Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thank You, Byron Lee

I grew up listening to Byron Lee. There was Byron Lee...and there was Bob Marley. Definitely a big deal. And then of course there was Ashford & Simpson, Whitney Houston, and countless other disco, pop, and soul artists that were playing in my household in the early 80s. Blondie. Music was music, and good music was good music. But of the most memorable artists, one of them was definitely Byron Lee.

He was raised in Manchester parish, as were my parents. Born in my dad's hometown of Christiana in 1935, and he trained in music in my mother's hometown of Mandeville. The son of an Afro-Jamaican mother, and a Chinese father, Byron Lee was a young athlete and member of the Jamaican national soccer team before his deep journey into music began. It was while playing for his college soccer team "The Dragonaires" that Byron and his teammate Carl Brady claimed the name for their new band.

They began playing ska and mento, but it was in calypso music that they found their strengths, and passion. I didn't really know the difference between Jamaican ska and Trinidadian calypso music...back in those days, under the age of ten, I just knew it was island music. Caribbean music. There were no lines. I loved the sound, and there was no question about it. I didn't think much about what particular island the sounds originated from. It didn't matter.

Now, I can successfully identify roots reggae, from dancehall reggae, from lover's rock-style reggae, and everything in between. I know the difference between calypso, and soca, and chutney, etc. etc. I can distinguish a Jamaican soca singer, and a Trinidadian reggae artist. There are so many sub-categories, and stereotypes and expectations associated with each version of the island genres, that only a real music lover could appreciate...or care about. And that's without even introducing the other "island" sounds like reggaeton and merengue, or bachata.

What brings them all together is the sound of the drums. The riddims. The unique combination of instruments. The way you instinctively feel when you hear the beats and the feel the energy behind the songs. When you know the circumstances in which they were created, and inspired, and performed. The ways in which you observe people moving to these sounds. It is the movement and performance of island music (in particular) that has me still listening to musicians like Byron Lee, decades, and decades after their careers first began.

He is, without a doubt, one of the most legendary calypso artists, who was embraced internationally, and able to transcend the genre lines and play soul and funk music as well, along with The Dragonaires. The officially band formed in 1950, originally with Byron and Carl, and by 1956 they were on a serious professional rotation in the Jamaican and Caribbean hotel circuit. They played their own music, and often backed up visiting artists like Harry Belafonte, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino.

Fun fact: they were even cast as the hotel band in the James Bond movie, Dr. No.

Recording many of their albums at the Dynamic Sounds Recording Company, previously owned by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga, they eventually bought the studio and recorded the likes of international acts like Paul Simon, and the Rolling Stones...amongst their own work. Byron Lee went on to become the head of distribution at Atlantic Records, Jamaica, due to his passion for the performing and recording arts.

In 1974, the band released the popular album "Carnival in Trinidad" and the island became a regular touring location for Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. They were embraced as a calypso band, and continued to tour the islands, including performances at major Jamaican festivals like Sunsplash, as well as touring North America.

By 1990, Byron Lee founded the Jamaica Carnival, and put his stamp on the island by uniting the sounds of reggae and those who loved it...with the sounds and performance of calypso music through Carnival and masquerade.

"The biggest problem was that most Jamaicans said it wouldn't work, that it isn't a carnival country, but I persisted 'cause I believed in it," said Byron. "I wanted carnival to go to the public. You always had other carnivals that were held mostly indoor, where persons had to pay to get in. I went to the people and choose Half-Way Tree where uptown and downtown meet. That is where the route will remain."

For the past 25+ years, this is what has been taking place on the neighbouring streets of Kingston, Jamaica around Easter time. The carnival continues, though comparably small, compared to the giant festival of Trinidad & Tobago, that Byron Lee frequented during the 60s and 70s to gain inspiration from.

It continues to this day, under different monikers and iterations, however Byron Lee's "Jamaica Carnival" took a temporary hiatus in 2008 after his passing from bladder cancer. It has only now just resurrected for the 2017 carnival, in which Wray & Nephew have sponsored Jamaica Carnival's return to the road.

The songs of Byron Lee, however, continue strong throughout the Caribbean culture. They are those classic "soca" oldies that can play in any dance, any wedding reception, or BBQ, and still bring a great vibe. Songs like "Tiney Winey," and "Ragga Ragga." Or how about the interactive "Walk and Wine (Conga Line)" or "Doh Rock it So." Byron Lee and the Dragonaires are responsible for so many calypso gems, that it's hard for anyone growing up under Caribbean influence in the  70s and 80s to not be moved by their work.

Byron Lee had so much influence, that after he was hospitalized for treatment in Florida, upon his return to Jamaica he was awarded the distinctive honour of the Order of Jamaica. Prior to this award, he had received an Order of Distinction (1982) for his contributions to music and entertainment, both locally and internationally.

