Thursday, August 23, 2018

Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability

Culture is defined as the collective manifestation of arts and human intelligence. It is something we all create, together, in order to represent our community's existence. Our culture is how we present ourselves to others. How we celebrate our unique belongingness. How we communicate what we view to be traditional, important, and significant.

In Toronto, our annual Carnival celebration (formerly and affectionately known as Caribana) is the most visible display of Caribbean culture across the country. In fact, it used to be the largest street festival amongst ANY culture in North America.

Used to be. This year looked kinda scanty.

Naturally, there are individuals who take the various elements of their individual cultures very, very seriously. The foods they eat, the way they dress, how they conduct themselves, and the languages they speak. They hold on to these elements proudly, as it is these factors that solidify their purpose, and dictate how they interpret the world around them. And likewise, how the world views them.

The culture of Caribbean Carnival is an international force. At any give time of year, a Carnival enthusiast can travel and find a passionate group of like-minded souls celebrating Caribbean culture exactly they way they like it. This cultural recognition is magnetic and sustains a thriving ongoing industry based on its beauty, elements, and events.

Caribbean Carnival is something that came into my world quite naturally, and has only grown in terms of my passion and interest in this phenomenon. It has become a welcome addition to my life's routine, despite the fact that there are numerous people in my circle that think the act of Carnival is a legit waste of time and personal resources.

My literary activities, communication practices, musical commitments, my Jamaican heritage, and deep appreciation for reggae music still haven't prevented me from falling in love with Carnival culture. I still anticipate the time of year when Toronto Carnival rolls around. I always look forward to visiting at least one out-of-town Carnival a year (Miami and Jamaica are favourites). I still plan to one day visit Trinidad to experience the heart and soul of all things Carnival, and related fete and masquerade bliss. It's almost an addiction, and I have realized that it's not something I can simply "get over" or "grow out of," contrary to popular belief.

The pseudo-academic in me (along with an inquisitive mind, and cultural frustration) is now taking a different glance at the Caribbean Carnival, in an attempt to understand its power and maintain its influence.

This is not coming from a place of finger-pointing, or placing blame. In fact, I won't even target individual mas bands for any less-than-pleasant Toronto Carnival experiences. I will not encourage the belittling of novice costume designers or band leaders. I won't support the accusations towards particular figure heads, or engage in verbal bacchanal about what so-and-so should have done, should have said, or who they might have hired. I can't endorse the blatant in-fighting, badmind, and mean-spirited internal competitions. It's too much. It hurts my soul. My Caribbean soul.

What I will do (as an obsessive over-thinker and writer) is attempt to somehow operationalize this process to the best of my ability. I want to see if this exercise will help me, or help others who genuinely have a passion and curiousity for this event and the culture that surrounds it. I hope this is helpful, in a constructive and progressive way.

I have heard on more than one occasion that this appears to be the beginning of "the end" of Toronto Carnival. That it doesn't feel that same. It's falling apart. "I'd rather go to Crop Over in Barbados," or "I'll be in Jamaica for Independence Day instead" are common statements about our late summer long weekend. "I'm done with playing mas in Toronto," is a phrase that is overheard far too often now. I'm not sure if this is because of different priorities, leadership challenges, or because our precious Carnival has never really established a firm or financially sound system on a long-term basis.

(Raise your hand if you're still waiting for payment, a refund, prize money, compensation, acknowledgement, a response to an email, or if you're curious about who actually won the Band of the Year title this year, last year, or in 2016, etc. and why. Touch your neighbour if you have a few really great ideas about the logistics of this Carnival, but have had difficulty finding a listening ear to communicate it to. Hold up a gunfinger if you miss hearing reggae and/or live bands on the road, and wonder where they went...)

Other than the Carnival insiders and enthusiasts, how many people in Toronto really know WHY we can't call Caribana "Caribana" anymore, why Scotiabank is no longer the title sponsor, or who Peeks is and what their role is in the changes that have occurred over the years?

