An expansive conversation about soul and Toronto.
Anupa: Welcome everyone and welcome to everyone who I guess is watching this virtually. This is a really strange experience, to welcome people who will be watching this in the future. My name is Anupa Mistry, I almost forgot to write an introduction of myself while I was putting all this together. So I’m just going to get it out of the way. I’m an arts writer and observer and celebrator of all of the people who you are seeing in this virtual chat room. Right now I’m looking into methods of writing and thinking and being in conversation that I feel is more generative and accountable to communities than what I felt like I was doing while I was working in more mainstream media spaces. I’m also an executive producer at Scenario Media and I’m you know just here as a fan, of everyone and a fan of what the potential of Toronto is. I see that so much in its culture. So as we think about soul and as we think about spirit and what animates this city, and as we look to the future, I think we should you know give thanks to ancestors and to the spirits that guide us along the way both living and non-living. You know so all of our own personal guides but also those of the traditional caretakers of this land.
The Wendat, the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee who give the city its beautiful name, Toronto or Tkaronto. The place where the water meets the trees and then also the cultural ancestors and artists and thinkers and practitioners and makers who gave and continue to give Toronto its soul. There’s so many people who are part of like a lineage of soul in the city and so I want to invite you know their sounds and their ideas and their, their energy into this conversation. That’s why we’re here, we’re here to talk about soul in the city, the music and the people and the practices that animate it.
I always think about my dear friend Huda Hassan saying black women run this city which is a sentiment that I think you know reflects deep care practices through culture, through politics, through narrative, through critique and spans time in 2020. The Toronto urbanist Jay Pitter wrote about this idea of forgotten densities that makes visible the spaces occupied by communities most vulnerable to covid-19. She wrote that these black indigenous and migrant communities and this is a quote “consistently rise above the discriminatory design practices and policies to nurture the well-being of their communities” and so like I see that rising above is not merely like resilience you know. Not merely enduring but its own form of design and logic and so that idea kind of really excited me, thinking about it in a cultural context, as like an alternative site and a building of power and it’s own texture I suppose.
That really connected me to this idea that I was reading about in this book called, The Meaning of Soul by Emily J Lordi and she writes of soul logic so she’s writing about soul music and she writes about soul music as having its own logic which she calls quote “a theory of life designed to fortify ones sense of belonging to a buoyant black collective” and so what she’s doing is she’s flipping it kind of and she’s obviously working with scholarly examinations of soul music but she’s thinking about how it’s historically been presented as very tradition, masculine, you know civil rights oriented. And instead she frames it as like ideologically diverse, as feminist, as queer, as relational, as experimental As having multiple textures, sonic textures and as and not non-partisan as well so like a force of group encouragement. Away from violence, the violence of settler colonialism, the violence of white supremacy and neoliberalism.
I think all of your music reflects this, you all make music that sounds vastly different and that if someone came up to me on the street, if I would necessarily describe your music as soul but there’s something soulful to it. And I think it also comprises what Emily Lordi lays out in this definition. You’re all doing something else, you all have a soul logic I think at work behind what you do and so I’m going to introduce you for the people at home who may not know.
I’ll start with Ladan formerly known as Cold Specks is a singer and song writer. Her debut album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion was released in 2012 and was nominated for a Juno and was shortlisted for the Polaris prize, she has since toured North America and Europe extensively and released two other albums Near Plasticity and Fool’s Paradise and is currently in the process of writing her fourth album which will comes out under your own name Ladan.
Kamilah Apong is a singer songwriter composer and director and also the front person or the disco house band Tush which, album imminent. Her work is an exploration of restorative justice, survivorship, love, trauma and healing, She carries over a decade of community engagement practice into her art including Regent Parks’ open mic series, hummingbird. As well as Lil’ Sis, a platform centering young and emerging artists.
Alanna Stuart is a musician, researcher, and curator, her band Bonjay’s 2018 album Lush Life was also longlisted for the Polaris Prize and she’s a proud member of the chamber pop ensemble Queer Songbook Orchestra. Alanna’s currently producing works exploring this very exciting idea of femmehall. Which is a movement promoting the presence of women in dance hall production and presentation. She also runs Sou Sou, which is a covid era virtual and sometimes outdoor, safely outdoor musical performance series.
And then of course SATE, a mainstay of Toronto. An artist whose blues rock sound comes from a lifetime spent fully immersed in music. She is the daughter of blues icon and theatre pioneer, Salome Bey and was a member of the experimental band Blaxäm with her sister tUkU as amongst others. SATE was the first black Canadian woman to perform on Afropunk stages in Paris, New York, and Atlanta and her debut album Red Black and Blue led to extensive touring throughout Europe. Her forthcoming record, The Fool is a soul-centered exploration of SATE’s connection to tarot.
So that was a lot of talking on my part and I’m ready to turn it over to all of you. I think a good place to start is just to ask you know what the city sounds like to you and not in that Toronto sound way that people love to talk about, but I guess when you think of life here, what do you hear?
Alanna: At this very moment I’m gonna give some actual thought to that question in relation to music but I tried to record here. The constant din of construction that is outside of my window and that to me right now is the sound of of Toronto. That comes to the forefront. Whereas when I think of my time in Jamaica where I spend several months out of the year, I’m hearing music, you know different sounds every block. Celine Dion coming out of one sound system and then country music out of the next and then classic 90s dance hall, and then the next you know block is roots reggae and all of that. That din, I think is a sonic representation of Kingston Jamaica.
