Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Joseph: A Rasta Reggae Fable" by Barbara Blake Hannah (Book Review)

I didn't want the story of the legendary reggae artist Joseph to end, and even though I knew it was loosely based on the life of Bob Marley and that the inevitable outcome was not going to be favourable, I still turned each and every page with anticipation that his fate wouldn't be as disappointing..."gone too soon". From the opening of the novel, the funeral of the fictional Rastafarian reggae superstar Joseph, the reader is introduced to just how significant this moment in Jamaican history is. His death is a loss to the music industry, and to the Jamaican community. His presence was necessary...and unfortunately lost.

This is the introduction of the journey created by author and cultural communicator Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah. Through her character Joseph, his associates and peers, she takes us on a spiritual and musical expedition as spectators to the historical milestones in his life. From the first moments of the novel, we are taken back to 1970s Jamaica, the political and social climate, and the circumstances that inspired Joseph's music. Although the book itself was written in 1992 (re-published by MacMillan Caribbean in 2005), it vividly presents a time that many of us have heard about and seen in archives, but never had the pleasure of truly experiencing.

The author, Ms. Hannah, had the honour of living in Jamaica at the time her novel took place. She knew Bob Marley personally, and was an intelligent and groundbreaking communicator in her own right: someone who was closely connected to the pulse of the Jamaican people, their passions, and interests.

The story takes place during the height of Joseph's musical career, and introduces us to his love interests, his closest brethren, and the media and outside influences that are attempting to gain an understanding of his actions, his lifestyle, and the unique qualities that have brought him international attention and acclaim.

Travelling from Jamaica, being the victim of a targeted violent crime, and making his way around the world, Joseph must deal with matters of betrayal, spirituality, his own mortality, and maintaining his dignity and morality while reluctantly becoming a beloved public figure.

What I loved most about the book is that the spiritual journey was evident, and displayed in the character's actions and words. The dialect was personal, as well as informational, as Joseph and his peers explained and defended the foundations of their Rastafari beliefs through interviews, conversations, and their regular "reasonings" (I thought the Glossary at the end of the book was fabulous, containing words like "cutchie," "facety," and "livity" for those unfamiliar).

Descriptions of the group's visit to Ethiopia were most impactful, and experiencing the rise of Joseph's fame along with his own quest for peace became more intense and definitely realistic as the book continued.

For those who do not know much about the Rastafari faith or Mansions, the book is an excellent introduction to the practices of its believers. For those who are practicing or knowledgeable about Rasta culture, the book can serve as reaffirming the celebrated elements and an interesting observation as Joseph grows and transitions in his faith as his life changes.

It is beautifully written, and paints an intimate picture about life and love within the Rasta culture. Joseph's impact on those around him is clearly reminiscent of Bob Marley, yet the fictional element lets us imagine that it was a time when we could be with the inner circle and actually experience the power and influence of the music and words right along with him.

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the book felt like a journey...much like the characters themselves were taking a physical journey. I started reading it on a plane ride to Jamaica last month, and finally had the opportunity to finish reading it this week, back in Toronto, Canada in the midst of yet another snowstorm of the season. What I love about the text is that it is so intrinsically and naturally Jamaican, and yet it still felt like it transported me not only to another location, but also to another decade.

Taking in the perspectives and challenges of the 70s from this unique perspective was definitely fascinating, and the well-paced life moments of Joseph and his team made for an interesting and informative read. I was quite pleased to discover that Hannah and her team also made a movie based on the novel, and I look forward to viewing more than just the trailer I found today online.

As much as I enjoyed the book, a part of the joy experienced was also in discovering the work of Ms. Hannah herself. In addition to Joseph's tale, she has also written books about Rastafarian culture, as well as articles and films in support of Jamaican entertainment. Jamaican born, she resided in London, England from 1964 to 1972, Hannah was distinguished as the first Black journalist on British television. This was one of a few milestones from Hannah. She was also the first Rastafarian to compose a book about Rastafari culture "Rastafari: the New Creation."

Also composed, a book about homeschooling in Jamaica ("Home: the First School"), with online lessons and instruction. Her son, and only child Makonnen David Yohannes, followed in her creative and entrepreneurial footsteps and became the Youth Technology Consultant to the Jamaican Government at the age of 13--he used the foundation formed with his mother's teachings as she became a leader in the Jamaican homeschooling industry.

The fourth book by Hannah was released in 2010, a memoir about her years in England, racism, black consciousness, and her personal experiences entitled "Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride." Other notable achievements include Hannah as the first practicing Rastafarian to serve in Jamaican government when she was appointed an Independent Opposition Senator in 1984, lecturing at universities around the world, and establishing the Jamaica Reggae Film Festival.

As a result of encountering Ms. Hannah, her expertise, and her passion and dedication to Jamaican music and culture, I believe I am better off having read this book. I truly appreciate how the novel captured the essence of the 70s, and preserved an important moment in reggae history for people like me to read, decades later. A huge part of my Jamaican-Canadian cultural identity, understanding, and appreciation comes from researching leaders like Barbara Blake Hannah, being captivated by characters like Joseph and his folks, and being able to genuinely feel the pure energy of the music that continues to teach me and inspire me in a positive direction: reggae music. I have been inspired, and may have to read this book again in the near future: I highly recommend you also take a look!



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

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

REGGAE MONTH // Honouring the Messages of Koffee

Everything about Jamaican musician Koffee reassures me that the future of reggae music and culture is in good hands. There were times, admittedly, that I was concerned. Over the years there have been lyrics, trends, visuals, and dance "moves" that have made me question what was really happening to the young people under the powerful influence of dancehall culture. These moments in questions furthermore made me wonder if this effect would overpower the positive vibrations of roots reggae music and the feel-good Jamaican legacy that has transcended international borders based on messaging of peace and love over the decades.