When he succumbed to his illness in 2008, then Prime Minister of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, said: "Jamaica, and indeed the world, has lost another great music pioneers with the passing of Byron Lee, one of the greatest band leaders to ever grace the entertainment stages of the world."

As I prepare for yet another Toronto Carnival season, and continue to slowly explore the other Caribbean Carnivals of the world, I wanted to briefly reflect on the life and legacy of Mr. Byron Aloysius St. Elmo Lee, and the beautiful music he created that will continually be a part of my internal composition.

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Dave Chappelle in "The Age of Spin"

I saw Dave Chappelle perform live in Toronto back in 2006 at Massey Hall, and can't believe it's been a little over ten years since the peak of my love and appreciation for this comedic artist. I made sure I purchased those tickets the second they went on sale, and remember how difficult it was to catch a glimpse of this superstar at that time. He was hotter than hot, and I was happy to be in the audience downtown taking part in that experience.

Like most fans of Chappelle's Show remember, it was tough when the program came off the air because we all felt a gap in comedy for a minute. In "black" comedy in particular. There was a void that took a long time to fill. Gone were the days of laughing hysterically, and repeating lines by heart. There were hardly any other hilarious shows left on TV. Times were hard.

Eventually, Kevin Hart took over and refreshed our smiles as the comic-of-the-moment, but Dave was one of a kind. He was then, and he is now. And even with Kevin Hart still shining bright like a diamond out there in the world of entertainment, I can now see just how special Dave is with his return.

He is simply the best. I mean, Eddie Murphy was the best too. And to some Richard Pryor was the best. Etc. Etc. Every generation has their comedic genius, and in watching the Netflix special "The Age of Spin" (released yesterday) I quickly realized that Dave Chappelle is definitely THE comedic icon that I will remember, and appreciate the most.

"The Age of Spin" is a unique special. It's funny. It's definitely funny. But not in a tear-jerking kind of hilarity, or a punchline type of humour. It's funny in a traditional good-old-Chappelle way, but with an infusion of wisdom and intelligence, and social commentary.

His style hasn't changed. He still sounds the same, and has the same cadence and tone to his stories. He still looks the same, and moves the same. But he's beaming with a new confidence, and a really admirable sense of himself and the world that you can really appreciate the time he's been away, and can see how his perspective is better off because of his absence.

It was great to hear him talk about OJ Simpson, about the Bill Cosby scandals, the success of Kevin Hart, and even Bruce Jenner's gender transition. There are so many things that have transpired since we've had regular public access to Chappelle, so I'm glad he took the time to recap some of the pop culture and social highlights, negative and positive. It was nice to hear his perspective.

He touches on racism, as per usual, and even drops MLK and the Flint water crisis into his set. He has always had this unique ability to take the most awkward and uncomfortable and even depressing scenarios, and somehow...make them funny. He's "silly" at times and says some corny shit, but he's just also so brilliant that even the ridiculously inappropriate jokes are hilarious.
For instance, he has a segment about the Care Bears. And I can appreciate a lot of his references, knowing that he represents a generation that I grew up in. He's 43 years old, but immediately set himself apart from the current generation of smartphone-addicted, technology-obsessed people that many of us have transitioned into by default.

But he grew up in an era of Care Bears, and went to great lengths to describe the significance of the cartoon, and the innocence of the message, and its purity. As I listened to him tell this particular story, I was just extremely proud to have grown up in an era where Dave Chappelle was a comedic leader. Despite the other jokesters that have come and gone in the ten years that Chappelle took a slight hiatus from "celebrity life"...I felt comforted by his return, and like comedy was in good hands again.

The world is kinda messed up right now. The daily news is driving me crazy. The politics are unbelievably insane, and it's almost suffocating to imagine the potential outcomes of this current state of affairs on the world. So it is remarkably refreshing to have someone like Dave re-emerge and just speak his mind.

When he hosted that episode of Saturday Night Live, after Trump was elected...I remember feeling that same type of comfort. Like I knew that things were unstable...but I also knew that there were still a lot of great, and positive things in the world. A lot of critical thinkers. A lot of people who were clear-headed and acutely aware of the bullshit...but were also moving, and speaking strategically.

Comedy, and entertainment, and celebrity have a role in society. And just like journalists and scholars, these artists often reflect our world back to us, and remind us of who we are and who we aspire to become. What we hope to see.

In the strangest of ways, seeing Dave Chappelle emerge back on the scene (with a bang), has been one of the most comforting and satisfying occurrences in a good while. Somehow encouraging. Because he survived the negative press, and the rumours, and the speculation, and the fragility of his career. He waited. He lived. He learned. He moved at his own speed. And in life's perfect order, he came back to what he loves most--making people laugh--and he did so at a time when "America" and the world of entertainment needed it most.