What I call an unofficial model of music is life and not just music as an imperative practice but a way of sustaining life. The cultural life of the spirit, the soul, for marginalized communities and the fact that as you’re going through the streets, you’re hearing all of these different sounds at full volume. Irregardless of their proximity to each other and being unafraid to mix and blend or be loud and be heard I think you know that’s the sound of Kingston. Whereas when I walk down the street in Toronto, I hear cranes and drills, so genre wise what I think about, what I think is exciting about Toronto as a city is that it’s still in its adolescence where you know we have this desire to distinguish ourselves from an American sound whereas that wasn’t always the case as recent as a couple decades ago or 10 years ago.
American commercial ideas of success I think guided Toronto’s own sonic ambitions, whereas now we are looking internally for our own sonic definition and we’re doing it awkwardly but I can still feel that it’s, that it’s happening. I think the fact that we’re having a conversation about soul, but all four of us have such distinct sounds, that could still be rooted in that genre, speaks to the potential of Toronto as a city. But what I actually hear, what comes to mind when I think about what is the literal sound of the city is this shit you know. Which could be turned into music but I think it speaks to the priorities of the city and how it might be dampening its sound. That is my sermon.
SATE: That was a word. That was a word and I mean on the flip side, the construction it is I feel reflects us building, building new, building foundation where I feel like the sound of Toronto. We’re all pioneers, we’re all pioneers of the sound of Toronto and we’ve all been pioneers for a very long time you know, just making making people know that we are, we are here creating sounds that are unique to the melange of cultures that that migrate, that immigrate here on on on this land. It’s always because my mother is American or my mother was American and my father was from Saint Kitts. But growing up here, I always felt different because I had a very very strong connection to America but I could see how I was a different kid because of all of the food and culture and sounds that I would hear in Toronto is not something that would happen in the states. So I was just as you were talking about Alanna, talking about Celine Dion and all the things you’re hearing in Kingston, it’s all the things that I was hearing that we hear here or all the things that I was hearing here growing up that shaped me. That shaped how I make music or how I interpret it yeah but you said it so eloquently.
Ladan: I live in North Etobicoke and recently all I’ve been hearing, I’m not currently hearing it right now, but a great deal of sirens. I live by the highway, right behind the backyard is the highway and just during the pandemic especially there’s just been an increase in the amount of sirens and it’s affected my sleep. It’s very annoying and that’s one of the main sounds I associate with Etobicoke, especially North Etobicoke. When it comes to music, the sound of the city since I moved to Etobicoke in 2018 and I’m in tune to what my siblings and my cousins and my relatives are listening to and it’s all just like people from Driftwood. People from Jane and Finch, people from Albion and those sounds and that’s what I think of when I think of the sound of the city.
Kamilah: I think of the sound of the city right now I feel, I hear like the first thing I thought when Alanna was speaking was like this is the sound of gentrification and that’s the sound that I hear and I hear exhaustion and I’m going to preface my role in todays conversation is that of the bitter jaded Torontonian who got pushed out. That’s where I am right now in my life cycle, I came into Toronto in my late teens and like I’m going into my 30s now soon and I feel like I got pushed out like I was just like, you’re not going to make it here. I can’t afford, I can’t afford it, I can’t create here I can’t feel safe here so I’m sorry if much of my perspective right now seems jaded. I reckon it will hopefully be temporary and later on in my life I’ll come to the other part where you reconcile and like love it again but mostly it’s even in that kind of position it’s because I actually love Toronto so much. I just wanted it to love me.
What I hear in terms of like collective energy is like an exhaustion amongst my peers and a bit worry for creatives especially. For live people who do live music I feel, I hear a lot of concern about the lack, rehearsal factory is closing and people are freaking out, I just hear a lot of concern from creators right now. A lot of worry of like what are we doing? How are we going to do this? Where are we playing? And that’s that’s what I hear right now.
Anupa: Yeah I mean I don’t know what’s the latest news on the Rehearsal Factory but it’s not even just the space is closing, it’s an active displacement by a corporation that you know has a front as something. We don’t need to name it but you know, it’s a large corporation coming in and saying we’re going to take over the space and I think that’s also what we’re seeing. It’s like things are closing but that energy is being supplanted I suppose. I wanted to also introduce people to your kind of music, you know by you talking about it. Some of us have mentioned the ways in which you know the music sounds really different but there is something in it that could be kind of described as soul, or rifts on, or borrows from, or is part of the lineage of soul and so I would love if everyone could also just kind of talk a little bit of how they see soul working through their music. That could be musically, it could be spiritually but I really wanted to start with you Ladan because early on when you put out your first album, there was this term doom soul attached to your music . I think that was also the time when everyone was coming up with these genre names. And so maybe that was part of what that was but yeah in thinking of this panel I was like oh yeah I totally remember that and I remember we talked about it but I’d be curious to know how you think about your music now, how it relates to soul and how you think about that term as well.
Ladan: It’s funny because I actually came up with that term as a joke and put it on the facebook page with the genre thing and then the press picked up on it and I’m forever referred to as doom soul, now it just won’t stop. I don’t have a problem with it because in the early days there was certainly like gothic elements to my music, as well as soulful, and it was like in equal measures. So I wasn’t offended by it, it became a little annoying. The second album I guess I could be summarized as doom soul. The record I’m working on right now, there’s no element of goth rock or it’s like super stripped down piano and guitar and vocal heavily inspired by like Memphis soul. I was listening a lot to like James Carr and Bobby Blue Bland. Also like the Aretha Franklin record, Spirit in the Dark, listening to that a lot. And that live Sam Cook record, Live at the Harlem Square Club. I was listening to a lot of that stuff and it certainly seeped into my music. And I’m sure and when I think of soul I think of it as reflections, like extracting emotions and reflecting on lived experiences in your music and you know always Black people and I certainly think it’s a soulful record. The one that I’m working on at the moment, who knows when it’ll be finished.