And then came Koffee. Much like her career has developed over the past two years--leading her on an international press and performance spree and into the hearts of many--that's how her music has taken a place at the top of everyone's reggae playlist.

"Burning" was hot, and had a mellow reggae groove to it. Produced by Upsetta Records, Koffee's first official single was a solid one. Written as a personal declaration of perseverance and to keep her spirits up after not being admitted into post-secondary school, "Burning" was Koffee's reminder to keep strong and to keep pushing. Because of this steadfastness, we now have the artiste that is being celebrated and praised for complementing the recent reggae revival with a fresh tone and dope lyrics.

She writes her own songs, this young lady. Just having turned eighteen, now a full-time travelling musician, Koffee started penning lyrics when she was in school. A product of the Adventist church, complemented by a musical upbringing with choir and guitar practice, she has always possessed an innate talent for harmonies and rhythms, and has expertly translated them into a promising career.

If you've listened to one of the many interviews Koffee has given over the past year or so, as she has gone from the singer of "Burning" and the the young lady who presented Usain Bolt with a tribute track and emerged as a professional vocalist...one thing that is consistent is the love and respect she has for her mother.

Born Mikayla Simpson, and raised in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Koffee speaks warmly of her childhood with her single mother, and a small circle of friends. As a Christian, her mother Jo-Anne Williams raised her in the church, but also with the ethics and mannerisms of any good Jamaican girl: to be respectful, to focus on schooling, and to be humble and polite. Even though her talents have now taken her form the church to stages around the world, you can see that the teachings of Miss Jo-Anne have been firmly planted in Koffee's psyche, and she possesses a natural humility and grace that only a good mother and supporting surroundings could have encouraged.

A fan of a variety of types of music from EDM to grime, Koffee noted that she is not ready to subscribe to a particular genre. While we know her as a reggae artist, she confessed that she wasn't going to tie herself to a particular genre too soon, as to not contradict her future path or restrict her sound. As she grows, so will her sound, and eventually the appropriate category should become evident. In the meanwhile, she is respected for her reggae-inspired flow and lyrics. She is appreciated because of her genuine passion.

"No need no medal, with a heart of gold..." is what Koffee sang to Usain Bolt, one of the reasons why we know her name today. Back in 2017, an Instagram video that she recorded playing the guitar while singing a tribute song to the legendary athlete triggered waves of attention after a re-post from the track star. From there, endorsements from Cocoa Tea and Chronixx helped to bring her face and voice out to the masses...and the rest, as they say, is history in the making.

When referring to the likes of Bolt, and also those in her circle that believed in her, you can see the awareness of her position. What must be like a whirlwind of activities, to an artist so early in her career, is surely overwhelming. Watching her on-stage performance, and listening to the delivery of her interviews, you can see that her upbringing has not only made her humble, but also an intelligent communicator who is very clear about her messaging.

Koffee wants to contribute positively to the world, to Jamaican culture, and to the music industry. She wants to promote messages of peace, and love, and she wants to use her talents to achieve this. Inspired by the melodies of songs from rap and dancehall, the five-foot singjay understands the power of music and wants to ensure that her influence is one that is deliberately inspirational.

Now signed to Columbia records, Koffee is in a position to have her lyrics heard worldwide, her videos seen, and her forthcoming album "Rapture" to contend as a chart topper. "My goals are not tangible," Koffee told The Voice Newspaper in the UK. She simply wants her music to reach people, touch their hearts, and leave them in a positive space as a result.

Reviews, feedback, and endorsements have been favourable for the current releases and future trajectory of Koffee. From her first introduction to the Rebel Salute stage with Cocoa Tea in 2017, to this year's performance at the St. Ann festival have been supportive. Since then, we have seen Koffee out in Spain, in the UK, travelling the U.S., and hopefully soon touching down in Canada as well. A long way from her beloved hometown of Spanish Town, Koffee already has the potential to impact international audiences and also help to reconstruct the image of the future of Jamaican music.

It's a time when morality is in question, in politics, in religion, and of course in the communication of society: music. Her single "Raggamuffin" was used to speak out about gun violence in Jamaica, and her latest release "Throne" gives her audience a look at her hometown community. Artists of this generation, their impact can be felt almost instantly. Many have risen and reached fan bases with the help of social media, in a way that artists of the past could have only imagined. With this tool so easily accessible, we can see how new artists like Koffee are able to communicate and depict their brand messages clearly. Right away we can hear, see, and understand an artist's intentions and can leave the music to do the rest.

One thing that stands out with Koffee is her excellent communication skills. She gives a great interview, clearly articulates her thoughts and visions, and of course when she is on the microphone her projections are also powerful. Her communication style is refreshing because you don't have to wonder where she stands: you can hear it in her lyrics, you can see it in the way she presents herself on stage, and you can definitely grasp her perspectives through interviews without question.

As Reggae Month concludes, and as Koffee enters another phase of her career with the release of her album, it will be a joy to watch where her career goes. Reggae music has such a powerful influence on Jamaican culture, and also international culture through the presentation of festivals, stage shows, and the airwaves. To have a young woman be so instrumental in the direction of reggae music right now is not only refreshing, but it's also inspiring. It's great that Koffee is a focused young lady, and that her messaging is deliberately constructed with the well-being of her surroundings in mind.