By returning to the public eye now during this disgusting era of Trump-ness, and by adding his unique voice to the global conversation...Dave has proven to be an outstanding mind and a trusted familiar voice, among the unstable media "spin" and illusion. That is what makes him a genius. In comedy, timing is everything

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

HAJJI BLACKSTONE // Multi-Lingual Hip Hop Artist Highlights Harlem's LIL SENEGAL in Upcoming Project

Hip hop artist HAJJI BLACKSTONE is releasing his first solo project, entitled "Lil Senegal" and is proud to highlight the Harlem location characterized by a large concentration of Senegalese and West African residents. A Senegalese-American, Hajji has been a musician for years, participated in various group projects and group albums, but "Lil Senegal" will be his debut as an independent artist, and he couldn't have picked a more timely moment in history to highlight the immigrant story, and the cross-section of American dreams.

He's lived in America since the early 90's, and identifies most with the New York City/east coast lifestyle although he now resides in California, and grew up in the D.C. area. Despite there being various Senegalese communities in different states across the U.S., Hajji feels that the closest thing to Senegal on the continent, is the New York neighbourhood referenced in his project.

Challenging himself to a different sonic vibe, Hajji strives to incorporate more of his influences in this project, and differentiate himself from the popular hip hop cadences and tones. "I dared myself to be different," said Hajji. "But most importantly to be me. I went in the studio thinking I just want to make feel good music, and speak from the heart.

His creative inspirations come from all sources. "It could be a word someone said, a movie, a song, an epiphany, a book, a painting, an interview, anything. I operate off feeling. If I don't feel it, I'd rather not create. I don't like forcing the process; I just keep living and let it come to me naturally."

One of his most powerful motivators is pursuing his music, despite the doubts and discouragements of some.

"Where I'm from, people think you're crazy if you want to get involved in music, and sports, and things like that," Hajji said. "I could have been anything in the world, but I chose this route because I felt it was my calling. I believe artists can make a big difference in the world--even bigger than presidents, or any government."

Using Bob Marley as an example, Hajji notes that although he passed away decades ago, his messages still live on. Strongly. He would like his legacy to follow in the spiritual footsteps of his predecessors in music: "That's the type of legacy I would like to leave behind. Something positive, and durable. Something thought-provoking. Ideas live forever!"

Influenced by music from across the globe, Hajji speaks (and thinks!) in six languages. He's had the opportunity to visit almost every continent, with the exception of Latin America. He believes his home country of Senegal is a country of intellectuals, and tries to integrate that element of his culture in his music.

"Africa as a whole, and its diaspora definitely plays a big role in my work," he said. "Here in the States, and in Canada, everyone reps their hood, or their block. Well, I wanna show that I'm proud of where I'm from as well, and that I can run with the best of them. I would like to make my Senegalese people proud, you know...and God willing, also be able to make a real change. At the end of the day, Senegal is still a developing country. I say Senegal because that's where I'm from, but I relate to the struggle worldwide. Period. I've always sided with the underworld, and the underdogs. That's just me."

His core messages have always revolved around unity in diversity, although sometimes due to life and personal circumstances, he admits to having strayed from that main focus. Overall, he ensures that his message is positive, but he understands that the youth that listen to his music, and the music of others, are the future, and all artists do have a responsibility in their messaging.

"There's no love in these streets: I had to learn that the hard way," Hajji said. "I understand that it's a privilege to hold a microphone in front of if I say something, I try to say something that I can be proud of at the end of the day. Something that can affect and gear someone in the right directions, and make them think...but also feel good."

He's lived in Canada as well, and attended school in Montreal. With a group of musical friends from Washington, D.C., they migrated to Montreal because it was a bilingual city, and they would easily fit in, having come from a French school. He believed strongly in their vision as a group, as the friends performed in Canada, and also had the opportunity to travel to France and Africa for festivals as well.

"I thought we were going to be the next big thing, so I sacrificed everything for music...but unfortunately, we all went our separate ways after a while, for various reasons."

Hajji took this opportunity to take a hiatus from music, and realign himself to find his own sound. He believes that living in Canada helped to shape him as an artist, for live shows in particular. It was his first time living on his own, and he was proud of the name he was able to build for himself along with his peers.

"I have nothing but love for Canada," he said. "It's one of the most multicultural places I've ever lived."

Now a resident of California, Hajji is acutely aware of the volatile political climate, racial climate, and tries to hold his corner where he can.

"Like Talib Kweli once said his lyrics...'I don't f*ck with politics, I don't even follow it,'" he stated, citing his father's influence when it came to politics. "Growing up, my dad always used to tell me to never get involved in politics...especially coming from Africa, poli-tricks was like a synonym for corruption to us. I have never voted a day in my life, and I don't think I will ever vote...but that's just the rebel in me."

He's received backlash for his dis-interest in participating in the American politics, but he feels strongly that overall, history repeats itself. A strong believer in self-governance and self-empowerment, he thinks that the current state of affairs in the U.S. is sad.