There are so many questions, that it exhausts even the best of us. Carnival experts in Brazil, the UK, and Trinidad have established specialized University programs, research processes, conferences (big up to the folks at Leeds Beckett University in the UK), thriving financial enterprises, and secure socio-economic structures that continuously support and sustain the various processes associated with Carnival production.

It's not impossible.

There are so many artists, dancers, musicians, craft makers, culinary professionals, and other Caribbean cultural ambassadors who have been able to develop financially lucrative careers and businesses in the name of Carnival, around the world. We don't always give them the credit they deserve, but the system is huge...and everyone plays a very specific part in it. We need to learn from these established examples.

I really want to see this tradition live on in Toronto/Canada. I want to see it grow, and flourish. I want to see our community flourish within it. It is my fear that as the newer generation comes of age, that they will care more about Drake and them (...big up Drake, same way. I'm a true fan...) and less about the traditions of their parents, grandparents, etc. The Caribbean will be a far-reaching part of their daily cultural experience, and may inevitably just disappear. And then what?

Caribbean Carnival pedagogy is rare, but necessary. Our culture needs to sustain folks at the forefront of research and analysis to explore how we can make a positive difference in the Canadian iteration of this celebration: continuous and consistent progressive leadership to preserve the pure elements of Carnival that inspire, motivate, and bring so many people joy.

No strings attached.

In the midst of my Carnival musings and tabanca for days past, I created a visual representation of this system's accountability factor, which also led me to ask a few questions that I don't have any concrete answers to. Here is the diagram: "Toronto Carnival, Caribbean Cultural Leadership, and Community Accountability"

And here are the questions:

Who are we, as connoisseurs and producers of Toronto Carnival in particular, accountable to?

Who is inevitably most responsible for the way Toronto Carnival operates overall, and how it is perceived locally and internationally, going forward?

In Toronto, what is the most important end-result from this complicated and work-intensive annual structure?

Who benefits, financially and socially, from this elaborate Toronto celebration...and why?

How do we elect our Toronto Carnival leaders, and are we accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf?

What does transparent leadership look like in our Toronto Carnival community, and who best exemplifies this (past or present)?

How do we make changes and improvements to Toronto Carnival that we can all vote on, agree upon, discuss diplomatically, and contribute to regardless of "links," affiliations, allegiances, nationality, or finances?

I will continue to anticipate an inclusive celebration, based on cultural hope and progress. In the name of that University-Avenue-Old-School-Caribana feeling. The feeling that we embraced in our youth, as a family affair, and a feeling that we deserve to continue to revel in...from near, or far.

This diagram, and these questions are coming strictly from a place of Caribbean cultural passion, and the belief that my beloved Caribbean people...deserve the best of everything we do and represent. We deserve a high standard of excellence in Carnival, and in everyday livity.

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

"THE VAPOURS" Selwyn Jeffers' Must Read Toronto-Based Urban Fiction Novel (Book Review)

Wow. This book was fantastic. And refreshing. Authentic, and entertaining. It was the perfect mix of familiar Toronto landmarks and streets, with a captivating story line. It was an encouraging introduction to novelist Selwyn Jeffers that makes me anticipate more urban fiction greatness from this first-time author.

It is everything I believe "Canadian Urban Fiction" should be. Honest. Gritty. Culturally-specific. Naturally Canadian, and aurally accurate with an exciting plot. I just LOVED reading the dialogue between the characters, and turning each page in hopes of discovering familiarity and social awareness with each chapter.

"The Vapours" is the inaugural novel from author Selwyn Jeffers, a Toronto-based screenwriter, poet, and blogger. It's a story about a Caribbean-Canadian university student named Shawn who is weeks away from completing his business degree, while also raising an infant, nurturing a relationship, and finding time to gallivant with his bredrens. With pressures coming at him from family, friends, and expectations high on all levels, he finds himself in the middle of the drug trade and and caught up deeper than he intended.

