McCarthy as Sookie...yay!) were able to make appearances in "A Year in the Life." It was wonderful for the nostalgia, and made everything extra believable. You could almost feel the genuine emotion in some of the scenes, as I'm sure they were all quite happy to work together once again.

An honourable mention goes out to actress Liza Weil who plays the erratic Paris Geller, and also now plays uber-loyal Bonnie Winterbottom on "How to Get Away With Murder." She is a phenomenal actress: extremely believable and excellent as both Paris and Bonnie, without compromising the strength of either. Someone get this lady an Emmy!

Sally Struthers as Babette was still nutty, Matt Czuchy as Logan was still charming...and the town of Stars Hollow suddenly seemed like a comforting place to be, and not as wacky as it was in the early 2000's when I originally watched the show. In my old age, I do believe I have grown to appreciate everything wholesome about those folks, and the stories that surround them.

Not much else to say, but kudos to the show's creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel, for writing entertaining, heartwarming episodes (across the years!), and for staying so incredibly true to the characters. I didn't realize how much this show meant to me until the four-parts ended and I found myself happy that I was able to glimpse back into the streets of Stars Hollow for a moment...and even happier to see that everyone there is doing just fine. Better, even.

Excellent, excellent storytelling. 



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

Monday, November 28, 2016

6 Black Male Journalists That Fascinate Me, Lately

Black male journalists: there are many. Across mediums. Across genres. Across disciplines, and of various generations. But these six in particular have been main sources of news, information, jokes, and entertainment for me for the past year. To say they have fascinated me isn't to say that I agree with all of their perspectives or personas 100%...but this fascination led me to tune in, to YouTube them, Google them, and to stay up-to-date on their musings and declarations.

1) VAN JONES

He is the black man of the hour. The voice of passion, the one tugging at our heart strings, and the winner of the pre- and post-election coverage, as far as I'm concerned. He moved everyone with his tearful "whitelash" statements after Trump was declared the winner of the media war, and he has continued to speak logic, fact, and with a very rare sincerity that is hard to come across on television.

The brother is extremely likable, to say the least. And intelligent. Raw, and trustworthy. He's been around for a while, and was recognized for a great number of things over the past twenty years for his work in environmental and human rights. A Yale-educated attorney, he is an intellect as well as a compassionate soul.

The author of two books, "Rebuild the Dream" (2012), and "The Green Collar Economy" (2008), Van Jones has dedicated his career to advocating for environmental as well as human rights. He is the founder of many non-profit social justice organizations, and has been a leader on clean-energy economics for a good while. He served as a White House policy advisor to President Obama, particularly in the area of "Green Jobs," and has a clean reputation in global leadership and creativity.

And if that wasn't enough, it was also cool to learn that he was the "secret advisor" to Prince, and handled his humanitarian work low-key before his passing. Whatta guy.

A native of Tennessee, many are calling on him to run for President in 2020. My thoughts? I would hate to see this soul damaged by that corrupt political system. I really appreciate his role as a commentator, and expert, and think that his contributions to society have already been great without putting him in the mix of that Washington circus, more than he already is.

I look forward to seeing more great things from this brother, and believe that public expectation for him has increased exponentially, as a result of his outstanding political coverage during this year's election news cycle.

2) VAN LATHAN

As a self-professed TMZ addict, I am naturally drawn to the one black voice of racial balance, knowledge, and intellectual comic relief on the program. I watch TMZ to catch up on my celebrity news...but I stick around for Van's perspectives and insights. I love that show because despite all the celebrity fanfare and interaction...everyone in the office seems like an average employee, annoyed at their boss, rolling their eyes, and just tolerating another day at the job. Van represents that dude at work that makes it worth waking up and sitting in traffic every morning. The one guy that has all the witty commentaries. The one who you look forward to running your theories and ideals by because you know he'll have great feedback, and thoughtful contributions. He's the guy that when everyone is obnoxious and self-righteous, can hit you with one well crafted sentence that just quiets the room. There's a very, very appealing intellect about this brother that is hard to ignore. It makes an otherwise "trivial" television program all the more interesting to tune into once (or twice) a day...don't judge me.

What else do I know about Van? Absolutely nothing. It is near impossible to find any biographical information about him online...but I still attempt to uncover more news and insights into this journalist. And the next time I'm in L.A. I'm for sure getting on that TMZ Tour bus, and hoping for the best.