"If I could sum it up in 3 letters, it would say: FDT!" he joked.

Overall, his main message to those paying attention to his career, his lyrics, and his voice in general, is that it's OK to be yourself as an artist.

"You don't always need to portray an image of who you are not, just to try to satisfy the public. Most people will tell you to do what's working, or what sells as the moment...I am all about doing what I do best, and trying to make it work. Granted, I haven't accomplished anything too crazy yet, and I'm still on the rise...but I think being yourself is the greatest satisfaction and reward of all."

Everything else that he has to say is in his music. The "Lil Senegal" project is on the way, and will be released this year via Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, and all major digital outlets. One single has already dropped, and he plans to release the remainder of the project this year when he believes it's maximized its potential as a whole, quality-wise.

You can connect with Hajji Blackstone on Instagram at @h_blackstone, or via Facebook at "Hajji Blackstone." Catch samples of his music via Soundcloud at HajjiBlackstoneMusic.

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Documenting the Toronto Caribbean Carnival Experience

I fell in love with carnival culture. Unexpectedly. And then I wrote a book about Carnival in Toronto. Out of necessity.

My parents are Jamaicans, and didn't grow up "playing mas" or "jumping up" in costume to celebrate emancipation, crop over, their culture, or the countless other reasons that individuals participate in carnival around the world. It wasn't until they moved to Toronto where they decided to take part in the tradition of carnival, otherwise known as "Caribana," and bring my siblings and I downtown to University Avenue to watch the colourful procession of masqueraders, costumes, steel pan bands, and the delicate constructions of Caribbean elation.

We celebrated our Jamaican culture in other ways: with oral traditions, foods, social practices, music, literature, movies, and visits "back home"...and carnival was never a huge part of that experience.

But like other young adults and teenagers in Toronto, when you're "old enough" to go downtown on your own...chances are, you can't WAIT to head down to the Caribana parade for the day, on a sunny Saturday morning-turned-afternoon-turned-evening in July or August. For most of us, if our parents didn't instill it in us as a carried on became a NEW tradition by default. A Toronto Tradition.

Growing up as a Caribbean-Canadian, in Toronto in particular, attending Caribana is almost a ritual in coming of age.

As a stand at the sidelines, watch the parade with your parents, steal glimpses at the sexy men and women in costumes, eat some fabulous food, and dance.

As a young adult, you look forward to the days when you are allowed to head down to Lakeshore Blvd (where the parade was eventually transferred to), to dance along WITH your peers, and perform your culture along with them.

As a's almost a mating ritual. Dancing, chipping, wining, bubbling, jumping, waving, and "getting on bad" with the others in the city that you may not have the opportunity to see year round. Meeting young men and women from other parts of town. Connecting. Partying. Seeing new faces...ESPECIALLY all at once. Caribana became THE place to be, because you knew EVERYONE was going to be down there.

Then there was the Yonge Street scene on a Friday night, and the ritual of lining the streets, meeting up with friends, watching the cars (ahem, rentals) drive by with the booming systems, and trying to decipher the Americans from the Canadians-fronting-as-Americans. Heading over to the Islands. Blockos. Seeing the bikers out in droves.

It was a thing. It was fun. It was life.

For some of us, Caribana was EVERYTHING as a young Caribbean-Canadian growing up in Toronto, in particular. Now, I can't speak for Caribbean-Canadian traditions in Winnipeg, Regina, Montreal, or Halifax, but I feel I know the Toronto experience inside out, at this point.

I was there, on the sidelines. I was there on Yonge Street. I was there at the countless, countless parties, and fetes, and blockos, and after parties, and pre-parties, and boat rides. I was there, and I loved every minute of it. I was there, because it was my [adopted] culture, and I LOVED the week of free and exhilarating celebration on our city streets.

I played mas for the first time in 2007 and had a BLAST. Up until then, I was content just going downtown to hang out on Caribana weekend, and party in the evenings. Take in the free concerts at Harbourfront, or the stage shows at Wild Water Kingdom. But playing mas opened up a NEW door in Carnival celebration for me.

Trinidadians (some, not all) perhaps have a different experience, by nature. Their island celebrates Carnival intensely, as we all know. They're doing it right now. 24/7. Across the board. Across generations. And it's an international phenomenon. To this day, I always get this excited buzz when Carnival Season rolls around...even though I have never been to Trinidad Carnival, I am dedicated to staying up-to-the-times on the music, the events, the live footage, and the festivities. It has become a passion, at this point.

But as a Jamaican-Canadian female with uber-Christian family values and a multi-cultural mix of girlfriends...Toronto's Caribbean Carnival became an extreme joy in my life. Playing mas turned into LOVING to play mas, which turned into curiousity about BUILDING mas, which turned into becoming a section leader in 2011 and designing, constructing, marketing, and documenting the costume-building process with a small group of women.

