For Black History Month, LAC worked with Silence Genti, Writer-in-Residence, to develop a series of honest, thoughtful, and inspiring stories highlighting the experiences and perspectives of Black artists in our community. Throughout the month of February, we will be publishing one story each week on our Cultivating Allyship webpage.
Silence Genti is a former Zimbabwean journalist now living in London. Silence has written for publications such as Toronto Star, The Beat and NOW and also co-founded The Insider, a now-defunct community newspaper. A father of two, he is an avid community builder dedicated to building a better world for his children. He can be reached via iamsilence.ca.
I often say I didn't know I was black until I came to Canada. It’s not that my skin colour changed when I landed at Pearson Airport. Rather, it’s the fact that my melanin became the primary, if not only, definition of who I am.
I don’t know how Mathieu Da Costa, the first Black person in Canada according to some records, felt when he landed in what is now Canada as part of a 1604 Portuguese exploration team. But I struggle with the idea that all of me, and who I am, wholly belongs in this narrow box.
Four centuries past Da Costa’s expedition, the Black community now accounts for approximately 16% of the population defined as a visible minority.
In the last century, artists like Montreal’s Oscar Peterson and Nova Scotia-born contralto Portia White rose to prominence. Their success paved the way for another generation of stars including Jully Black, Michee Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes, Saukrates and Measha Brueggergosman. And London has its fair share of black artists. At present, London’s black community is diverse in origins -- descendants of the early black communities, Africa and the Caribbean and Latin America.
JagHuligin was born into a family of five in the Bahamas. He grew up singing in church and his mother pushed for him to be a singer. His grandmother was a folklore singer signed to a major record label. He came to London via Fanshawe College.
In true Bahamian fashion, there is a strong maternal figure at the centre of his life. “My mom was always trying to get me to do things. Do this choir thing, she would say. All my Saturdays and Sundays were taken up [because she wanted me to do music]. If it wasn't for her doing that, I wouldn't be here.”
His compatriot Asante grew up in Markham, east of Toronto. His mother and father are Haitian & Jamaican respectively. He grew up in what he calls blackness.
“I was consuming so many different cultures [when growing up]. Some people around me though only knew black culture when they went to university. Yet I walk into some places where some people feel like they need to prove that they are black.”
He has issues with the term black. “I don’t think the word captures who we are. There are Jamaicans, Nigerians, and many others…Why do we allow ourselves to be locked in one box.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a black artist. Were it not a business choice, I’d never promote myself as such…Music is more than just colour. I only make music that calls to me.”
Jag agrees: “It makes it easier for the industry to label you as black and urban. Because different genres are associated with certain people.”
He adds: “Most people seem to identify Black American culture as Black Canadian culture. There are similarities but there are major differences as well.”
Nigerian-born visual artist Amsa Yaro agrees American Black culture and history is “jumbled up together” with Canadian.
“I was only fully aware of Canada as a country when a relative of mine came to school here and that was the beginning of my full-on awareness of Canada even being in existence, so US black culture and history was more well-known than Canadian, especially in the media.”
“Even when I moved here, there wasn't a lot of talk about Canadian black history, you literally had to search for it to find it or you stumble upon it along the way.”
There are dangers in failing to recognize the diversity within the black community, she cautions: “By throwing us into one box, we are expected to behave a certain way that if it doesn't fit into the box, it is deemed as a threat. It kills creativity, trust, and fellowship because we are forced to conform or not be understood when things are approached differently. It creates unhealthy competition where resources are hoarded amongst groups, not shared to make the whole stronger.”
The vibrancy of the black community, the stories of who we are, can be lost inside a box. If we take the time to know and acknowledge all these layers, all of London becomes richer and benefits from this.