Anupa: Yeah. I would love to hear everyone because like all of you have like very diverse interpretations of soul so you know, throw it out there.
SATE: Soul has always been kind of a bone of contention for me when it comes to describing music. Especially being in a genre that is, first of all I fucking hate genres. Yeah we make music, we express, we have feelings, we’re interpreting, we’re transmuting and it comes through us. The sounds that we hear, I always got a little mad when people would say that, I was soul rock. Or always soul would come in and I felt like that was, I understand it when it’s coming from me but when it’s coming from the outside it’s like “urban.” Right I’m like oh she’s Black, yeah the fuck I am Black, cool, so then it’s like “where do we put her?” Right? So that’s where it got pissy for me, you know? Soul much like jazz, what my mother taught me about jazz is a feeling, it’s an expression so yeah we all come with soul. We all express soul and it is the conversation that we have with self and how we express bravely and courageously in our music, in our art.
It’s like writing a book and telling people what it’s about. Everything the author saying “this is what it’s about” and “you can’t go outside of this” you know, but everyone’s going to take it in their own way. I could explain what my albums about or what my music is and people will say “well I don’t really hear it,” so why the fuck did you ask me?
Just take in the music. Feel it and that’s soul, feel it, let’s soul to soul.
Let’s have conversation and then on the flip side yeah there’s a lot of soul in my music. Yes that’s the foundation because I am a soul.
Alanna: Okay so I’ll talk about what soul is to me but first I’ll anchor it assuming nobody knows anything about my musical background. Genre is bullshit but for me there are some clear sonic tenets and like guiding production principles or influences that have been consistent throughout my different practices. So I’m a producer, songwriter, vocalist in Bonjay and we’ve been described as if Kate Bush did Dancehall Reggae. So esoteric vocals and heavy bass and syncopated rhythms underpin the music but then we’re both nerds and so what we talk about is we try to have a poetic approach to how we describe life. Let’s have conversation and then on the flip side yeah there’s a lot of soul in my music. Yes that’s the foundation because I am a soul.z
So our album Lush Life was about the way we live in cities today. The beauty and the chaos of so many different people interweaving and trying to make a life for themselves in this place. This pressure cooker of human complexity, how do you make sense of yourself in that? And we talked about things from security guards and custodial staff taking the blue line bus home, you know, with the party kids and these different life styles working together. Or that time that you found a crush at an afterparty at a place that had no sign, that kind of thing right? And then I started singing with the Queer Songbook Orchestra. The Queer Songbook Orchestra does orchestral covers of jazz standards and pop songs, but all our shows are interspersed with stories that were either donated or submitted by the queer community talking about why Taylor Swift- Shake It Off was chosen as their coming out song or talking about the hushed LGBTQ2S stories of pop culture history. Talking about the story of Billy Strayhorn, writing for Duke Ellington. I think I have that fact right.
So storytelling in music and real life stories alongside music is another thread that ties Bonjay and Queer Songbook Orchestra together but Anupa when you pose the question of ‘how you describe your music?’ and I thought about it in terms of where I’m at right now as a solo artist? Someone who has been a solo artist most my life you know, I’m definitely well into my 30s but I started working in the music industry proper when I was 14 years old as a recording backup singer. As someone touring and you know doing my math homework in the hallways of the studio at 15, I’ve been in it for a long time but this is the first time where I feel like I’m self-actualizing. Where I’m actually communicating as an artist with a heightened self-awareness as a woman and what is the life of mine that I want to reflect.
So when I started making music, I mentioned this earlier, how focused on an American idea of commercial success that Toronto was focused on. And my sound, my lyrics, my bio, my name had to not fit within Toronto but within that American ideal and so the producer you know wrote a bio. At first they really wanted to push the sex angle but I wasn’t yet 18 and I was going to church at the same time and so I didn’t feel comfortable pushing sex to the forefront. So the bio read “not yet a girl not yet a woman.” Just like on the edge, on the edge of what we can push in terms of sex. Changed my age, but the main thing was in order for me to release the single that they had written and produced for me, they wanted me to have a name that they deemed more Black or deemed more ‘urban.’ Those were their actual words.
So they gave me a list with a formula. You can have first initial, last name. You can have lil this and they came up with a bunch of name and I said I want to keep my name because there was a man who’d visited from an American church. He heard me sing and he said your name is valuable. Alanna Stuart is a name for someone who’s ready for a big stage, don’t change it. I was 11 when he told me that but I held on to that idea and so I said I don’t want to change my name, but I said you could release it on the radio but only as Alanna Stuart, but as I was driving home with my friends in high school. I heard my single Ring Ring Call Again on what was then the new urban station, flow 93.5, and we were all getting excited and the radio announcer comes on and they say that was Ring Ring Call Again, the new single by Donna Boogie.
That was the name that they chose for me, that they thought would position me for an American idea of success, was Donna Boogie. I’m less embarrassed about that now because it’s a memory that I hold on to, for me to remember my name but not just my name Alanna Stuart but my sense of self. From then on I decided that I was going to write my own songs. I wanted to work with people who gave me space to be who I was, who didn’t impose their own pre-conceived notions as to what I could do based on you know being a Black woman with a four octave range and you know straight teeth and double d’s whatever like that it’s just like I’m packaged. And I have all of what you know is supposed to position me for success. Anyway that’s a bit of a tangent, going back to the present.