Building mas for adults turned into building mas and co-designing a children's Caribbean program and costume for carnival with friends. Kiddie Carnival became a great, great endeavour for me, and I would look forward to seeing the little ones take pride and have fun with this ritual.

Building mas turned into understanding the administrative side of mas, by participating in the marketing and communications of Toronto's Carnival culture with one of the city's biggest masquerade bands. The events, the production, the DJs, the scheduling, the promotions, and the politics. The Caribbean Carnival culture consumed me, and once it was in my system, I realized it was impossible to separate myself from this passion.

The feeling was indescribable. And yet I found myself repeatedly trying to justify it to hardcore Jamaican male friends of mine who INSISTED that Toronto's Caribbean Carnival was "not for me" and that it was a "Trini people thing." I was justifying it to family members, who were adamant that I wasn't "raised that way" to jump up on the street in bra and panty, and even some who were convinced that the ritual of Carnival was...well, less than Godly.

At times I doubted if I legitimately had a "place" in this world, and a true understanding of this "culture" that may not have been a die-hard Jamaican tradition, but was definitely a place where all Caribbean people gravitated towards, to claim as a collective bond.

I wanted to express just how exhilarating Carnival was, without sounding like I was justifying my own personal reasons for wanting to hang out, drink, lime, and party for a living. I was tired of explaining WHY I loved Carnival so much, when many of my peers grew out of it, and grew weary of the heavy crowds and masses crowded onto the Toronto streets during that time of year. They grew out of the club scene, and late nights on the street. They grew out of it, while I grew deeper into it.

The book "Carnival Spotlight" came to me because I wanted to tell the story of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival experience through the eyes of someone--an adult--who grew up in Toronto, but still had yet to intimately experience the Carnival culture. The adult I chose was "Delia Chinn," one of my favourite characters from one of my favourite books..."Video Light" that I wrote in 2008.

I wrote Carnival Spotlight in 2013, and continued the journey of Delia Chinn, the "Dancehall Queen" of Toronto, an avid dancer and party-goer. I took this Jamaican-Canadian character, and her Jamaican-Canadian husband...and I introduced them to mas. I introduced them to costumes. I introduced them to soca music, and to the mas camp, and to "liming," and I sat back and let the characters authentically experience Toronto's Caribbean Culture for the first time.

I wanted to document the Toronto Caribbean Carnival experience, as "I" know it, because I know that carnival itself is an industry that morphs and adjusts, and changes, and grows, and takes on new meaning and new form each and every time it occurs. From the political and administrative/management side of things, to the participant side of things, it is a phenomenon that is hard to explain sometimes...and even harder to quantify.

How do you express the joy that millions, and millions of people feel EVERY SINGLE YEAR by participating in this cultural ritual? How do you explain how an otherwise physically insecure male or female can bare their skin, and proudly strut down a busy Toronto street with the glares of strangers, television camera crews, enthusiastic tourist cameras, and co-workers watching them intently?

I used the story of "Carnival Spotlight" to document this experience, because in another 5 or 10 years, Toronto Carnival as we know it (or "Caribana" as we still affectionately call it) may become an entirely different event. I used the story of "Carnival Spotlight" to capture THIS moment in history, and tell the story of carnival the best way I know how.

Clearly, my story will be unique...and there are thousands of other perspectives on what Caribbean Carnival is, was, and should be. There are cultural fundamentalists that don't want to lose the traditional mas art forms; there are carnival outsiders who adopt this culture as their own and work desperately to fit in and understand its intricacies; there are casual participants who just want to lime and party, hear an iron band, dance, and go home. There are so many players, so many perspectives, and so many interpretations of Caribbean Carnival...and we're all expected to run a world-class festival...together.

"Carnival Spotlight" is the story of one woman, one man, and one experience with the carnival in Toronto. And hopefully in another 25 years when it develops and grows into a better version of the Carnival we know and love...this will serve as an entertaining historical document, letting yet another generation of Caribbean-Canadians see one of the many ways we can preserve, share, and revel in a culture that we love.

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Dave Chappelle's Co-Writer Neal Brennan Is Doing Stand-Up: Netflix Wins!

Dave Chappelle's making his highly anticipated post-SNL television comeback there, Neal Brennan has a stand-up comedy special circulating there now...and Netflix wins. Big time.

I stumbled upon "3 Mics" by accident, after watching Brennan's promotional interview with Charlemagne and the gang on the The Breakfast Club. His stand up special has been on Netflix for a little under three weeks now, and it's really, really good.

I'm a fan of Brennan by default. In fact, any fan of the Dave Chappelle show (that Brennan co-wrote, co-produced, and directed with his best friend from 2003 to 2005) has already been predisposed to like his thought processes, and have already spent countless hours laughing at his comedy sketches and sense of humour. Repeatedly. For years.

