Colourful Histories

The first chapter of my Master’s thesis looked at the history of Carnival in the Caribbean. In order to represent the syncretic nature of the festival, I chose to tell 3 separate narratives: the African story, the European story and the Indian Story. One story would not have done it justice. Now, having lived in metropolitan societies with many cultural groups, I’m beginning to see how the history of any given place is layered by many stories. Neighbourhoods become defined by cultural and racial borders, so that the city itself becomes a tapestry that immediately reflects the cultures that constitute its parts.

That being said, although there is great beauty in seeing the diversity of a place and people, I can’t help but wonder at the effect of separating the larger historical narratives of a society into racial counterparts. Why, for example, is the history of Black Americans segregated as Black History? Why isn’t their narrative equally represented as American history? Why is Native American history in Canada, taught as Native American studies? Why isn’t it just Canadian History? I can’t help but wonder if allowing history to be represented in racially skewed narratives does more harm than good. Is it still useful in society for the prevalent history to be by the conquerors? I would argue that there is nothing to be gained through a polarized history of a place or people.

There are many more useful insights to be gained from stories like those presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s books or Freakonomics or from podcasts like This American Life that look at real stories of real people. There’s a great Ted talk from novelist Chimamanda Adichie called ‘The danger of the Single Story’ that illuminates what I’m getting at with much more poise and eloquence. In her example she talks about the narrow way in which people respond to her, when they discovered she is from Nigeria. She talked about moving to America and being perceived as ‘African’ for the first time. She talks about the danger of creating single visions of entire cultures that preclude the opportunity for true empathy between cultural groups.

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In a world that is learning to incorporate many cultures into the mainstream, we need to ease up on looking at individual histories as ‘us’ and ‘them’. That is no longer really useful. As an immigrant to Canada, it’s sometimes nice to be recognized for my cultural differences, but at the same time there’s danger in being seen as outside of what’s normal or expected. Being different makes it hard for people to respect you and impossible for you to feel like a real member of the society, when you are constantly reminded of how ‘other’ you are. People take for granted that they know my history because they have some vague notion of what being from the Caribbean might mean, based on all inclusive vacations, bad movies and Reggae music. They’re not interested in being corrected either. They’re already convinced of their own imagined story of my ‘otherness’.

Maybe there’s a more temperate way for everyone to look at history and cultural diversity. I wonder for example in the modern situation of world travellers, if we can demand truer histories of the places that we inhabit that are more inclusive of all the stakeholders of places and events. I wonder if it’s possible for people to back off on believing that they know everything about everyone and look at the world without the need to polarize things.

Being Sweet

The co-owner of the building in which my office is located, introduced me to a stranger as ‘One of John’s (my boss) girls’. He felt awkward saying it too, I could tell. But he wasn’t quite up for calling me ‘architect’ to my face it would seem. ‘An intern architect working at John’s company’, would have been the proper introduction. But instead he went with the introduction that gave me the least bit of credit possible. What’s worse is that I didn’t correct him. I laughed it off and walked away. Why didn’t I say something? I wish I did but I don’t really know what I would say even now.

This is just a little something to serve as an example of the quandary I find myself in as I learn how to be a professional. On site, the men are mostly very sweet to me. They treat me with a certain amount of deference – but it has more to do with me being a woman than a professional. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can blame them either. I don’t need deference but I look at John. People listen to him. He has that air about him of trustworthiness and authority. That’s what you need to project as an Architect so that your contractors, clients and consultants listen.

I think about what I project. I think about the social habits people develop to fit in. For example, I’m nice and kind of funny/weird. People like me because I’m nice and remember me because I’m kind of eccentric. Being nice has gotten a bad rap over the years. But it’s true. I’m not very loud or pushy or even particularly opinionated. I can be all of those things of course, but they aren’t my prevailing spirit. What does that mean though as I exist in the workplace? Does it doom me to being ‘one of the girls’? Or can I be respected without being brash? I’ve felt this disconnect for a long time, between who I need to be to succeed and who I am. I’m an artist – entirely self indulgent but reflective and passionate. I’m a human great dane. Anyone who knows the breed knows they’re big showy goof balls. That’s me. Sure I understand that at the office, you can’t be the big dope you might be after hours. That’s fine. What confuses me are the social habits, especially the way in which I communicate with the opposite sex. I’m daddy’s little girl. That’s kind of my default if I were to pick a female stereotype. But in truth, can daddy’s little girl really grow up to be an Architect?