Going from that experience to working with my bandmate Ian in Bonjay who’s really about coming up with something new, and working with The Queer Songbook Orchestra, that’s really about insistence on being seen and being heard and sharing true stories. All of that feeds into where I am now as a solo artist but I’m almost too afraid to define my music because it’s the first time that I’m making music completely on my own. And when you do that within this body, that receives so many messages as to who I should be, how I should stand, how I should be presented. I found, I’ve found myself quite afraid to actually put myself out there and define myself because I’m so much more aware of what it means to be a Black woman in music.
So going to, going to the definition of soul, I’m going to introduce a rich white lady to the conversation, just forgive me for the moment but I think that you’d actually be into her music. Leslie Feist is an artist that I greatly admire, and her music, the way that she vocalizes, speaks to a core tenant of my solo practices and something that I think will always be me and that has always been through, been a part of my musical practice and there’s just like a rawness that I consider soul you know. In dancehall, it could be a rawness of sexuality, a certain kind of braggadocio which is even the way I’m moving my body right now. Thinking about dancehall, it’s just like, kind of like this slackness you know and then in Gospel that I grew up with there in a Pentecostal church. There’s a rawness of spirit, there’s a rawness of expression. You’re sweating, you’re perspiring, you might speak in tongues, there’s no such thing as shame. It’s just completely uninhibited and you are a vessel for whatever the feeling is in the moment and that is how I vocalized and that’s something that I was attracted to in Leslie Feist’s way of singing and recording. Where you can hear the floor creaking in the background. You can hear the breaths and maybe somebody taking a big gulp or something like that. It lets in all the real life sounds of everyday life that reminds you that you’re human you know. That lets more feeling come through and so enamored by her voice was I that I interviewed her about, about the voice and I asked her what is something that you look for in a voice and she introduced me to the idea of duende.
Duende is something in Flamenco music, when you hear a woman singing, you’re not hearing her voice, you’re hearing her heart breaking as communicated through that voice and that realness and that life and that rawness of spirit I think that duende for me is what soul is. You know that’s what has to be there for it to actually be soul. Not just a certain tempo or a certain sonic palette that makes it soul music because you can’t fake soul you know. You can be an R&B singer and have all the technicality and there’s that’s athleticism to me but the actual soul is that duende. When you can hear somebody’s nails scratching across the floor, crawling back to their true self after a broken heart. That to me is soul music and I think that more than defining what my solo musical sound is because right now it’s kind of an extension of Bonjay where I’m doing Jamaican versions of songs by women who have influenced me. It’s going to sound like soul music and dancehall but I already have another record that is guitar and voice based and that’s still just as soulful but the throughline is that rawness. That throughline is that duende or what I call soul.
Anupa: Yes Kamilah I’d love to hear from you as well because you’re disco, you’re house, you’re a completely different expression than everyone else here and also drawing from music that definitely is part of the lineage of what people traditionally think of as soul music. When I think of Tush, I think of a live performance, I think of an ensemble. So maybe you could also talk a little bit of how you think about soul as working through your music.
Kamilah: Holy the things I came up to me as say, Ladan and Alanna were speaking was like soul music is an embodied experience and there is no way around that. It is implicitly an embodied experience and I think I also thought well what Alanna you just said in terms of like people who fake soul and like the music industry loves fake soul, loves fake soul because it’s clean. There’s a closer proximity to whiteness usually in the way that it could be marketed and the way that it can be received in XYZ as it’s often considered safer and so when you have those two things. It’s like, it’s both in embodied experience and at the same time the most exploited experience both at once and it’s kind of odd the way those two things exist together.
When I first started, I was put into an all white band managed at the time by the former VP at Capital Records and he had heard me and told my former bandmate. He’s like “put this girl in the band, like you need this girl in the band because she’s like soulful” and I was like 17/18 by the time, around that time and I had thought I was done with music because I had gone to Mayfield Secondary School of the arts. I was a Brampton child and the music, my experience there as a teen was like, the curriculum is extremely Eurocentric. So it’s like, all like Italian vocalists and a German blah blah blah. Like you’re learning German, you’re learning French, you’re learning Italian vocals. You’re doing chamber choir, you’re doing da da da da, you’re learning Bach and whoever XYZ which is like still interesting stuff but I got very bored because I would like go home and I’d be like parents who are Caribbean, came from Jamaica and Trinidad and grew up in these 60s and 70s. Had this huge plethora of records that I would listen to you know cleaning the house every morning. Which was not obviously what we were studying in school, which was like you know Ramsey Lewis and Andy Bay and we had tons of Stevie and Minnie and XYZ XYZ XYZ and like deep jazz and all of that.
So I was like well when I’m at school, I’m learning this stuff, so clearly the industry is not for me. Like I can’t, I don’t, I can’t do this. I can’t, I don’t do vocal pieces I don’t, that’s not really what I do and I was like I just don’t think I’m really cut out to be a true musician. That’s what it was like true musicianship, there was a place for soulfulness which was really coded for Blackness but like true musicianship was like capital P, Pianist, was like capital M, Musician. Who can read all the theory and do oxford Z and the gag is like I actually did study theory and classical piano all the way up to grade 9. So like I was trained but I always hated it. I never like loved it and I think it was because it was taught to me in my teens that like this is music and so to say when I got put into this white band.
My role was to be soulful and I really internalized that in a way that messed with my understanding of who I was as a musician.
I remember when that band started, for an Indie group that was all young people, it did considerably well. I remember one of the first international interviews, you got the question was literally like how did Kamilah get in the band and is it because you needed street cred. So first of all the fact that you’re looking at me for street cred is your number one mistake. I’m from Brampton okay and I still like, I’m not I’m there’s nothing, there’s not street cred that you’re getting from me. Literally starting from the fact that I’m light skinned Black person and so that was a gag in of itself but also just like they’re straight up just like is she in the band just because she’s Black? And that makes you look good and the tea is that actually was the reason why I was in the band because it made them look more credible. The other part of that was I remember iin an interview everyone would get described and it would be like “there’s this member, this member and the African Kamilah Apong.”