It is a common story: a brother with charisma and potential who makes a few choices in times of desperation that lead him down a path he had no plan to linger on. A young family trying to maintain their household with challenges, goals, and daily struggles. It is a story that is extremely familiar to those who are familiar...but a story that is somehow often forgotten, or overlooked. Misinterpreted and misunderstood. Repeatedly.

The beauty of urban fiction is that is captures real life. While it may be fictional, it is based on reality. Based on contemporary social norms. It is a familiar story communicated by "unfamiliar" players. Authors like Selwyn Jeffers are a rare kind in the Canadian literary landscape: simultaneously operating an independent publishing company as a means to get the story out, and taking on the role of a company full of publishing folk...they are committed to telling their story. Authors like Selwyn Jeffers are so dedicated to telling these stories that they are willing to play multiple roles in the process, in order to see publication achieved.

This is essentially what urban fiction was upon conception, and remains to this day. It is comparable to the "underground" hip hop scene, or indie art world: a piece that is created out of passion, out of necessity, and with no strings attached. No obligations and rules to follow. It is a piece of art that it free to be itself, without restrictive regulation.

"The Vapours" is worthy of a mainstream/corporate publishing contract. In fact, the availability of more stories like "The Vapours" would do our society well. Not just the up-and-coming writers like Selwyn Jeffers, but the folks that are quite the opposite of him. The folks that have maybe never spoken to or interacted with the fictional "Shawn Beckford" or taken the time out to understand how a young man like the lead character could find himself in an altercation with the Toronto Police or driving around Hamilton after hours with a car load of exotic female escorts, etc.

Urban Fiction is, by design, a fiction based on street life, culturally-specific experiences, or an unveiling of niche truths that are not present in readily accessible narratives. This is why most self-identifying "urban fiction authors" are self-published or connected to independent publishing houses. This is why it is so difficult to find an "urban fiction" section of your favourite bookstore, or see and the writers of this genre receiving international (or even national) acclaim for their works of literature.

And that's OK. No one is begging. Not anymore. Urban fiction as a genre has also motivated the confidence, the blueprint, and the support system to make books like "The Vapours" a reality. Time and time again.

Urban fiction, and the authors who compose it, are by nature self-starters. Self-reliant, and entering the publishing industry on their own terms. The majority of urban fiction authors and publishers have carved their genre out of their raw experiences, the experiences of their peers, their community, and their imaginations, out of a strong desire to have these voices heard. Whether fictional or actual, the stories are bold in message and importance.

Shawn Beckford represents an average Torontonian: renting a basement apartment, travelling to school on the TTC, and interacting with community members of all races, religions, and backgrounds. In every step the character takes, you can see and feel Toronto around him. The pretty Asian waitress. The Indian businessman. His West Indian girlfriend with aspirations to enter nursing, and her Jamaican patois-speaking uncle. Shawn's father, the Rastafarian business owner. His African classmate, and European associates that he hangs out with at the local vaping spot: The Vapours. There is natural diversity--and understanding--in his day-to-day journey that bring Toronto to life.

The landscape makes this story enjoyable, as a Torontonian. I imagine an outsider to Toronto would appreciate the unfamiliar speech patterns and references to "blue light busses" and other city-specific details. These are the words of which history is documented, and generations are formed. Stories like "The Vapours" represent an amazing way of capturing a unique fictional tale, but still capturing the essence of what the people, the places, and the stories of Toronto are like at this particular moment in time.

With the right amount of crime, humour, romance, and internal conflict, "The Vapours" allows us to love Shawn Beckford (aka Banneker), and understand his journey. Even the less-than-wise choices he finds himself making. It is the likeability of the character and his ambition along with the mystery of his circumstances that make this book so interesting.

It read like a movie, with scenes from a music video. It made me want to share this book with young black men in the city in particular, to let them learn from Shawn's experiences, and also see another unique way in which a story and an art form can come to life just by committing to the process. It made me want to share this book with older white men, to let them navigate Toronto through the eyes of a young brother like Banneker, and understand his reality.