From "alto to baritone" her purpose is great: this will be an important year in her career, and each step she takes is a testament not only to excellent parenting and a strong upbringing, but also to the power of music and how it can take even the smallest voice and make the most positive and influential impact. Koffee is a force, and anyone that has witnessed her career thus far can predict that the best has yet to come from this focused and multi-talented musician.



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

Friday, February 22, 2019

The BUJU BANTON FOUNDATION // Reggae Music Inspires Philanthropy in Jamaica

We have all seen the footage of Bob Marley and The Wailers at the National Stadium in Kingston, on April 22 of 1978 joining the hands of then political rivals the PNP's Prime Minister Michael Manley and the JLP's Edward Seaga. The photograph made international headlines, the video is a classic glimpse at the state of reggae music and Jamaican politics in the 70s, and the overall sentiment is that it was an historical moment that will forever be cemented in the archives of monumental musical episodes on the island. "Love, prosperity, be with us all..." Bob said to the crowd of 32,000 spectators gathered.

For those who were too young to be present in Kingston that spring day, and for those who were living abroad in Canada, the U.S., or the U.K., an intense moment like this has yet to take place in the reggae community. There has been excitement and controversy, musical hits and glorified performers: the industry has seen its fair share of peaks and crashes over the decades, but rarely was there a moment that unified the majority of interests at once, and turned all eyes in the direction of one sole figure with a message of prosperity much like the One Love Peace Concert.

And then Buju Banton's Long Walk to Freedom Tour was announced, tickets went on sale, websites crashed, and the internet went abuzz. The beloved Gargamel posted his first personal photo, video, and captions on Instagram and fans and supporters everywhere were swept into the same wave of anticipation: the first performance from the artist, after years of incarceration was finally near. March 16 became a close possibility, and a source of focus, interest, and inspiration.

It's the kind of anticipation that is more than just wanting to listen to a song on repeat, or attend a stage show. It's more than just following a talented musician on social media, and watching music videos on YouTube. The anticipation that Buju is currently inspiring, with his inaugural return performance just a few short weeks away, is one that is bigger than anything we have witnessed in recent history. For the fans that came of age with Buju---and those that were too young to witness a living Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, or Jacob Miller--this experience will be generation-defining.

The concert will definitely be a statement, as Buju performs old favourites and will speak and interact with the supporters, countrymen, and reggae lovers who have prayed for him, rallied for him, posted hashtags of #FreeBuju in his support, and kept his legacy alive and rising during his decade-long absence from the public scene.

This particular statement can be interpreted musically, but also, due to the surrounding energy and interest in the voice and reasonings of Mark Myrie, the statement being made right now in reggae music as a result of Buju's influence is also headed in a philanthropic lane.

Along with the early December release of Buju and the January launch of his tour, came the introduction of the Buju Banton Foundation mid-January, the charitable arm of his powerful movement, and a tangible location for fans and supporters to invest their hope for the future of Jamaica. The Foundation is a fitting manifestation of all that Buju and his music have represented over the years, with an opportunity for fans and friends to take part in his development not only as an artiste, but also as a leader in the reggae and island's culture.

Buju is one of few Grammy award winning reggae artists, with a familiar face and smile that resonates across genres. He has broken records with his singles, he is a household name across the Caribbean and supporting nations; coupled with his talent, his personality and lyrics have charmed a nation into loving endorsements. In addition to making new music, creating positive messaging, and touring for his fans, Buju's public next steps also include taking care of the communities and the generation of young Jamaicans that will be responsible for ensuring that his legacy, his country, and their surroundings continue to develop and excel.

The necessities of living: food, clothing, healthcare, and education are the key offerings of the Buju Banton Foundation, which was established this year in support of young Jamaicans up to the age of 20, who can benefit from skill-based training, talent development, and educational empowerment.

In keeping with the energy of Buju's return to Jamaica, partial proceeds from the March concert in Jamaica will support the Buju Banton Foundation, and charitable donations will continue to be made as the tour continues into the summer. Proceeds will "align with nonprofits in each island, with part proceeds going to those organizations," according to Joseph Louis (aka Joey Budafuco) of XO Management and Rockers Island Entertainment.

Buju referenced his own experiences as a child, growing up in the inner city of Salt Lane in Kingston, Jamaica, when he was forming the mandate and direction of his charitable organization. Remembering the poverty and hardships that he endured, he also acknowledges the music and messages that helped to bring him out of his challenging circumstances, and nurture him into the megastar he is today. He has been able to utilize his talents, and his voice to communicate on behalf of his community and Jamaican brethren over the years: now he is also able to spark structural changes.

"I know what it is for a child to go without basic necessities," Buju stated. "I also know what it is to be a youth with big dreams and lots of determination. Unfortunately, daunted and unable to achieve your destiny, due to a lack of a helping hand, it is not an easy road, my children. However, Jah has blessed me. I have made it my mission through the Buju Banton Foundation to help by giving light to youth living in the darkness of poverty." His goal: to present equal opportunities for success, and also to provide hope and inspiration.

From his first recordings in 1991, to his last album the Grammy Award winning "Before the Dawn," Buju has been blessed with the gift of storytelling and charisma, talent and influence, and these are the skills that will assist him with giving light to youth living in the darkness of poverty. The same music that sustained him during his eight years without freedom is the same source of messaging that he will transfer to the youth within his reach.