That was my adjective and so like there’s something that the industry just finds so deeply enthralled with in terms of Blackness, in terms of soul, in terms of street cred and stuff in terms of some kind of authenticity that they are looking for and that they want to market so bad. That they will turn you in to soul rock. It’s rock and say it’s Black but like they’re like soul rock because they’re like it’s something here we can exploit and profit off of. So it’s like this both deeply vulnerable like authentic rich existence that is soul. That is just so all tokenized and exploited at the same time and I have like struggled a lot with my own identity for a very long time.
I remember like it was Noisey, there was another article where they’re like “this group is the best blue-eyed soul you’re gonna get in Canada or Toronto or something.” And I was like where’s the blue and I emailed them. I emailed them and the writer was like “oh I didn’t like think about you know what that term really meant.” I was like, I mean we go so far to have like have a term that’s blue-eyed soul. It’s soul that isn’t Black, it’s like it’s such a deeply coded term. And so after like that group ended and I started making disco music. This was a different band than Tush, it was managed by white men. I only came into that through a craigslist ad because I was looking for new avenues to start to explore. I like didn’t realize even that disco and house music is probably one of the most sensationalized and visual genres. It’s deeply aestheticized, if that’s a word like people think disco they think the afros and glitter and flare bottoms and bleh and which is fun and which I love, but again it’s not like very, keeping it in that realm of like it’s this, it’s this, it’s this, it’s glamourous Black women.
It makes it really easy to sell I think it has given people a very specific experience. When I came into that project, I didn’t even realize that the music that I had grown up on was disco music. It was just music my family played because it was Black music and it was like a Black family and like a Caribbean and like North American family and like that’s what my parents would have had on in their 20s, in their 30s. I was like huh, like this is just my family’s music, like this is just you know whatever. And so then I really got to come into it and be like oh shit this is a whole movement and it’s like disco is not dead. But then it came to my head again because I felt when that, when that group started moving I didn’t have really as much creative control. We would get things like oh can we book you for this party like for our office. I’m like we’re all going to wear afros as wigs and I’d be like no like this isn’t a Minstrels show like, what the fuck? And that would be it cause they wanted to embody that feeling of like soulfulness.
For Tush I work with my partner Jamie Kidd, we have a really great understanding of how we move through this. Something I think I’ve learned, like if I’m going to do this music with other people, especially folks who are not Black, there must be a common understanding and we must have the ability to have the conversation of our proximities to whiteness. How that’s going to impact helping the industry, how it’s going to impact our music. The control that I need and the space that I have to have and like I won’t scrimp for anymore just to be the token cause that really was my role in many other, all the other groups I was in. And so that has really shifted the way that I interact now with house music. At first, pre-Tush. I really thought that, like I was really like a caricature, like when people came they wanted to see Black people shuck and jiving and belting and I was like well that’s the music I have to make because that’s what they’re expecting. That’s what you know is soulful to them and I started feeling very strange about things. I’d be like this isn’t my audience, my people are not here. I see older white dudes in their like office clothes, getting a drink. Which I’m glad to connect with and because I love to make music and perform but this can’t be my only audience exclusively. This doesn’t make sense.vI am like an out bisexual, queer femme, who’s Black, I know this exists outside of this crowd,
Re-visiting to me what disco and house music meant and what my soul meant and my own character meant and to come back to whatever I make is going to be embodied. You are the vessel for that emotion and it can everyone knows when it’s fake. You can always clock when it’s fake, everyone can see through it and people know when they come to my live shows that shit is not fake. Which is why Tush does really well and why people love to see us live. Pre-Tush like it wasn’t that, it was me and a bunch of white men, like that was the band. I was like this doesn’t make sense. This is not going to work and so like when we kind of moved away from that set up and I took more creative ownership and started working Jamie. We brought our flex in, we brought Tafari Anthony and we brought James Baley and we brought Alexa Belgrave and I’m like these are my friends. Who are in my family, my chosen families and we make music together and that’s on period. That’s what it’s going to be because like disco and house music is Black music, is queer music at it’s origin and that’s how it has to be honoured for this project to work. It’s not gonna work otherwise because people will see through it.
Disco and house is like coming to an actual practice behind the genre instead of just calling it whatever but practicing what that actually means. It’s temporal, it’s embodied, it’s a mix of like queerness and gender and straightness. Disco is a mix, it was always a melange of things. Where those kinds of boxes and genres were put aside for the night. So people would just get into the music and dance. I’m like that soul, that is embodied, like that’s real. I’m not a caricature of what they think this needs to be or what people are trying to expect of me here.
It’s something I think I’ll still need time to feel comfortable to be all the time. There’s definitely times where I’m like where I’m like ugh I feel like I’m shuck and jiving or I feel like is this like very caricaturish or like it can be tough because there are parts about that, that are really fun. I love belting, I love like you know putting extensions in and having gigantic hair and I don’t have that anymore which has been a huge part of this experience as well. Even shaving my head I was like will people still think it’s Black enough? And so you know what, it’s a process but I will say it’s been a huge. I’ve come into feeling much more comfortable with the terms and like being able to explore within disco and house instead of feeling like it has to be like this. That’s my Ted Talk.