I reflect on the way that people perceive me and the dysfunctional things that people consider assets in our way too jaded world. I refuse to become dysfunctional in order to fit a dysfunctional system. Refuse. I refuse to be someone I’m not, so that I can play out a social game that I resent. So my quandary is how. How to be two things at once – the goof ball that I am as well as the professional I am becoming.

I don’t want to be ‘One of the girls’. As everything, I suppose it will evolve through trial and error, until I have a learned response for days like today, when someone tries to put a label on me.

 

10 years

This weekend marks my 10 year anniversary of moving to Canada.

10 years ago I thought I was moving to Canada to go to school. It was so clear to me then that I’d go home to Trinidad at every work term and that upon graduation I’d head straight back there to marry my high school sweetheart and stay close with my friends and family. At the time I was fiercely nationalistic and would never have believed that I’d stay in Canada.

10 years is a long time it turns out, even though it flew by. I sit now in the living room of my apartment in Kitchener. Mauri (my bf) is asleep in the bedroom beside me. I bid farewell to the high school sweetheart a long time ago. I like my job and I have a good life now in Canada. It took a very long time to become something like a home. But after 10 years, many tears and heartbreaks later, I have a circle of friends here who have become my family.

A City with Two Faces (my masters thesis) I suppose was my saudade. My heart remains an immigrant heart. Forever longing and forever unsure. Nothing holds me where I am the way that living at ‘home’ would hold me. But then here I have a kind of liberty I couldn’t have at home. A life that is relatively free of fear. So like all of the other immigrants, I wander through this new landscape that’s become my new home. Perhaps it’s my inner buddhist or perhaps it’s because I have absolutely no idea what comes next, but I am finally okay with living in the now.

 

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Masia One

This is the eleventh post in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via TumblrTwitter or Facebook

Masia One

Masia One is a remarkable performing artist. She’s the first female nominated for a Much Music Video Award (Rap) and winner of the Chinese Canadian National Council Pioneer Award. Her music has edge and passion and her style is undeniable. In an interview with the Coloured Collective’s Lisa Rajkumar-Maharaj, Masia has this to say:

How would you describe your musical style? What are your musical inspirations?
My music is based in Hiphop and has dancehall, reggae, and pop influences.  It is also very influenced by my nomadic lifestyle.  The message is with the intention of making people feel brave and positive to balance out the amount of degradation in mainstream sound today.
 
To say you are multi talented is an understatement. Other than singing, what other types of work do you do? 
I’m currently the Creative Director of a NYC based high end men’s outerwear line M71 that will be launching at Magic in Las Vegas this Fall. My company The MERDEKA Group is a branding boutique where we take events, artists or products and create the brand identity through graphic design, manufactured merchandise and events.  We’ve worked with Redbull, Adidas, Mobile Jam Fest (Youth Creativity Festival) and facilitate opportunities to bring the grass roots community and corporate interests together.  Finally, I really like painting and I hope to get a gig one day illustrating a children’s story book.
 
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you fit into and perceive the urban music scene.
I was born in Singapore and grew up in Vancouver, BC.  When I found a bootleg Public Enemy tape in Singapore at the age of 8, I knew I had discovered something unlike anything I had heard before. When I put out my first album Mississauga in 2003, I’m don’t think I fit into the perceived urban music scene at all – because of the way I look I was told to either be a spoken word poet or car model. Today Hiphop & Urban music is undeniably international and I’m hoping to bring my experience in music & culture back to SE Asia, the place of my birth.
 