3) CHARLEMAGNE THA GOD

Aside from an unhealthy TMZ obsession, where else can a girl look to stay up to date on her pop culture news? THE BREAKFAST CLUB, of course. The Power 105.1 interviews by Charlemagne, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy give me life. They are THE source of interesting hip hop news, to say the least. I love what it has become...a go-to source, for many.

Charlemagne used to be the hardest brother on earth to stomach. He was obnoxious, and loud, and a know-it-all. He was offensive, and uncomfortable, and a bully at times. I couldn't look at his face, read his Tweets or anything...

And then one day, the brother became extremely likable. And I actually appreciated his perspectives. He was suddenly refreshing! I'm not sure how or why the change happened, but I actually followed his social media accounts, started watching his interviews regularly, and he became one of my new sources that I enjoyed catching up with.

We don't get MTV2 up here in Toronto with our cable, so I haven't tuned in to Guy Code, or Uncommon Sense, or any of the many other programs that he is responsible for. But I have to commend this guy for his hustle. He's everywhere. As both a radio and television personality, Charlemagne has become one of our generation's go-to guys, and I'm no longer mad at that.

A South Carolina native, he used to work with unbearably-unbearable gossip queen Wendy Williams...but now has nestled comfortably on the New York radio station in a role that I think suits him well.

I appreciate that he doesn't hold back. Sometimes it's awkward as hell, but at least you know what you're getting when it comes to him. He's the kind of guy that if he was your friend, he would keep it all the way real with you. As much as I don't like everything that he says, at least you can trust that he is speaking his mind and definitely not faking the funk. His candor, and his opinionated nature is refreshing.

4) TREVOR NOAH

What a breath of fresh air this guy is, too. So ridiculously witty and charming and interesting to watch. I spent a few hours YouTube-ing some of his stand up specials, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed them. And laughed! He has such interesting perspectives. I don't watch his television program every night, but I do catch the highlights when they circulate and always vow to make it a regular part of my schedule.

He's brilliant, and I think he was a great successor to Jon Stewart last year on The Daily Show. In fact, the more I get to know about him, the more brilliant I think he is.

Born in South Africa, he was a soap star and radio personality there, before coming to America a few years back to pursue his career in stand up comedy. A few specials later, he became a great source of racial humour, political commentary, and all around cleverness as far as I'm concerned.

Also a young boy, at 32, I think he has an amazing career ahead of him. I have yet to catch up on all his wonderfulness, but think that he is an intelligent brother (who happens to speak over 6 languages, including Zulu, Afrikaans, and German...) and that the media is a better place because of him.

5) MICHAEL CHE

Can we call him a journalist, based on his Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" alone? Why not! I know he is a comedian by trade, but I have come to know him as a reporter for one of my favourite television shows, and look forward to the interludes he has each week on SNL with Colin Jost. Even if the rest of the episode is wack (and lately the show has been totally on point!), I know that I can always look forward to the Weekend Update for a couple of jokes and insights.

He starter there as a writer for SNL, which automatically gives him credibility in my eyes...because the show just got super "lit" around the time when he and a few others came on board. I also love that he was a correspondent for Jon Stewart (one of the white male journalists that fascinate me) on The Daily Show. He has the perfect mix of political satire, urban humour, and common-sense logic that I love.

He's only 33 years old, but he's definitely someone that I think it's about to get an even bigger come-up on the scene soon. I anticipate watching his career grow, and know that with his wit and hilarity, it will only produce great things.

Next step: I hear that I need to check out his Netflix stand up special...I look forward to seeing him in his natural element, and hearing what goes on in his mind...unfiltered.

6) DON LEMON

I literally started Tweeting CNN to get this guy off the air, a few years back. In the midst of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, extreme racial tensions, and sensitive media coverage, I was livid. His reporting was corny, insensitive, and ridiculous. I called this guy a claffy, and every degrading name on the book...publicly, which is something I normally wouldn't dare do. But Don Lemon irked me, beyond. He was cocky and out of touch with reality. He was guilty of making numerous comments against blacks, and janky reporting advice like "pull up your saggy pants, black guys" in years past. He was an elite jerk, and I couldn't stand him. I hated having to look at his face during my CNN-addiction phase. I resented him.