What else has Brennan written? He wrote for "Keenan and Kel," for "All That," for a show called "Singled Out," and of course also for the 1997 movie "Half Baked." He even directed a few shows for Amy Schumer, and wrote for Trevor Noah on The Daily Show...but I do believe that Chappelle's Show will always be his main legacy.

The best part about his stand up special was finally being able to hear him, unfiltered. His best jokes. His life story. His wacky one-liners, and getting to know the man behind all of those ridiculous sketches and the stomping partner of everyone's favourite comedian.

We already know he's a funny dude. He's down. He "gets it" fact he IS it. And he's been cavorting with Chris Rock and his reinstated BFF Dave lately, so if those guys rate him, he HAS to be a cool guy and comedic genius. Neal almost earns respect by default.

Hearing his story, however, gave him another layer, which was obviously intentional. You can tell it took a lot of bravery for him to dig deep into his past, family issues, insecurity, mental health confessions, and relationship history...but he did it. And even not knowing him more than another face on TV, I felt proud of him. It couldn't have been easy to finally step into the spotlight, literally, and tell jokes as himself. About himself.

His "3 Mics" special was just released on Netflix about two weeks ago, and I really do hope that this is a breakthrough in his career...that he deserves. Well, another breakthrough. Because if Chappelle's Show was THE only thing he ever did in life, that would still be OK as well.

But the concept was definitely dope. One mic was used for "One Liners," one for "Emotional Stuff," and the last mic used for "Stand Up" material. He moved effortlessly between the three, and made each component equally appealing...and equally entertaining.

The one liners were typical, thoughts that probably came to him on a whim, that didn't find a place anywhere else, but stood perfectly fine alone. The personal confessions were actually more intense than I expected, but I truly appreciated his stories about battling mental health, and a complicated relationship with his father. His childhood, his subsequent success, his celebrity "worship" (that wasn't the word HE used...), and his place in the world of comedy...all very enlightening. With the third mic, the stand up mic, it was obvious that although this element of his character is pretty new to most of us, it was an element he fit in effortlessly, and one that I hope he flourishes in. He's a funny guy! No two ways about it.

Neal was once quoted as saying, "The relationship is charred. I don't think Dave ever wants to be in showbiz again, and I wouldn't want to work with him. We did the best thing we could have possibly done, and it still ended terribly. What else is there to do?" Thank goodness that didn't turn out to be the case, as he recently wrote for Chappelle's post-election night appearance on Saturday Night Live, followed by the announcement that Chappelle signed on to do three Netflix specials.

The Comedy God's are smiling (and so are comedy fans), and I'm happy to see this bromance come full circle again. And as an unlikely byproduct, I'm also happy to have learned about Neal Brennan the man, and can't wait to see what else the matured and socially awakened versions of these brothers ends up producing. Laughter is needed more now than ever, and their timing couldn't have been more perfect.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

DIVA TOUR DIARIES: "Madonna Truth or Dare" & "Mariah's World"

Back in 1991, Madonna was everything innovative and exciting to young girls. Especially young impressionable girls who took in that year's super-scandalous tour documentary: Madonna: Truth or Dare.

And a scandal it was! There was homosexual kissing, simulated sexual acts on dinnerware, and of course the ever-popular masturbation scene during "Like A Virgin" and Madonna's subsequent threat of arrest while performing it in Toronto.

Her relationships with Warren Beatty, arguing with her manager Freddy DeMann, and lusting after Antonio Banderas. Reflecting on Sean Penn, flirting with her dancer Oliver, and nursing a sore throat. The movie was a hit that year, and took in $29 million in box office sales. The Blond Ambition Tour was quite possibly the height of her career, relevance, and stardom. She had figured out the formula for pop success. From time.

I know this movie like the back of my hand, because I watched it religiously as an adolescent. Not only did I love Madonna's music, but I loved how BOLD she was! I loved her for the same reasons all of her fans did: because she was interesting and entertaining. Add a love for the entertainment industry and behind-the-scenes fanfare, and you have a perfect storm of drama, music, logistics...and of course, diva behaviour.

I hadn't thought much about Madonna's tour documentary in decades, until the last episode of Mariah's World aired today, and I realized how similar her 8-part docuseries was to Madonna's feature film. The perfect lighting. The staged scenes. The accommodating entourages and the after-hours antics. Definitely interesting to see these carefully scripted "inside looks" at their lives, and there are definitely similarities between the two pop stars who couldn't possibly be more different as women.

Yes, so I'm a Mariah fan to the core. Clearly. Don't judge me. EVEN after the nightmare that was New Year's Eve (which seems to have been swept up and forgotten in the mess that is the aftermath of the U.S. elections). So in an attempt to distract myself, and avoid fearing the end of the world as we know it, I took a good look at these tour documentaries and eventually had to applaud the women for their business acumen and career longevity.