Any performances, albums or anything you’d like to share with our readers? Where can we buy your album?
I have 2 upcoming releases for 2012.  The first is BOOTLEG CULTURE, produced by Grammy winning producer Che Vicious (Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 50 Cent, Kanye).  Guest appearances include The RZA, Isis of Thunderheist and Talib Kweli.  The second is a record done live at Tuff Gong (Bob Marley’s studios) in Kingston Jamaica together with an incredible band Dubtonic Kru.  My music can be purchased on iTunes or on my website www.masiaone.com (store opening at the end of the month).
The first single Warriors Tongue can be viewed here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_b8QMVJVQjs
 

Masia One Album cover

Finally, since the theme of our blog is Colourful women, that is, women who create a unique space for themselves in the world – powerful women of varying racial and cultural backgrounds, what would you say makes you a Colourful woman? 
Every woman is a colourful woman, but what is exposed in the media is an extremely skewed monochrome vision.  Only 24% of news subjects are women.  In a vast mainstream of Hiphop music, there is a spotlight on only 1 female – who incidentally glamourizes being a Barbie.  At the ground level, casting couches are happening every day in order for women to break through in this industry.  I guess what makes me able to show that I am a colourful woman is that I have been able to be independent and self sufficient in the business from reading my contracts to booking shows, where there’s usually a male “gatekeeper” for every female act.  My business MERDEKA is the Malay word for “independence & freedom” and this is certainly something I champion for all women.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Idrissa Simmonds

This is the ninth post in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via TumblrTwitter or Facebook

Idrissa Simmonds

Idrissa Simmonds is a remarkably inspiring writer and an educator. After studying in Concordia University’s Creative Writing Program for two years, she completed her MA in English Literature and International Relations from the University of British Columbia, and her MA in Educational Leadership, Politics, and Advocacy from NYU. She has always been interested in educational access and equality, particularly for communities of colour globally. Born in Brooklyn NY to Jamaican and Haitian-American parents, she was raised in Vancouver BC, and has spent a significant amount of time in West Africa. The similarities in the disparities in educational access for Black and Brown people in all these places have had a great impact on her career and creative choices.  The Coloured Collective’s writer Veesha Sonachansingh asked Idrissa these questions.

What makes you a “colourful woman”?
I recognize the importance of giving back. Of mentoring. Of giving love even when you don’t feel it given to you. I accept being a beautifully flawed human being and celebrate this in my writing and in my relationships with girls and younger women who are still learning this – shit, I’m still learning this but simply know that there will be good days with the bad. I love exploring my creativity, stretching my boundaries, building community and loving freely.

Who/what are some of your colourful inspirations?
Firstly, I’m inspired by those who are invested in leaving a positive impact with their life, whether that be my landlady opening her home to family on a regular basis for celebrations (and always inviting her tenants!); or the writing of Toni Morrison; or social activists and community leaders. Secondly, I am inspired by anyone who is exploring his or her talent to its deepest potential. James Baldwin, Edwidge Danticat, Nikky Finney, Yasiin Bey, Oprah, a host of educators that I work with, the artists Wangechi Mutu, Paul Sika and Jamal Shabazz…honestly, this list goes on and on!

What are some of your projects right now?
I’m excited to be launching an online magazine that explores the concept of “Global Black Cool” by featuring art, politics, style, literature and social entrepreneurship in cities globally. To stay true to our vision and make this conversation truly a global one, our editors are in Brooklyn, Toronto, Accra, and Vancouver. If interested learning more or becoming a contributing editor please email mag116online@gmail.com.

I am a 2012 Resident with New York’s Poet’s House Emerging Poet’s Residency. We just completed our 10-week workshop cycle; it was a great experience in digging deep with my writing with a community of peers and getting some publications under my belt. A few of us in the workshop made commitments to our work to see us through the next year and I’m looking forward to seeing what is manifested through this process.

What message would you like to share with our readers today?
If I have learned anything this past year, it’s the importance of living without fear and living authentically.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Christiane McGahan

This is the eighth post in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via TumblrTwitter or Facebook
This week we tried something a little different. We posted a request for Colourful declarations on our Facebook page asking ‘What makes you Colourful?’. Below is a quote from Christiane McGahan.
Colourful for me is, that moment when you finally realize that other people look at you and just have no clue which category to put you in… you don’t fit the black/white/asian/hispanic categories they’re accustomed to, it confuses them and for a select few, it can even scare them…
But for those of us in this special category all our own, it is a source of amusement and yes, power, to realize that no matter what others think they ‘know’, the human race is in fact, just one race – the boundaries are simply in our minds.