Buuuuuut somewhere along the line...I warmed up to him. I saw him begin to mature in his blackness, and his perspectives became less aggravating. He suddenly became a voice. He suddenly began to "get it" and he didn't make me want to change the channel on sight. Don Lemon grew into his role as a journalist, and became tolerable to me. Almost endearing.

That's not to say that I agree with his approach, his opinions, or his demeanour all the time. It's also not to say that I think he's the greatest "black male journalist" out there. But, I do rate him for improving, and for really, really trying to be influential and groundbreaking. He has a prime time spot on CNN, and as much as people knock the station and its messages...it is an extremely influential spot to be in.

He's 50 years old, a Louisiana native, with a degree in broadcast journalism from LSU. He's been with CNN for about ten years now, and also worked with NBC early in his career. Will I read his autobiography "Transparent"? Probably not. Will I continue to watch him on CNN...definitely. While he may never be my #1 source for information, I do give him credit for being a constant source of television news, and for trying desperately to wrangle his unruly guests for a couple of hours each evening.

Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I learn. Sometimes I cringe. But I always watch. I have to give him credit for that.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

7) Tavis Smiley
8) Roland S. Martin
9) Terrence Jenkins
10) TJ Holmes



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





Sunday, September 18, 2016

Masai Ujiri's "Giants of Africa" Documentary at TIFF

God bless Masai Ujiri.

I knew that I had to see the documentary based on the Toronto Raptors' president's organization "Giants of Africa" as soon as I heard it would be featured at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year. 

As a fan of the Toronto Raptors, one can't help but be proud to see how in just a few years the team has transformed into a powerhouse within the NBA. The fan base has expanded exponentially, media coverage, merchandise, awareness, and overall excitement for the Toronto home team has been electrifying to say the least. Basketball lovers around the world have witnessed the phenomenon that is "Jurassic Park," and viewers outside of our country have taken notice of the Raps in a real way. Masai is a huge part of this change, and this energy, and his influential hand has touched more than just the world of professional sports.

Giants of Africa--the organization--is exactly what people in positions of power and influence are supposed to do. They're supposed to give back. They're supposed to support their homeland. They're supposed to motivate the people around them, and they're supposed to do it with genuine love and intention. What I enjoyed about the Giants of Africa film is that after hearing about the organization over the years, and knowing generally what its mission was...it was very powerful to see the impact that it had on the players, the coaches, and sports in Africa/for Africans overall. Particularly in Nigeria.

The mission of the Giants of Africa organization, which was founded in 2003, is to "use basketball as a means to educate and enrich the lives of African youth." The film takes us on a journey from Masai's office in Toronto as he plans the logistics of his summer, right to the final all-star game at the end of the camp season in Nigeria.

We are familiar with Masai. We see him in interviews, at Raptors' games, and his presence in the city is felt. And while he is uber-successful and legendary as the first African-born general manager of a North American professional sports team...the film also shows his humility, and his dedication to the bigger picture. We know him because of basketball, but his mission as a mentor is so much greater.

Born and raised in northern Nigeria to parents who worked in healthcare (his mother was a doctor, his father an administrator), Ujiri played college basketball in the U.S., and also played professionally in Europe before becoming a basketball scout, which is what led him to the Toronto Raptors in 2008 initially, and again in 2013. Also serving as the director of the Basketball Without Borders program, Ujiri has been committed to the international basketball environment, while still excelling with his home team.

What we see in Giants of Africa is the time and the care that Ujiri puts into organizing his basketball camp and the many young souls he interacts with along the way. While this movie could have easily focused on the successes of the coaches, the mentors, and possibly even some of the stars of the NBA, it instead singles in on the individual young men who have been selected to participate in the camp, and how it directly influences their lives.

From the beginning, we see that while the workshops and sessions are designed to improve and strengthen the players' skills on the court, it is also obvious that basketball is just a tool to a much more important message and lesson. 

The young players travel great distances from their home towns in many cases, to attend one of the camps set up by the Giants of Africa in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and South Sudan. We watch as the accommodations are selected, as the boys arrive and receive their gear and greetings, and even sadly see the dozens of other young athletes gathered around the gates of the venues just hoping that they too could be "on the list" and receive this opportunity of a lifetime.