Selwyn Jeffers created a well-crafted series of events, with a satisfying resolution. He introduced characters that I believe have their own stories to tell (and I'm waiting patiently for the next edition of "The Vapours" series), and taught a few life lessons without being preachy.

If this is his first novel, I believe that Canadian literature is in for a treat. Very rarely is Toronto captured this way. From the perspective of a first-generation Canadian black man, with detailed accuracy and cultural authenticity that even the greatest Canadian authors can not compose or mimic. There is beauty in a story being told from a place of expertise, and with the power of truth and intention that need to be read.

While the story itself is captivating, the encounters, the characters, and the situations speak volumes in terms of race relations, interactions with police, authority figures, an inside look at the drug game, and also a reminder that things aren't always what they seem. I think Selwyn was wise in his characterizations, and deliberate in his depictions. I hope that the eyes that cross these pages and the spirits that welcome this tale are open to the experiences of "Banneker" and his friends, and that it influences additional dialogue and social commentary as a result.

That is the beauty of urban fiction. Much like hip hop music. Much like poetry. Like various art forms, and those who construct them: there is a message on these pages and the message was well-constructed and powerful.

Selwyn Jeffers has a great future ahead of him in urban fiction, in Canadian literature, and in story-telling for a generation. It was an excellent read, and I feel proud to be here at the beginning of what will be a great literary journey for this writer.

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

Support Toronto Caribbean Carnival Year-Round

Now that Toronto Caribbean Carnival season has passed, and the festivities formerly known as "Caribana" are a few weeks behind us, I can't help but reflect on what this occasion has meant to the city, the country, and the Caribbean culture.

Here are our thoughts, on behalf of myself and Kya Publishing (who have been involved in the administration and production of carnival on the mas band level since 2011), as posted on our speciality site: @CarnivalSpotlight earlier this week.

"It's more than just #JumpingUp in costume, dancing on Lakeshore Boulevard, taking selfies with #SocaArtists, having the biggest #SoundSystem and the prettiest truck #OnDeRoad, and IG recording the #WickedestWine. It's more than just #CostumeDesign, and parade logistics, media appearances, and the coveted #BandOfTheYear title.

Each year our #TorontoCarnival comes and goes. For 51 years we have looked forward to this #CaribbeanCommunity celebration, and revelled in the various streets of Toronto in appreciation of the music, food, people, and traditions that make our hearts soar with electricity and #GoodVibes.

We can't let Toronto Carnival die a slow death, and lose respect internally and externally.

#Carnival is our time: exclusively. In every major city, on every #island, and anywhere that #WestIndianPeople gather, the annual Carnival is OUR time.

We can't remain silent as our community is pushed away from venues, spaces, financial entitlement, and municipal favour.

We can't let #infighting#badmind#sabotage#ill-will, and competition divide us even further, when we as a #community already are in a battle to preserve our #culture in a way that we enjoy and appreciate.
"#Caribana" is not the end all and be all of Caribbean culture in Toronto, Canada, or the world. Carnival is not the only way that we can acknowledge or pay homage to our #ancestors. is a joy. An extremely entertaining and pleasurable joy!! It is something thousands of people are dedicated to, and commit their lives, time, passion, and finances to.

***If we're not careful, we will lose this celebration and related activities in Toronto. We are all accountable.*** 🎉

If we neglect #loyalty, our #morals, our #values, and trade them for ego, narcissism, braggadocio, money, and evil-spirited competition, we all lose. Big time.
The very nature of this celebration is community. Let us all be conscious of what our community means to us and how we are either contributing to its progress...or feeding its demise through our words and actions.


Thanks for reading this!!

Friday, August 17, 2018

"CULTIVATING MINDS TO OWN THYSELF" by Jameel Davis (Book Review)

If you could provide a young person in your community, a family member, or a peer with a handbook for life management and self-empowerment, I believe that you would be pleased by picking up "Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" by Cleveland author Jameel Davis.

