If you can't world beat 'em, join 'em!
(Photo: Gloria Blizzard circa 1997)
When invited to guest lecture at Ryerson University, I hesitated. The course explored the ethnomusicology of pop music – the people, social and cultural aspects behind the music. Since my experiences in the music industry took place many years ago, I wondered what I had to offer a group of undergrads in 2020.
I’d started to write songs in my 20’s, after stumbling upon a folky singer/songwriter community. The meeting point was Fat Albert’s Open Stage, held in the basement of a church. One of longest running open stages in Canada, it is known to have featured icons such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young early in their careers. Most of us played hummy strummy folk music, personal songs and insights as accompanied ourselves on acoustic guitars. Most of my peers were white.
As we progressed with our song writing, a few of us began to do shows beyond the basement. Some of us wandered into the recording studio and produced cassettes and later cd’s. Some of my early musical influences were making their way into my compositions, old style calypso, parang, latin music and elements of jazz. However, I still sang quietly playing along on my acoustic nylon-stringed guitar.
Around this time, as my peers slid easily into pop genre, I realized that I was in the same world and yet negotiating different territory. I read reviews that called me a ‘belting’ R and B singer. Perhaps because of my long dreadlocks, I was scheduled for a reggae night at NXNE music festival in Toronto one year. What I experienced as my little pop and folk songs were
being thrown into a certain field by some reviewers and bookers that were connected soley to my skin colour – and hair style.
I wrote an article years ago on how my race impacted my experiences within a predominantly white Canadian industry. That being said, I also had wonderful, insightful reviewers and bookers and was often properly scheduled into appropriate events. My more challenging experiences, however, were much larger than me and my little songs. They were deeply systemic.
After my talk, the students told me of their own observations and experiences. Many of them come from an idealistic place where “everyone should be able to do everything.” The relevance of the invisible structures that prevent this for some artists, were not obvious them. One woman did mention the challenges of performing Reggaethon and being told to dye her blonde hair dark, wear high heels and flowered prints so as to be more appropriately Latina.
The students did come up with great insights as to how to combat genre categorizations: using their consumer dollar to support various artists or choosing to avoid making assumptions based on how people look.
The most insightful comment came from a young woman who had attended an exclusive arts high school. She suggested that arts education be make available for all kids. “If I didn’t attend this school, I would not have been aware of careers in the technical aspects of the arts,” Yes! I said, we need BIPOC people in all aspects of the arts industries, not just as performers, but as decision makers as well as workers in the more technical elements of the industry.
Fat Albert’s Open Stage continues on. It is now held at the Steel Workers Union Hall on Cecil Street every Wednesday night. I wonder who’s coming up now!
Know any others?