Just like Beyonce's super-personal (sarcasm) documentary back in 2013 "Life is But a Dream"...both Madonna and Mariah went to great lengths to make their intimate video footage SEEM as authentic and "look how cool and regular I am" as possible. Of course, between Beyonce, Madonna, and Miss Mariah...the efforts for "normalcy" are blatantly constructed. And unrealistic for the majority of us.

Really and truly, how can you be normal if you're Beyonce? How can you not have an entourage if you're Madonna? And how can you DARE be filmed in elevator lighting (gasp) if you're Mariah Carey? They're Divas. Self-professed or not, these women don't know HOW to be anything less than fabulous, and fabulously in control.

Unfortunately, the extreme control they have on their images and the maintenance of their brands is in itself what makes them come across as contrived and phony a lot of the time. Madonna is from a different era entirely, so her tactics for creating a unique brand and persona had to go to different lengths back in the 90s. So her wild actions and provocative music videos and performances were where she set herself apart from the other stars of her day.

With Beyonce and Mariah, fortunately they have a plethora of social media tools, outlets, and business strategy to manipulate in order to create the precise image that will preserve their diva-dom for years to come.

Miss Mariah literally staged this entire "natural" tour documentary, and casually lounged in fishnets and stilettos, and always seemed to have the perfect lighting and make up...even in the most low key and intimate of settings.

I love her by default, and am a byproduct of decades of musical brainwashing and melodic admiration...but yo. She is just toooooo much. The footage of her during The Sweet Sweet Fantasy Tour across Europe was not believable for one second. Not the conversations. Not the turn of events. Nada. Perhaps the interaction with her children, and the odd moments of laughter and spontaneity from her people...but I actually walked away from the 8 weeks of programming thinking she is more insecure and contrived than I realized!

Mariah is the epitome of extreme extroversion and publicity, yet completely exudes insecurity and awkwardness. It's the strangest thing. While Madonna walked with over-confidence and a definite sense of self in her film, Mariah seems to struggle with just...being...normal. Her posture. Her words. Her facial expressions. Even the fake singing. EVERYTHING seems like she's trying too hard, and it's unfortunate.

Sucks that her engagement to James Packer didn't work out in the real world, but the docuseries ended up seeming like an 8 week setup to her new relationship with the dancer Bryan Tanaka, who she's apparently dating now post-Nick Cannon, and post-billionaire dreams. Sounds a little Jennifer Lopez-esque to me, which also seems deliberate. Insert scandal with young, sexy dancer.

The diamonds. The yacht life. The Mariah soundtrack while Mariah narrates, and Mariah acts as Mariah is just too much. Of course, as a long-time "fan" I had to watch all of the episodes and take it for what it was, but I was a bit disappointed that I walked away feeling more convinced that she's a bit "off"...instead of feeling like she did a good job of exposing her true colours.

Where does this leave Mariah? Clearly still on top. She's extreme, and we all still seem to tolerate it, so her reign as one of the top female artists of all times will continue. Regardless. I don't think the New Year's incident, or this corny ass documentary will really change things. I thought NYE was career ending, but haven't heard much else about it once Trump took that oath the other day.

Where's Madonna at? Still being provocative and trying to be controversial in her old age, but inevitably just existing in a different generation, yet still holding her crown. Her crown was set in the 90s, and there's really nothing or no one that can take her legacy away from her. I believe Mariah's at the point now where the same goes for her.

If neither lady ever makes another hit album, or rediscovers the pure voices of their youth, they'll still be OK. They'll always be legends. Divas. Powerful music industry folks. That will never change, no matter how many times they mess up, or how ridiculous their lives and actions get. Regardless.

BUT, as a lover of all things music and entertainment, and as a fan of the entertainment industry who has an insatiable appetite for watching, reading, and trying to understand the ins and outs of showbiz...I was definitely disappointed that I walked away from the recent Mariah story feeling more detached from her as a person, and more aware of her as a brand instead. I'm not sure if that's the way it's supposed to work.

There was half of a real moment towards the end of the 8th and final installment, when Mariah is at the piano and begins to play two chords of "Vision of Love" and begins to sing along...and then cut to staged beach scene with her and her new boo Tanaka, 15 minutes after calling off her marriage to James. The slight glimpses of her actual personality and her actual passion and aptitude for music, were just completely overshadowed by the ridiculousness of the show's plot and players.

In a nutshell, that sums up both Madonna and Mariah to me...they surely do have a real "down" side to them, but unfortunately they live so deep in their illusions and perceptions of who they think they're supposed to be, that the actual talent sometimes gets lost in translation. I'll always be a fan of both ladies, and I appreciated the look into their opulent lifestyles...but especially at a societal time like now in the post-Obama era...there is a great need for inspiring content. This only celebrates their entitlement, rather than their motivations as artists.

And yeah. I'm still going to Mariah's Toronto concert. And I will love every lip synced second of it.

Now, back to Donald Trump and the devastation of humanity...