SATE: I would love to add to especially the last part of what you were talking about. I think what the soul and genre and self-identifying is so so much of what this conversation is really about. You can belt because you belt, because that’s another colour of your voice. That’s another colour of your palette, it doesn’t mean that you’re shucking and jiving. These are the things that we have used to express. The things that we have used to express have been weaponized against us you know. Our hair, you cut your hair and now it’s weaponized against you. That you aren’t Black enough or it’s not it’s not disco. The music, the expression that we use through song is embodiment. Soul, you can feel just like everybody says you can feel the soul. You can feel it when it’s fake, it just doesn’t, it just doesn’t hit you.
You know the duende that you were talking about Alanna. It’s like, I got hair like the hairs on my arms. I was like yeah when you can actually feel and hear the humanness of someone, the beingness, and that connection where you are like oh ah we breathe the same. I’m feeling your energy you know. For me I just finished wrapping up The Fool and before I went back in because I had finished it and I put it on hold because I was like there’s something that’s soul that’s missing. I went back into it because, all kinds of granters are like ‘we need you to do this now,’ timelines and shit like that and I was like fuck. I was going through this timeline. I put together this body of work and while I felt really confident about it, when I presented it to people, mainly white people, I was not being received the way that I wanted to be received by them.
I was like you cut me down, cut me down. Depressed really just let me take a step away, what the fuck am I doing? What am I doin? I get on stage, people are like wow oh my god but then the next thing out of their mouth is I don’t know where to put you. And I’m like but I don’t understand, are you are you lying to me? That I’m good because I feel good and I see the people and we’re having conversation. We’re doing this together. I had this conversation with a fellow sister in the industry that was like who are you making your music for? Who are you making your music for? And I really had to search myself for that.
Hear my voice like my own voice. Not the voice that they want to because ironically my voice in rock is not any of the voices that are in there. There’s nothing that’s strong and bold. I’ve got ‘oh my god she’s too aggressive’ and how many women being in music, period, have been told that they’re too aggressive? ‘You’re too forward.’ ‘You know you say what you want’ and all so then you have to be like okay so if I say it like this, with a smile, or if I sex it up and if I sex it up on my own terms. That’s my fucking choice right but if you’re telling me that I have to sex it up so that you can market me and thats what this is?
Okay coming back, distill back, come back to yourself, come back to self, come back to center, come back to center. What is your rock because your rock is you. That’s your expression, that’s your expression, your expression comes from the blues. From jazz, from rock, from funk, from soul, from you know from everything that you’ve ever listened to that’s ever moved you. Because I come from a dance background and if it doesn’t move my body, which I guess is my soul, my expression of soul. I’m not in, if I’m making the music and it doesn’t move my body, something’s wrong. If I’m hearing music and it doesn’t move like even if it’s just my little, my baby finger you know, it’s not moving me. I think this also is a conversation around self-identification. What is soul? It’s what I fucking say it is. What’s my name? It’s what I say it is. What’s my genre? It’s what I say it is. You can find yourself within there.
Take me for what I say I am.
Anupa: It’s interesting I feel like what you’re all describing is like this you know, this collision of your selfhood with the industry abstract but also I mean, Kamilah, I feel like you put it so well when you were talking about ‘this music that I’m making it has a place,’ you know? When I look out in the audience, I’m not seeing the place that I know this music has, this physical space. I think that was another reason why I wanted to bring you all together. It’s not just because you’re all diverse kind of expressions of what one might call soul but I see what you do and your practice is kind of physically rooted in different kind of you know.
In my mind I was like really into what Jay Pitter wrote of forgotten density . These kind of spaces, these corners, these pockets of the city or these pockets of community that are expressed through the music. And then the confrontation comes when you bring those expressions into these white spaces or into whatever space that has a problem with your Blackness you might call it or your expression of an experience of Blackness.
I think about Ladan moving back to Etobicoke and we’ve talked about what it means for you to be back amongst like the Somali community there. And Alanna you’ve talked about growing up in the church and I think so much about the number of musicians in the GTA who have come through the church here and how that the Black church is an important pathway for music and culture in the city but it doesn’t get talked about in the same way that it does in African-American music. Where it’s like ‘oh you know the black church is a thing.’ SATE you know your family’s literal footprint, impact on the city. Your father running these clubs, your mother’s legacy on the cultural landscape. And Kamilah the ways in which you organized people and brought people together to be themselves. I see all of these things as kind of the physical manifestations of how you’re expressing your sound and so I would love for you all to kind of riff on some of those ideas. I think they’re all really important and I think they’re all really beautiful and I think they’re all sites of learning and experimentation that give this city soul. That give the city a sense of spirit and humanity. That gets lost when things close down and a fancy sign or whatever goes up.
Ladan: Something I’ve been thinking of more and more recently is all of these musicians who have come out of community housing in Toronto and have developed huge followings online and how they can’t play shows because the police are on their ass or they’re not being covered by mainstream media in Ontario, in Toronto. And for me, I grew up in the same environment. I grew up in community housing in Etobicoke. We got out, my family has a shop at Weston and Lawrence. I ended up signing to like a Canadian Indie label with no Black people on their roster and playing shows with mainly white audiences in the early days and it was something that really like shook me to the core. I had to do a lot of work to like figure out how I could be able to continue doing this for a living without it hurting me to the core.
I had a fake name in the early days in 2011. I called myself Cold Specks because I didn’t think Ladan Hussein, like people are not going to fuck with that name. I don’t think Osama Bin Ladan was dead at that time. There’s no way in hell in the early days.
There’s no way in hell I’m going to give people my real name.