The day of his release, reggae fans young and old shared the good news and rejoiced upon his return. Photos and video clips quickly circulated from the time he boarded the plane in the U.S., until he set foot back on Jamaican soil. Fans watched as he strolled through the airport, and took photos with supporters. We stayed attentively aware of his every move as he settled in, met with family members, and prepared for the next stage of his career. Every move, every photo, every visitor, and every announcement has been warmly received by Buju Banton fans and supporters around the world, and for that reason, the concert on March 16 will be nothing short of monumental.

The Buju Banton Foundation is more than a charity, it is the manifestation of Buju's legacy, his energy, and his vision for the future of Jamaica. By investing in the children, and bringing the gift of possibility and hope to those who might not otherwise access their potential, Buju is planting knowledge and fundamental tools and using his voice and influence to foster their growth.

Other reggae artists have also used their platforms to inspire change over the years, through charitable initiatives. The Shaggy Foundation hosts a Shaggy and Friends concert in support of the Bustamante Children's Hospital. Iba Mahr brings attention to the needs of the Linstead Public Hospital with his Sound Di Alarm Musical Festival each year on New Year's Eve. The Beenie Man Foundation was launched to support youth and individuals affected by sickle cell disease, and Bounty Killer's Foundation recently donated beds to the Kingston Public Hospital. This is a time when strong and dedicated leadership is key, and having industry leaders in reggae music use their public profile to help others is a great trend to feed into.

Whether it's directed at an at-risk youth from an impoverished neighbourhood in the islands, or a young adult growing up with similar discouragement in the U.S., Canada, or other locales, Buju's influence will be felt not only through his musical performances, but also through these important gestures and organizations.

The 90-minute set that will take place at Buju's upcoming Long Walk to Freedom concert on March 16 in Jamaica will be the first time Buju officially touches a performance stage since his last show in Miami in 2011, "Buju and Friends: Before the Dawn Concert." Special guests that have been announced for March include Buju's son Jahzeil, and a solid lineup of reggae's finest: Chronixx, Cocoa Tea, Etana, Ghost, Romain Virgo, L.U.S.T., Agent Sasco, and Delly Ranx. Also returning to the stage with Buju, the Shiloh band and surely a few unannounced special guest performers and personalities.

At the root of this historic moment: the music. Despite the hardships and injustice, the poverty and even the riches, the people of Jamaica have had reggae music as a tool for change, for evolution, and for communication for decades. It is a beautiful thing to be able to witness the power of reggae music still in 2019, and it brings renewed hope that the genre is still a conduit for change and influence, and that it still has the potential to inspire culture-shifting development and progress.




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

Saturday, February 16, 2019

REGGAE MONTH // Honouring the Melodies of Bitty McLean

Every time I take a flight, there is one artist that I listen to for take off and landing, and the relaxing duration of travelling in the sky. In the peak of my vacation anticipation, one artist alone can match the musical high I aspire to achieve, and provide the perfect soundtrack to my journey. Bitty McLean is my artist. Bitty McLean has the one voice that can always put my mind at ease. Every time.

He personifies everything that is great about reggae music, and music in general, and has proven to consistently produce and perform a style of reggae music that can speak to the deepest reggae lovers both in Jamaica or abroad. Through various eras of changes and trends, industry hype and confusion, the music of Bitty McLean has remained wholeheartedly great, technically sound, vocally strong, reggae music.

A British Jamaica, born in Birmingham, England 46 years ago, Bitty has one of the purest and most identifiable singing voices in reggae music today. A uniquely clear tone, with a distinctly sweet essence, it resonates tremendously in any dancehall, stage performance, or even in studio sessions.

Videos of his sessions solidified my obsession with this artist, as he rehearsed for performances with the legendary Riddim Twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and an array of instrumentalists. I have yet to see Bitty perform live; while he tours Europe and has appearances in the U.S. (he in now embarking on U.S. tour), his visits to Canada have been rare. Even without the pleasure of being able to hear his voice live, I still drown myself in his recordings and still get excited to hear him sing. A reggae lover from birth, it is Bitty who has resonated most with me because of the genuine soul that is put into his music.

Admittedly, I wasn't tuned into when he was climbing the UK charts in the 90s, at the time of  his first release "Just to Let You Know." While fans from Germany to New Zealand were falling in love with the young British singer, and a series of top ten hits rang out through the airwaves, I hadn't yet connected with the sounds or the story of Delroy "Bitty" McLean. At least not by name.

His covers of "Dedicated to the One I Love" or "It Keeps Raining" were familiar to me, but I was also a teenager caught up in the dancehall stylings of my other favourite artist Buju Banton, or his counterparts like Spragga Benz or Bounty Killer. While dancehall was trending with unique bright fashions, music videos of dancers in Jamaica, and the appeal of sound system culture...over in the UK, Bitty was still bubbling the ska and rocksteady songs that continue to drive the rhythms of his productions.

The beauty of reggae music is that from one island, so many variations of reggae rhythm and soul have emerged. The same island that gave us Bob and Dennis, also gave us Buju and Bounty. The same island that produced Alkaline and Stylo G, also inspired the growth of Exco Levi (5-time Canadian Juno Award winning reggae artist) and Birmingham's Bitty McLean. No matter where in the world the artists reside, the spirit of reggae music is so strong, and manifests in a multitude of ways.

Bitty's father was a soundman, and heavily influenced by the music of his day before moving to England in the late 1960s. With him, he brought a collection of music that ranged from John Holt to Nat King Cole, and he also brought the passion that permeated the spirit of his son Delroy (nicknamed "Bitty" by his grandmother, having been born prematurely and small), the youngest of six children. Under the guidance of his parents Eaton and Leonie, Bitty took this inherited dedication to reggae music and sound system culture, and naturally entered a career in this direction.