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

Friday, January 6, 2017

Money Can't Buy Class (Sorry, Mariah)

Don't believe the hype.

Mariah Carey. Chris Brown. Souljah Boy. Donald Trump. Discuss.

No? Tired of discussing these people that are highly irritating and have nothing to do with you trying to pay your mortgage and Christmas credit card bills this month? Well, as far fetched as they are, they are prime examples of just how money can turn you fool.

I'm as die hard a Mariah Carey fan as they come, but I can't help but feel that sense of superficial celebrity fear when you start to see someone talented go in the direction of Whitney or countless other drug-and-fame abusers before her. It's the saddest sight imaginable, because what MOST of us would do and accomplish with ONE million dollars...we sit and observe these ridiculous "public figures" squander and exploit with many, many multiples of that. And have the nerve to be unhappy and unfulfilled.

But clearly. They are unhappy, and unfulfilled. The alcohol, the drugs, the spotlight, and the attention must be a major mind f*ck because time and time again, we see these fools (what else can we call them?) turn into trainwrecks before our very eyes.

In the case of Mariah, I believe she has a drinking problem...I believe she is a ridiculous diva on levels of diva-ness that others don't have time to get to. I believe she lives in a false reality, and that she needs to check herself before...oh. The worse has already happened. She's wrecked herself. She's been exposed. She is coming across as a class-less, petty, unprofessional, whiny, botoxed diva, who can't even humble herself enough to admit that she is not the flawless songstress I fell in love with musically in 1990, and instead she is turning into a strained has-been who is desperately trying to stay relevant.

Even her reality show is a hot mess. The lighting is music-video-perfect, the segments are beyond staged, and her "people" are clearly only there for one purpose: to do, and be whoever she needs them to be.

It's sad. It's sad to watch one of your creative "idols" turn into a joke. It's sad to see someone who has/had soooo much talent, waste away into an attention whore, and a delusional addict. It's sad to feel that like Michael Jackson, and countless other "stars" who had so much going for them...that they couldn't mentally handle it, or the industry that they ruled...eventually ruled them.

By the way, I've already spent over a hundred dollars to secure tickets to Mariah's Toronto concert in the spring with Lionel Ritchie (I have NEVER missed one of her Toronto tours. EVER.) And I hope she at least has the decency to give us SOMETHING live. For the sake of the money.

So I've watched one of my all time faves, Mariah, turn into a class-less old hag. It sucks. As for Chris Brown and Souljah Boy, their fall from grace was so less dramatic. Equally entertaining (yup, I watched all of the Instagram beef go down, because I'm addicted to entertainment media like that)...but ridiculously class-less. Yes, they're little boys. And yes, maybe a bit less refined than Mariah to start the race. But ew. Like, take your millions of dollars, and albums, and awards, and mansions, and sports cars and STOP YOUR MADNESS.

I won't even give Donald Trump more attention by getting into his cyber mess. All I'm saying is, I do kinda fear for my future, and hope that the nuclear fight doesn't cross the Canadian border. God help us all.

Moral of the story: I'm tired of these uber-rich jerks thinking that just because they have money, that they can act a fool, and get away with anything.

Let me bring it back to the Toronto level. There's no amount of money (and we all know, money doesn't run that deep with our "celebrities" they way they perceive it to), and no amount of "status" in the world that is acceptable for you to act like an assh*le. Especially when everyone in this small town knows WHO you are, WHERE you came from, and in most cases can cut you back down to size with a few short--but true--statements of fact.

People need to slow their roll, when it comes to public exposure, and the braggadocia, and the flossing, and flaunting. Self proclamations of excellence and showing off lifestyles and creating these false illusions about what is real, and what is cool. It's not cool. It's tacky.

Class is a serious thing, and the older I get the more I realize it has less to do with money and financial status, and 100% to do with community respect, common manners, and a broad understanding of how the "real world" works. Whether you're Mariah Carey, or whether you're [insert local celebrity name here], when you're in a higher class than most financially, that doesn't mean that you have permission to be a jerk, act entitled, and expect anything more out of life...than what you've put in.

Not naming names, but I do believe that HAPPY IS THE NEW RICH, and based on what I've seen over the past few weeks, and experienced personally, I'd take the happiness route ANY day, over the rich-and-switch wankster way, if it means I can walk in public with my head high, and my dignity in tact.

Somewhere along the line, it would be nice to see the people with money and power (or at least access to power) learn how to act, and use all those superpowers for good, instead of continuing to feed into their erratic impulses and fabricated lifestyle imagery.

I'm just saying.

But I still can't wait to hear Mariah lip sync "Hero" and "Butterfly" in March...those songs got a young Canadian sister through some hard times back in the 90s and early 2000s. I hope old Lionel (someone who has handled his success and fame, and millions with grace) will give Ms. Carey a bligh, and hopefully show her how it's done to transition into old age with your fame AND dignity.

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