I won’t find success with my name. So I had to do a lot of work and figure out how to move forward and how to represent myself. How to present myself to the public in a way that doesn’t sacrifice any parts of myself. So that was a lot of work and yeah when you talk about forgotten places in the city. That’s something I’ve been really in tune with in the last couple of years. Duvy, I think has found some success but someone like Sydanie who’s from Jane and Finch, she’s been covered by a Globe and Mail article but there’s not that much. People aren’t paying attention to what’s going on in the city. What’s real, what is like you know what makes the hairs on your arms stand up. None of that is being represented properly and it’s fucking frustrating. You look at the rosters of every Indie label in this city, in this country. It’s absurd and it’s never going to change.
Alanna: I’m really glad you brought up particular forgotten densities as Anupa had mentioned because for me the opposite is true. I grew up in a very working-class West Indian household that was secretly very very poor with no lights, no power, no food sometimes. But my high school had a wave pool and a hockey rink and kids went to Cancun in spring break. I was surrounded by middle, upper middle class white people and so socially I’ve been attuned or learned how be myself in my home but know how to navigate white spaces. I’ve known from a very young age that I was different but then also I have a Jamaican father who’s always been like ‘I am who I am and if you can’t deal with it, whatever’ right? So I never really felt an inferiority complex. I’m not saying that that’s what anybody here is saying, but I’m just talking about my positionality and my relationship to whiteness. I’ve always had a close proximity to it. Without I feel like I’ve never taken it on. I’ve never wanted to be white. I’ve never mistaken myself as being white. I’ve never ever had any illusions that white people would see me as them. I’ve always known that I was different. So that has never been a concern for me. I think that that’s why I feel comfortable or fine when I see predominately white audience. I don’t care whether they accept me or not. I’m like ‘this is who I am and you’ve chosen to be here.’ I’m not going to be anything but myself.
What hurts me is when I don’t see Black people because I feel like because my expression of soul and Blackness doesn’t coincide with the prescribed idea of soul and Blackness. I’m not perceived as being Black. That shit hurts because I’m like I’m Black. You can be more than what people tell, you could literally like we could be literally anything we want. Literally yeah we could be anything we want to be. I want you to see that you are, you are in me you know. That, that hurts me and I think that going back to my earlier experience.
Something that I don’t get to talk about and that I’m glad you brought up Anupa, but was my upbringing in the church. I grew up in a Jamaican Pentecostal church and when I didn’t have enough food at home or we couldn’t make it to the food bank which is something that I don’t often talk about. When I went to the church after service there was always a free meal and it wasn’t like a feed the poor program. It was just community, you feed each other, it was communal and I didn’t have to hide that I wasn’t eating. I was fed, I was held, I was you know I could sing and so I got acceptance through music. It was a place of security for me and within that place of security I could flourish. Within that place of security I could practice singing and music. It was a place that was always open so I could be there.
When I was training for teen gospel competitions as a kid, we were there like 30 hours a week and we would just hang out. During break we would listen to Beenie Man and we would listen to Lady Saw and then we’d go back to the pulpit and we would practice singing gospel. It was such a place of freedom and I think that it’s important to make a distinction between my church, my Jamaican Pentecostal church in Malton and Ottawa versus Revival Time Tabernacle which is like a big pulpit church which was more of an American idea because the music was different. The relationship was different, I don’t remember anybody that I went to church with at Revival Time. It was very big and expansive. There wasn’t the same soul. It felt like made-for-TV, you know? Whereas with the Pentecostal church
it’s like I could feel the old woman’s hands hitting the tambourine skin.
None of the women in the church choir could sing. None of them and few of them sang in key, but man did you feel it. You could the tempo, even the musics tempo is different, much slower. Much more country music informed. Much heavier, there’s a weight to it. That to me was soulful. Going back to the distinction between the more Americanized popularized idea of Black gospel versus the rawness of Jamaican Pentecostal church that was unafraid to embrace different sonic influences. I grew up singing country music. When I reflect on what the music was in the Jamaican Pentecostal church, it was country music. And then what I said on break, we would listen to Beenie Man and then I would sing Yolanda Adams and so for me you know I remember, I could recall feelings of being perplexed when people would be like ‘you like country music but you’re Black?’ and I didn’t have the self-awareness or the cultural knowledge because I hadn’t been to Jamaica or the West Indies at that point.
It fed into my insecurity of ‘am I Black enough?’ because those are white genres of music based on what we’re taught. But then when I went to Jamaica four years ago I was like shit. When you don’t have to defend your Blackness, you’re free just to be. And that means that you are Black, you like country music and you’re Black and you like Rick Astley and you’re Black and you like Celine Dion, you’re still Black. You’re not going to be anything but Black.
I felt free of that self-consciousness and it and it made that church experience, that foundational church experience, make more sense to me. I know that we’re tight for time but there are a couple of ideas that came up. That tie into the root of this conversation Anupa that I think is really important to point out the fact that we are all Black women. Talking about soul and soul as a vessel for emotion, and soul as being an embodied experience and I just, I think that you know women, Black women’s bodies and experiences historically have been in service of society. Have been in service of other peoples bodies, emotional labor, physical labor. All of that, ideation, innovation has been on the breast, the back, the back side of Black women. And here we are as four black women who when I listen to our sounds, maybe it’s hard to categorize because we’re making music of our own experience and for ourselves, and I thi k it’s very very important that we continue to do that but also to do that in a way that recognizes that we can self-pleasure through music. That we can make music for ourselves and that in itself is resistance. It doesn’t have to be as a result of struggle. It doesn’t have to be even in opposition to an outward gaze or the fact that the city is not designed for expansive views of what our experience can be. That just making is resistance. I just I think I mentioned that as a reminder to myself. That I think what we’re doing enough to expand the city’s soul potential because we’re moving beyond what people say we should do.