He would often sing on his father's sound, as a youngster, and the sound system culture of England provided opportunity for him to get on microphones and share his gift within the growing West Indian community there, but Bitty was also committed to the craft of music production, and enrolled in college to study sound engineering and composition. Through this training, he landed a job with the notorious British reggae band UB40, where he worked as an assistant engineer.

In an interview with Band on the Wall in 2016, Bitty confirmed that doo-wop and rocksteady music were his first loves, and he recommended that all contemporary artists invest in the work of the veteran artists like Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, and Beres Hammond to name a few, to invoke the true spirit of the genre. In his household, Bitty came of age listening to Johnny Clarke and U-Roy, Burning Spear, and other easy-listening vibes. It was this rhythm and blues, jazz, and ska influence that would go on to shape the style of his recordings going forward.

To date, he has released 8 studio albums beginning with 1994's "Just to Let You Know," up to his most recent release "Love Restart" that was just introduced in August of 2018. Consistent throughout his albums over the decades: a purity and musicality that is rare, in an age of digitally influenced crossover hits and blurred genre lines with composition.

I fell in love with the 2005 album "On Bond Street," that Bitty mixed on his own. This remains my favourite album because of the deep instrumentation present in each and every song. I can listen to that album on indefinite repeat. Every track and every vocal is beautiful, and it soothes my soul. This album, like the majority of Bitty's work, simply reminds me of what pure reggae music should sound like. Haunting harmonies. A heavy and hypnotic bassline. Sharp drums. Crystal clear horns. Crisp piano keys. Spiritual organs. All of those symphonic elements, coupled with Bitty's vocals (that have remained consistently smooth over the years) make for excellent music.

I listen to Bitty's music on flights and at times of relaxation in particular, because of the way it grounds me. It reminds me of my Jamaican heritage, and the spirit of my ancestors who conceptualized such beautiful sounds. Despite being Canadian born, just as Bitty was also born outside of the island, his music is so deeply rooted in the origins of the genre that the tribute of his work deserves commendation. I admire his ongoing commitment to keeping the music strictly reggae, with no attempts to gain hype of crossover impact, but rather rejoices in his dedication to the music itself.

His preference in contemporary reggae music is to gravitate towards the singers, and he felt as though there was an imbalance in the music in respect to singers versus dancehall deejays. Listing Etana, Tarrus Riley, and Queen Ifrica as a few of his current favourites, Bitty also pays his respects to Sly and Robbie for their contributions to the music of reggae, as well as their leadership and friendship through a range of collaborations. A lover of music, Bitty has declared that success is not his vision. His mission is to contribute what he can to the reggae music platform, and to stand firm in his unique abilities.

Some artists purposefully make you want to dance, and others encourage you to rebel. There are artists committed to clever lyrics or aggressive recommendations, and there are those who are conveyors of history. I view Bitty's role as a reminder of the essence of reggae, the vibe of Jamaica, and the creator of a music that has the ability to physically make you feel at peace. Lyrically, there is a focus on love, and also a reminder of one's spirituality.

As a writer, I tend to gravitate towards music that puts me in a creative frame of mind without disrupting my flow or my thought processes. Whether I'm travelling to warmer climates, or sitting at my desk trying to finish a novel or edit a piece of writing, this is the music that has the ability to instantly transport me into a positive frame of mind. One that inspires me to also communicate my vision efficiently, and with a positive energy that always reminds me of the grace of our Jamaican people. It reinforces my commitment to supporting the culture and those who ensure that the original beauty and vibes of our beloved island are transferred between generations.

Bitty McLean has conveyed the best elements of Jamaican music and culture with utmost integrity and talent over the years, and I am thankful for the ways in which his music has transcended time and allowed me to live in an age where he is still creating, still recording, and still contributing to this powerful tradition.




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

Thursday, February 7, 2019

REGGAE MONTH // Honouring the Strength of Queen Ifrica

There were so many amazing reggae artists performing at the Rebel Salute roots reggae music festival this year that by 7 a.m., I was barely awake...but still engaged in the stage performances. Used to arena concerts events ending by 11 p.m. here in Toronto (or 3 a.m. for reggae performances in club venues), it was an exercise in stamina to be actively observant of everyone who touched the stage at Grizzly's Plantation Cove in Priory, Saint Ann. With my digital SLR camera in hand, and cell phone serving as a secondary recording device, I didn't want to miss a thing. Looking back at my footage upon returning to Canada, it was evident to me that I had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime cultural moment in Jamaica, and I felt blessed to have witnessed the performances and exchanges up close and personal.

I have so many memories from that weekend. The feeling of pride, enjoying music amongst the Jamaican patrons, and lingering backstage with the likes of Capleton and Yendi: Jamaica's elite. I was excited by the energy of the stage activity, and intrigued by the hustle and bustle of the journalists capturing images and positioning to collect interview footage. I have yet to experience a similar vibe in Toronto, it was wonderful.

Via Jamaica Observer
The musical testimonies of Ugandan Bobi Wine and Nigerian Patorankin made me smile, and the energy of Bounty Killer and Agent Sasco rejuvenated my jet-lagged body as soon as the bass shook the grassy hill inside the Media Pit. One performance in particular, however, has lingered with me from Saint Ann, through Sangster International Airport, back to Toronto, and has led me to really meditate in a way that only music could provoke. This performance was the one put on by the First Lady of Rebel Salute: Queen Ifrica.