We are introduced to many of the characters individually, like Sodiq, and Lino. As the film brings us through their daily drills and training, warm ups, chanting, meals, and socializing, you can't help but be moved by their bright smiles, determined eyes, and sun-kissed skin. It is an image of Africa that is inspiring and hopeful; an image of youth and energy and passion. The audience sees it, the coaches see it, and of course Masai sees this vision and the influence it has had over the past 13 years his organization has been in operation.

Hard work. Living honestly. Loving your mother/sisters/women. Being positive. Staying accountable for your actions. Loving your country. These are the messages that Ujiri drills into the young men, when they aren't being drilled on the court by a number of coaches and mentors from the league, from the continent, and from within the profession. It is particularly special to see Masai's long time mentor, Coach Oliver Johnson (OBJ), an American who had coached basketball in Nigeria for 40 years, including their national team. You can feel that Masai aspires to influence the young men in tribute and in the tradition of how OBJ mentored him. The campers are physically pushed to their limits, yet still hungry to do more and learn more...this is a special opportunity for the 50-60 youth (per country) to attend this elite camp, and it is evident how grateful they are for the experience.

Between drills, and at the beginning and ending of their sessions, they meet and dialogue with their coaches and mentors; they are reminded of why they are there. They are special. They are talented. They are encouraged to dream big, and they are reminded how important they are as individuals--regardless of their challenging circumstances.

What I loved most about this film is that the message wasn't to "get to the NBA" or to become professional athletes as a means of achieving success. Yes, it was mentioned by a few of the campers, but it was never emphasized by the instructors. The camp was more of a motivational tool to remind the young men that they should always dream big and work hard to achieve their goals.

In the most riveting scene of the movie, Ujiri urges the young men to make a difference in Africa. He demands this of them. Frustrated with an unfortunate encounter with one of the facilities (who refused to open the gym doors for the boys to practice one morning), he reminded the campers that they didn't have to be influenced by particular patterns of the culture that they often witnessed. He mentioned that while some Africans in power were driven by ego and money, that they should never value those things. Ujiri told the group of focused campers that they should be leaders at home, positive influences to their siblings, and role models in their communities. He reminded them that education was an essential tool to achieving any and everything in life, and that they could be powerful and influential in many ways. His message wasn't about getting to the NBA...it was about getting through life with integrity and purpose: he insisted that they "change" Africa! I have no doubt that each of them will, in their own way.

To date, the Giants of Africa organization has seen over 80 of their campers attend high school and university in the U.S., and they've had over 100 of their young men attend university in Nigeria. There have been more than 30 athletes from this program who have played for the Nigerian national basketball team as well.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) had great vision when deciding to take the work of Masai Ujiri to the big screen. Along with the work of a strong team including cinematographer Chris Romeike, producers Josiah Rothenberg and Michael Gelfand, and of course Hubert Davis the Academy Award Nominated director of the film. This story represented the heart of basketball...beyond the sport itself. It was a reminder that behind every player--whether on the NBA floor before millions, or on a community court in Kiberia--there is a story of a young man who had a dream, and worked hard to achieve it.

We have the privilege of seeing the beautiful landscapes, and also some of the crowded and impoverished areas of the continent throughout this movie. We are reminded of the brilliance and diversity of the African people, as well as the struggles of humans everywhere. Giants of Africa, and the contributions of Masai Ujiri, are a great testament to what can be done when you have the opportunity to positively influence others. His humility is evident, yet his power and influence is overwhelming. We are lucky to have him lead our home team Toronto Raptors...but luckier to have him as a role model for young men who are dedicated to the game.


Photos via Giants of Africa Instagram page.


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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Nick Cannon's "King of the Dancehall" Movie at TIFF

It ain't Shottas. It ain't Dancehall Queen, and it ain't The Harder They Come. Slightly closer to Belly, and very far from Cool Runnings. That being said, writer/director/producer Nick Cannon went hard with his movie King of the Dancehall, released on September 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). No: he doesn't speak with a Jamaican accent (phew!), and yes: the movie is thoroughly entertaining. This film was definitely electric and definitely gave viewers an inside look at Jamaica and the world of dancehall music and movement.