It's hard to review the book without acknowledging the individual behind the words. And to acknowledge the writer is to confirm that he lives what he believes, he practices what he preaches, and he is a man of conviction. To witness the way Jameel Davis conducts his life and business, is to verify that his words of wisdom are genuine.

"Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" covers a range of topics from identity to the education system, retirement, relationships, and spirituality. There are questions and quotes, and there's even space for writing notes on the pages as well. Overall, the book can be viewed as a self-help guide to living a life of integrity and progress. The back cover copy states that this book "teaches readers how to examine themselves in attempt to modify their thoughts and in turn become their best self, as well as make a difference in the lives of others."

It is birthed out of a love for his brothers and sisters, and a cultural responsibility to nurture and educate his community. You can feel this passion on the pages: through first-person accounts of the changes he made to his own life and the recommendations that he produced as a result, the advice can not be taken lightly.

Jameel notes that he removed many negative influences from his life, in order to surround himself with individuals who uplift and inspire. A graduate of Kent State University's Justice Studies program, the influence is evident as he unravels concepts of miseducation and representation. He credits environmental factors to contributing to the development of self-respect and dignity. He summarizes this with a quote saying that: "a solid core will override every exterior aspect you have."

Having graduated from University, Jameel still does not shy away from pointing out the contradictions that exist with the system. The thousands of dollars of debt, and "miseducation" that many of us believe are a customary rite of passage for young adults...he points out the flaws openly, with recommendations for self education and independent financial management and retirement preparation.

Why preach on these topics that have been covered by many, written about in abundance, and discussed daily via social media memes and influential quotes? Because it is his civic duty to inspire. In Chapter Four: I Am My Brothers & Sisters' Keeper, Jameel states that: "It is my passion to enlighten and to help myself, as well as those who wish to be helped, to become better than yesterday."

I read this book in two sittings, only separated by a brief night's sleep. While the words were wise and intelligently composed, it was the soul with which it was delivered that most moved me. It was the acknowledgement of culture and history, and the obvious intent to inform a generation about how to move forward without repeating mistakes of the past, and without repeating careless life choices that are fed to us with ill intention.

As an artist, I admire how Jameel has chosen to use his literary voice for the empowerment of people. As a writer, I appreciate how the words were crafted, and the level of detail and references that were used in support of his arguments. As a father and a brother, I commend his honesty and willingness to share raw emotion and intention. I believe that we living during a time where we need to amplify every good message we find, in order to break through the daily discouragement of corruption and injustice that we see in local society, as well as the international landscape.

These are words that we all need right now. Words of hope. Words of progress. Jameel says: "Leadership and positive reinforcement must be implemented. We have to be more family oriented. Spread love, joy. Promote healthy relationships."

The relationship advice is blunt and effective as well! Chapter Six has a great reference: brain teasers and questions for singles. A thorough self-questionnaire, it allows readers to take a moment to reflect on their personal beliefs and characteristics, and frames them in relation to love, friendship, and commitment.

"Part of owning yourself, is understanding the world around you. You cannot deploy yourself in a world you know nothing about. You do not need to understand everything about the world, but you should keep a close eye on things and people that can destroy who you are," he says, in a standalone quote at the end of this book.

There are so many important takeaways from this piece of writing, that it is worth reading, worth highlighting, and worth referring back to on occasion. And one of the best parts about reading a piece of writing and being able to access the author, is that you can sustain the feelings of inspiration and continue to receive the positive energy and observe the real-world journey of the book's creator.

I recommend that in addition to reading "Cultivating Minds to Own Thyself" that you also connect with Jameel himself. He is active on Facebook and LinkedIn at "Jameel Davis," and can also be found on Instagram at @CultivatingMinds_ or via his publishing company @ElevatedWaves. I highly recommend this, because the simple act of connecting with Jameel Davis has been nothing but a blessing for me personally, and I have witnessed firsthand the impact he has had on those he has engaged with.

Sending nothing but wishes for continued success for this young brother, and preparing myself to read his other works!

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