The Rastafarian native of Montego Bay, the Fyah Muma Queen Ifrica (aka Ventrice Morgan) is well known for being a woman of truth and fearlessness. Throughout the span of her career, her lyrics, her public appearances, and statements have been nothing but poignant and straightforward. Since the 2009 release of her first album "Montego Bay" (VP Records), she has been a source of cultural commentary and musical soul through songs like "Times Like These," "Keep it To Yourself," and "Far Away." Her latest release "One Hold" is circulating heavy this week, and encouraging women to love and hold their man. The video for "Black Woman" is making statements as well.

When I heard one particular song that night at Rebel Salute--"A Nuh We Dis"--I had to really pause, and think about my perspectives of Jamaica, as a Canadian of Jamaican descent, and really listen to the dialogue taking place on stage. It was the most powerful moment of the show, in my opinion, when Queen Ifrica sat down at the edge of the stage and addressed Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness directly, asking him to listen carefully to the lyrics of the song. As a representative of the people, she wanted to communicate the concerns of the citizens who were often unheard: her messages were of hope and based on a want for structural changes and more opportunities for progress on the island.

Visiting Jamaica annually, or even a few times each year as a Canadian/foreigner, it is easy to take for granted the everyday realities of Jamaican living. For a week here and there, I am blessed with the opportunity to leave the cold/responsibilities/routine of Toronto life and indulge in all of the greatness Jamaica has to offer. Family, the foods, the music, the hills and greenery, the beautiful beaches, the hustle of the towns, the hospitality, and most importantly the irreplaceable spirit of the Jamaican people. With each trip to the island, the love only intensifies. Especially now that I've lived 40 solid years in Canada and realize just how rare and precious some of life's intangibles are.

This particular visit, with Queen Ifrica's anthems as the soundtrack, I really processed the power of the music of Jamaica and the true impact it has had internationally. Many of us are privileged enough to have direct connections to Jamaica through parents or birth, but there are millions worldwide who are also drawn to the island just out of genuine passion, curiosity, and understanding. I believe the main draw of all is the lyrical content and the musical rhythms that speak to people's hearts from Canada to Japan, New Zealand, to Germany.

In that moment, I watched Queen Ifrica address the crowd from just a few feet away in the Media Pit, capturing a few photos and some video footage for myself, and as I listened to her pleas and declarations...I absorbed the distinct chorus of horns coming from the audience. A persistent tone indicating that the people were in agreement with her words. The people were hearing her...really hearing her.

This was late Saturday night when the Prime Minister, opposition leader, Ministers of Culture and Labour, as well as a few other dignitaries were seated in the Media Pit to take in one of the country's biggest and most significant events. I realized that to be there was an honour, and to be amongst the country's leaders and top influencers was a privilege. In that moment, as Queen Ifrica sang, my spirit led me to leave the stage area and instead walk back out to the gathering of patrons in the general audience zone to feel their energy. I heard the lyrics up close, and I wanted to experience them from a distance.

Via Loop Jamaica
I walked through the paths and fields of the spacious Grizzly's Plantation Cove, and watched on the large screen when Prime Minister Holness stood from his seat, and approached Queen Ifrica for an embrace. I thought about how wonderful it was that the exchange was taking place so directly, and that there were so many music lovers present to witness it. I thought about how her words were ringing across the Plantation and neighbouring sea and how many people were watching the Rebel Salute online, and how many voices she was echoing with her confessions.

Ifrica explained the plight of the everyday Jamaican citizen, and how every soul deserved to live in comfort and peace. She was concerned about Jamaica's place on a global scale, and how the rest of the world perceived her people versus the reality. She wanted Jamaica to be an example of greatness and to reflect the core of the people. She spoke up for the youth, and for women, and for blackness, and her lyrics and her words reminded me of a cry for help: she was communicating these needs through Jamaica's most powerful tool and agent of change, reggae music.

Those who have followed Queen Ifrica's career could not be surprised by this, because her community work and the content of her songs are always performed with direction and intent. She has always been an artist of action, and never one to censor herself.

Queen Ifrica expressed concern with the black woman in particular, and how a true queen should conduct herself, projecting messages of self-love, and a Jamaica rooted in family and traditional messaging. Rebel Salute was just one of many stages where she has used her platform to inform and educate her listening base. At a previous Ghetto Splash concert, she spoke about restoring pride in raising children and taking care of home. Ifrica has performed at events from the Child Development Agency, and has served as a youth counsellor and champion for child rights where abuse and incest are concerned. Songs like "Daddy" and "Keep it To Yourself" have clarified her positions in these areas: she is fighting for the decency and strength of Jamaica's women, youth, and overall spiritual character.

As she sang "Times Like This" and spoke about how she misses the heroes of Jamaica, I had to reflect on the culture in which my parents grew up in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s before moving to Toronto, and how the reggae artists of their time were wholeheartedly committed to using their musical platform to internationally convey purposeful messages.

This year Queen Ifrica is making a distinct mark in Canada through a collaboration with Toronto-based reggae artist Kafinal: they have been nominated for a Juno Award in the category of Reggae Recording of the Year. "Talk or No Talk" is an entertaining dialogue between the two artists about whether or not to get involved in people's business, where infidelity is concerned. It's great to see Ifrica being recognized by Canada's musical industry, because I believe she is a voice of purpose that will lead change in the way reggae music is performed and perceived...by female artists in particular.

With Queen Ifrica's dedication to strengthening black women, representing black women as intelligent and nurturing beings, as well as staying on top of important social issues and otherwise "taboo" social subjects, she is demonstrating that it is OK to not only be yourself, but also that it's OK to be yourself when it is difficult to do so.