I will give Nick Cannon credit where credit is due: this is a good movie. And it's funny! In fact, just minutes into the movie I was wide-eyed and excited to hear dancehall music through the speakers of the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto. I was pleased to see images of Jamaica, beautifully arranged, and I was thankful that the 35-year-old American superstar took the time to visit, study, and communicate the wonderfulness of Jamaican music and culture, and share it with a wide audience. What's better than seeing the people and hearing the sounds that you love on the big screen?

For that reason alone, you should see this movie. If you love Jamaica, if you love Caribbean culture, and if you love dancehall and dancing, then you will definitely appreciate the respect and dedication that was given to telling this story. "Bless up" to Nick Cannon for taking the time to explain dancehall culture through narration from dancehall legend Beenie Man and through the voice of Nick's on-screen character "Tarzan Brixton." Kudos for Nick's commitment to explaining the history and significance of the elements of reggae music and the people that nurture it.

From the start, Tarzan explains how the moves that pop artists like Rihanna and Beyonce perform regularly for millions of adoring fans and emulators, have originated in the Jamaican dancehalls. He explains the significance of the performance, with a brief history of the island. And through the eyes of the American character Tarzan, after doing five years in prison, the viewers are introduced to the dancehall scene and journey to understand it along with him.

We've heard this story before, but it was still interesting to journey through the situation with the characters. A young convict trying to do right by his family. A hot dancer hoping to battle the current champion for respect and bragging rights. A drug dealer making a few smart moves and running the scene as a result. A bad boy falling for the good girl, and being seduced by a sexy temptress. Family drama. Judgmental and protective fathers. Slightly predictable, but still enjoyable, the plot moved nicely for the first half of the film...got a little strange towards the end, and concluded with a musical showcase featuring cameos from Beenie Man himself, T.O.K., Diva Nikki Z, Sean Paul, Richie Stephens, and of course plenty of dancing.

The ending...meh.

The joy of viewing this film didn't particularly come from a gripping plot with unexpected turns and clever epiphanies, but instead from the vibrancy of the music, the party scenes, the authentic look at the Jamaican landscape, and the overall vibes. Women wining. Men strutting. Motorcycles. Waterfalls. Sexy bodies. Romance. A couple jokes. But essentially, the dancing is what makes this film so captivating.

It was cool to see Whoopi Goldberg in the film, as Tarzan's mother in the U.S. (although somehow while her Jamaican sister spoke 110% full patois, Whoopi as "Loretta" was a straight Yankee). Always a treat to see Busta Rhymes on screen with a very convincing Jamaican persona. Collie Buddz was great, as the boss man "Dada," and Ky-Mani Marley had a small role in it as well. Familiar faces added some weight to the movie, even with Louis Gossett Jr. as "The Bishop." Side note: I was slightly confused with The Bishop's attempt at a Ghanian accent, but appreciated his appearance nonetheless.

My favourite character was Kimberly Patterson who played Tarzan's love interest "Maya." A beautiful dark-skinned sister with gorgeous locs and natural talent, it was fantastic to see her as the leading lady--it made for great scenes of nubian skin and sensual dancing, seeing her lead the American Tarzan's body into the movements and swagger of the Jamaicans.

Nick Cannon can move...I'll give him that. He really got into it. I appreciate the man he has become, the intellect expressed in his interviews and commentaries, and his success as a rapper/comedian/filmmaker/television personality/all-around entertainment guru. And while he used to linger in the "Nickelodeon"/corny dude category...this movie has definitely placed him in a grown-and-sexy-brother lane, as he bumped and grinded his way into dancehall stardom. I don't doubt that he'll be frequenting Jamaica often, after this experience.

Despite a few small shortcomings and a few "WTF?" scenes towards the end, it is clear that Nick Cannon has the utmost respect for the Jamaican people and culture. I recognize this contribution he has made to the ever-growing list of Jamaican films. I love that he chose Toronto for King of the Dancehall's debut, that he featured the talented and beautiful Canadian pop-singer-turned-dancehall-queen Kreesha Turner (as Kaydeen the bad gyal dancer), as well as hearing "Finch and Jane" ringing out through Vybz Kartel's "Money on My Brain" on the loud speakers along with other dancehall classics. These personal touches made it a great viewing experience for me...I hope that others outside of the culture and with lesser understanding of the elements of this story can still commend him for this "outsider's look" at the dancehall culture. By nature, it is something to behold.


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