I spoke with a mentor of mine, a Jamaican elder Carolyn Cooper who was the Chair of the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of West Indies in Jamaica. She’s just like a fucking bad girl for real, everybody needs to meet her. Anupa has met her and she wrote this book called Noises In The Blood and talks about dancehall culture. Not as just a vulgar practice but really as a valid culture. An innovative one that represents society. I went to her and said we’re having this conversation about soul and we’re talking and it’s inspiring us to be curious about the role of the Black femme in shaping a city’s soul. I went to dancehall as this innovative culture that’s just so it’s of the people you know. It’s music that is delivered lyrically in Patois even though not everybody speaks it but it’s such a soulful music. You don’t have to know what people are saying because you feel it. It resonates, it moves your body and I asked her what is the role of women in that, you know in that, in that genre. You know what is the impact of women in that genre and I just want to play a quick quote because I think that it speaks to what we’re doing here with our soul and this is her:
“You can see that we are here and wanted to here. And that damage is not better right of what is beautiful. That tells you something about the society, the validation of the Black body and it’s recognition in that song. I don’t think that makes it, that totally makes sense. That totally makes sense. It’s essentially in Dancehall women are creating space for themselves that don’t exist in everyday world. Exactly. Yeah. In Dancehall they can bruk out, be seen, take out space. White people can’t have. Yeah. Carrying on bad is a rejection of the middle class, respectability. What I call sexless Victorian virtue.“
Alanna: You know and so I just I think I look to that idea. I look to Black women who especially of a “lower socioeconomic status” who in the dancehall. They’re like fuck what you think out there, here this is how I’m gonna skin out. This is my vagina, this is my face, these are the colours that I’m wearing. I’m going to be as visible as possible and I don’t care if you sexualize me, I don’t care if you desire me but this moment, this space is for me. They’re centering themselves and I really think that is what is happening consciously or subconsciously with our own variations of soul. Is that we are just being honest and true in that soulful duende way with our music and
our mere existence as our truest selves is resistance
but it’s also shaping Toronto. The Toronto that we aspire to be. Truly multi-cultural, truly expansive, truly unique in our expression.
As trite or even cliched as those things are, I really do see this as still being in its adolescence. There’s so much potential for us to shape, we can reflect on what Toronto has been but there’s so much opportunity in how we create to shape what the future of Toronto can be and that’s what excites me about this conversation. I have so much more to say about all this but just hearing you all speak and connecting with artists who you know I know peripherally but don’t actively engage with enough of. I’m like oh yeah I need to go back and really listen. I need to make sure that I go to those shows. So that when you are creating and you look into the crowd. You see people who reflect who you are and who you’re making the music for. Thank you Anupa for having this conversation because it’s so validating and comforting and such a reminder of the power that exists within us.
SATE: If I can add, thank you Alanna because it brought up for me, really my foundation which is blues and when I think of the blues I really that’s a direct connection for me what you were just talking about with dancehall. The blues women to me were the first punk rockers. They were the anti-establishment you know. They were creating and carving space, they were the first women, the first voices on record to sing blues. For blues to be sold on record, they were the first voices, not men, and for them to be able to speak their truth and be queer and running the show. They were, they were writing their words. Coming out of an era where just in the transition of Jim Crow. Just in that transition and they were the voices. Blues is the voice of autonomy. Of this is me, of politics, of being political of you know. I take that to funk too- Parliament, P-Funk. You know I take that to Fishbone, I take that there’s specific people where we look at in the audience and we’re one of two black people in the audience but this is our shit. This is our shit you know that’s where the soul is in the freedom. In the environment and I’m so vibrating from this conversation. I could talk to you all for like more hours but I know.
Alanna: We need to have a part 2 Anupa.
Anupa: I don’t think you need me.
Alanna: Yo you had us prepared I was like okay Black femme, okay now densities, forgotten densities I mean.
Kamilah: Same! I was like researching, listening to.
Alanna: My Jay Pitter today, listening to Black thought like all of that, all of that bypassed the surface level because we’ve heard people talk about Black women’s bodies and exploitation of labor. What does that mean in practice and what does that mean in this particular city? This is where we live, this is where we could make a change, you know? I think that it’s just signature you. to not only create a deeper experience but to give permission for true vulnerability. Not just like a confessional or public group therapy but actually you know speaking truths that sometimes are hard to share and we don’t know each other. You set the tone. So I think when we talk about soul in the city that yeah you’re contributing to that too.
Anupa: Thank you. Yeah I feel really grateful and to end with something you just said Alanna about making change, I think about that so much. It feels like this kind of endless orienting towards someone else’s idea of how things will be okay and I’m right now, I feel really present and I feel really inspired by not a mythical idea of change being made or a future projection of change being made but what people are doing in the present. We could talk about what people have done, yes, but actually I just think that everything is happening now already. And I’m not really too concerned about the future in that way because I feel so inspired and grateful to all of you for doing what you do because you are in practice.
I think that is something that, you know, the panel culture, the panel industrial complex, is always yearning for this thing and that’s why I was like, no like I just want to bring people together. Who are already like doing it, because it’s not about one day everyone will overcome and everyone will get their due or their turn. I’m like people are, people are doing it now and so I thank each and every single one of you for your wonderful thoughts and for opening up and being present with each other and yeah just thank you so much. Endlessly and all the best with all of the music that you are putting out this year or in the future that I am so excited to receive and that I know other people are excited to receive.
Alanna: Thank you.
SATE: Thank you.
Alanna: Thank all of you.
SATE: Yes. What a way to start the day, to just ground to a firm end. To present and to bathe in. Thank you for everything that everyone has shared. Just affirmation, of spirit, of process, of practice, of journey.
Kamilah: Thank you.