It's too distracting to point out the controversy, or to make mention of those who may view Ifrica's declarations as aggressive and politically incorrect. What I received from her live performance, and from looking into her lyrics, her interviews, and her objectives as an artist is that Queen Ifrica is committed to enlightening Jamaican people, and her listening audience-at-large. She wants to support the Jamaican family and see improvements made to the political and economic systems of the island. She believes in love; she is a woman of faith and stands firm in this. She is proud of her complexion, her views, and she will not be silenced as long as she has a voice to communicate.

This is her mission: encouraging love, encouraging family stability, and celebrating principles of unity and support, tradition, and legacy. It is unfortunate that this overall premise has been met with  protest over the years due to a few specific statements and personal beliefs.

Female artists in reggae music are few and far between, so it is important that we uplift those with positive messaging, and that we endorse those who are confident enough to use their platform in the way reggae music was intended to be used: as an agent of political and social change and encouragement. I believe that Queen Ifrica is one of few active female recording artists that has made me stop, think, and wonder about how I am using my particular voice and what type of platform I am creating for myself, and intend to stand on. Not just in entertainment or media...but in life. Queen Ifrica has made me really consider how far I would be willing to go in speaking my truth and communicating it, regardless of the consequences.

Her strength on that stage, standing firm in her truth while looking Jamaican citizens and leadership boldly in the eyes at Rebel Salute, has given me strength. Reading about her history and listening to her experiences has reiterated the importance of developing your character and believing in something. I am grateful that my first trip to Rebel Salute resulted in this important lesson in the power of reggae music, and the natural force that it possesses in sound and in purpose.

Queen Ifrica, your presence is appreciated.




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

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

WRITING THE BLACK NARRATIVE // How to Tell Your Cultural Story


History is constantly being documented year-round from various perspectives, voices, and parts of the world. As writers, we recognize the longevity of our work in print, whether it's online or in a library, we know that our words will last far beyond the moments they are created. As readers, we have looked to the words of our predecessors to learn from their environments, find out how they persevered through circumstances they were placed in, and we gain wisdom from their written knowledge and shared processes. Through fictional accounts, or non-fiction instruction, the words are powerful and lasting.

As a group of Black writers, we thought it fitting to gather during Black History Month at the Toronto Public Library to reach out to our peers who are also crafting books and memoirs, poetry and other writings, and provide a space for us all to share the importance of writing cultural stories, and the importance of letting your personal experiences and perspectives shine through.

Our listing, via the Toronto Public Library read: "WRITING THE BLACK NARRATIVE: How To Tell Your Cultural Story // An interactive panel discussion with writers Stacey Ann Berry, Kamilah Haywood, Selwyn Jeffers, and Angelot Ndongmo, sharing experiences and strategies for writing culturally-specific narratives. Writers will also provide individual workshops and share tips and resources for starting, sustaining, and publishing writing projects in a variety of genres. Facilitated by Jameel Davis (Elevated Waves Publishing, Cleveland) and Stacey Marie Robinson (Kya Publishing, Toronto)."

With the combined efforts of the participants and the library's promotional efforts, we had over 30 registered attendees at the North York Central Library (5120 Yonge Street) on the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2019 to take part in this celebration of our culture, and session dedicated to stressing the importance of documenting our voices.

THE PARTICIPANTS

Co-sponsored by Toronto's Kya Publishing and Cleveland's Elevated Waves Publishing Corp, Stacey Marie Robinson and Jameel Davis facilitated the event to include a range of genres and an opportunity for participant feedback. Jameel, an African-American, and Stacey, a Jamaican-Canadian, continued conversations they were having with peers after the Toronto Urban Book Expo that took place in August of 2018, and decided to bring these conversations to an audience.

Dedicated to promoting kindness, understanding and hope, Ohio's own international author and speaker Jameel Davis is committed to sharing his story and empowering others with his motivational talks, inspiring poetry, and books.

Writer and communications specialist Stacey Marie Robinson, is passionate about documenting cultural stories, and she uses this hobby as a tool to fulfill dreams and explore life.

Angelot Ndongmo, a best-selling children's author, and instrumental part of the ongoing development of the Toronto Urban Book Expo was a fitting representative of children's books and communicating the importance of fostering self-love and self-reflection in children, through literature. The author of the Loving Me Series, her books have received international acclaim and places in the hearts of many as a bright and positive tool for cultural understanding.

Canadian urban fiction author Kamilah Haywood, writes stories about urban reality and isn't afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues like abuse within the prison system, and sex trafficking in Canada. Her latest novel "Diamond in the Rough: Part Two" was published through Kya Publishing, and is a gritty look at a fictional experience dealing with incarceration, mental health issues, as well as discrimination.

Also an urban fiction author, Selwyn Jeffers is a screenwriter, blogger, and poet from Toronto who has recently completed his first novel "The Vapours" that also addresses otherwise invisible subjects in Canadian literature. A story about a young man making his way through college, who also finds himself tied up with drugs and an unfortunate underworld of money and deceit: it's a familiar urban story written in familiar Toronto surroundings.

Stacey Ann Berry, an entrepreneur and writer of "Deeper Reflections of Life" is a published author and speaker who inspires her audiences to take a leap of faith, motivates them to make a difference, and helps them to ignite their inner talents. She is also an executive reporter for Soulful Image Magazine, has a column in Where Itz At Magazine, and writes for her blog, Resources for Youth.

THE PANEL DISCUSSION

The questions posed by moderator Jameel Davis were introspective, and targeted for each of the unique participants. Ranging from their inspirations, their thoughts about traditional vs. independent publishing, marketing techniques, and character development, responses were helpful for workshop participants who had the opportunity to engage with the panel, asking questions and taking notes along the way.

Some of the questions included:

What do you think is the future of reading and writing for the Black urban community?

What are the upsides and downsides to being a Black author?

What is the toughest criticism given to you as a Black author?

How do you think you have evolved creatively?

Are there any marketing techniques you used that had an immediate impact on your sales figures?

What cultural value do you see in writing, reading, and storytelling?

When you develop your characters, do you already know who they are before you begin writing, or do you let them develop as you are writing?

Both informative and entertaining, with Jameel's leadership, the panelists had a chance to share their processes, their opinions, and also cultural observations through the two-hour discussion.

Kamilah defines the genre of "urban fiction" of a literary genre that take takes place in an urban setting, and explores diverse cultural backgrounds. She enjoys taking moments of history, and telling stories through character development and circumstance.

She enjoys writing and noted that her characters often develop themselves along the way: the journey itself is a process that is unpredictable, yet satisfying.

Kamilah sees the importance of capturing stories like her novel "Diamond in the Rough" and other urban fiction stories as cautionary tales, as a look into the life experiences of others, and as a way to project reality and alternative circumstances to those who may not already be familiar.

Selwyn feels that urban fiction is the voice of the people, and a way to express oneself similar to music and poetry. He believes that people in other countries don't know what's going on in inner activities and particular environments, and that literature is a tool for presenting reality. Being a Canadian of West Indian descent, Selwyn also uses his urban fiction as a way to communicate the foods, music, and life lessons that he has drawn from his culture and upbringing.

The premise of his book "The Vapours": Shawn "Banneker" Beckford is a young, handsome, charismatic business student. He uses his charm and social skills to make connections with all walks of life. His connections have led him to being in the middle of the drug trade. Shawn realizes that he's now the gatekeeper for Toronto's underworld. Will he graduate and become a successful businessman? Or will his deadly connections cause his demise?

The tragic passing of two cousins, on two separate occasions to violent circumstances served as a catalyst for Stacey Ann Berry to put her words of encouragement and motivation to print and share message of hope with her family, friends, and growing network. Using writing and spoken word to help overcome these personal experiences, she began to formulate ways of sharing and uplifting others as well.

Stacey was recognized as one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women in 2016 and received a Role Model award from Diversity Advancement Network. She is also the recipient of the "Women of Courage - Young Leaders" award from the Endless Possibilities of Hope and Development Organization, and the "Outstanding Contribution to Student Experience" award from York University, Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.


Angelot developed her love for writing through storytelling with her sisters, growing up, as a form of entertainment and escapism. Also an avid reader, she always put reading hand-in-hand with writing, and enjoyed the experiences. Always eager to share her thoughts, Angelot frequently wrote introspective reviews about the books she had read, which caught the attention of others who encouraged her to begin to publish her own stories. Angelot began to consider taking her passion serious, and invested in a children's writing course at the University of Toronto. Encouraging the participants to take risks and chances, she said "don't be afraid to invest in your dream," suggesting that new writers talk with others, network, and ask questions.

Another tip from Angelot: let go of perfectionism! She said that the worst thing a writer can do is hold themselves back, and she encouraged those in attendance to walk boldly in the direction of their dreams. She has loved being an independently published writer, and enjoys the personal approach she can take to sharing and marketing her work.

Her dedication to writing stories for black children in particular came from her love for children, and how much she loved to see them empowered to love themselves just as they were. While reading children's stories as a child, she would often wonder why all of the "other" characters were having all the fun, with the black children often just an afterthought or side character. "I wanted our kids to love how they look; they need representation, and to be connected to the human experience," said Angelot.

ADVICE FROM THE AUTHORS

The writers shared a few of their personal experiences with marketing and book promotion with the audience. A few recommendations were:

Stick to your vision!

Have a social media strategy!

Plan for the future!

Remember that with each new generation comes a new set of readers; spend the time to commit to ongoing marketing. 

Attend networking events, workshops on public speaking, leadership seminars, and be open to different methods of obtaining information like setting up informational interviews, and interviewing other authors for their words of wisdom.

Be persistent, and don't take no for an answer!

Get out there and meet people; a lot of readers want to know about the author's personal story as well!

RESOURCES FROM THE LIBRARIAN

Elizabeth Lai, the librarian of the North York Central Branch also had a few words of advice to share with the attendees, and stressed that new authors should do their research and understand the titles and types of books (and content) that has already been published in their desired genre. She distributed a range of reference notes with links to Toronto Public Library databases and tools.

ANCESTRY DATABASE: Ancestry Library Edition (must be accessed from a library computer)

ACCESSING ARTICLES AND ONLINE RESEARCH: available for TPL cardholders here, from the Toronto Public Library website

UPCOMING ARTS PROGRAMMING AT NORTH YORK CENTRAL LIBRARY: additional events were also presented from Elizabeth, including the February 13 presentation about John Coltrane, the February 13 workshop on the Making of African Art in Contemporary Settings, and the Gumboots Dance presentation. .These and other cultural arts programs are listed on the North York Central page of the TPL website.

WORKSHOP

Following the panel discussion, attendees were invited to break off into individual groups with each of the writers, for personal discussion, one-on-one consultations, and a relaxed setting to explore ideas and questions.

New connections were made, advice was shared, voices were heard, and all writers and participants present were able to leave the presentation with new information and inspiration to move forward with.

A special thanks was extended to the Toronto Public Library and all of the participating authors for their commitment to creating and executing this Kya Publishing and Elevated Waves event!






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