To share your own Colourful declarations, go to our Facebook page and reply to the top post. We’ll highlight your responses on the blog.

no permanent address

I’ve been holding off making business cards for a long time. This is because I didn’t want to put any information on there that wouldn’t be applicable for less than a year. My loved ones can attest to the ridiculous number of phone numbers I’ve had over the years, especially during undergrad when I moved every four months! When moving yet again a few weeks ago I gathered all of my cell phones into a little pile – one for every country I’ve lived in. I cursed, put them in another box and shipped them with all of the other things I’ve shipped and tagged and stored.

So no, I still have no permanent address. I tell people I do – like the government. They seem pretty stuck on the issue, though I stress that ‘permanent’ is a strong term for my living situation. For a while I was using my brother’s house as my supposed permanent address but his wife hates me so that stopped pretty quick. Now I change my address every time I move and in the past 8 or 9 years, I haven’t lived in one place for longer than a year and a half. This is bad news for my National Geographic magazine subscription.

My boyfriend and I were joking around last night that we come from a long line of cantankerous Cartman-like ancestors who at some point in all of their lives said ‘Screw this town! I’m going over there!’ This is true of all of our ancestors with the possible exclusion of his black ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean. Even then though they were taken to Barbados and then moved optionally to Trinidad – so again – we, and people like us have an inherent predisposition for saying ‘I’ve had enough!’

So why fight it? I should just accept that I’m a nomad. For people like me, buying furniture is a bad idea. Signing 3-year contracts, like my latest phone is a catastrophically bad idea. Reading a lot and making art is hugely inconvenient for moving purposes. But alas, I’ll have to let those last ones slide.

Thankfully, the information age has brought a solution to my business card problem. I’ve gone with Mini Cards from moo.com (which are awesome and lovely and I couldn’t recommend them more). On them I’ve put my phone number, website and email address. That’s as traceable as I come.

Corporate dreadlocs and other stories

This post first appeared at the Liming House

Back in 2008, I wrote a piece that argued thus, on the subject of my preferred “hairstyle”:

I am my hair. I am challenging, I am defiant, I do not apologize.

And the next time some Wall Street multimillionaire or Oxbridge-educated middle-aged perpetually entitled white British editor encounters a twenty-something <insertracehere> woman from the Caribbean, or someone with locs, he will pause.

He will pause because he will remember someone else who was more than the stereotype.

Continue reading

Mind if I play my music?

This is a question that I have never asked at the office.

(Context: I work in an amazing, open-plan space with tremendous colleagues who have excellent and varied musical tastes. I know this because said office is equipped with an AirPlay setup that allows us to pipe our Spotify, iTunes, Pandora and turntable.fm playlists to a speaker system for shared rocking out)

But my music? I’ve never asked to stream my (incredibly extensive) Damian Marley playlist, or my (even more extensive) collection of non-soca music made by Caribbean artists.

If my fear is that Damian and Mangoseed are somehow not “office appropriate” (what does that even mean? And what about the recent all-day Wailers-fest we enjoyed, courtesy a colleague who’d watched the Marley documentary over the weekend?), why then don’t I even cue up the Mumford & Sons or the Florence and The Machine playlists?

There are a few things going on here.

One, I have an uneasy relationship with “Caribbean” me, at least and especially when I am in decidedly non-Caribbean contexts. I’ve already got the hair, the head wraps, the WTF accent and that whole being-brown thing. Do I also need to highlight my predilection for soca, dub, dancehall and related musical forms? For one of the reasons why this is even a thing: see reactions to Rihanna in Carnival costume, and add a hefty dose of my must-bust-stereotypes syndrome.

Two, my relationship with music is intensely personal, and I am averse to (indeed, tending toward incapable of) intermingling the personal and the professional.

I regularly listen to Damian at work – safe, secure and inviolate in the castle of my headphones.

And that’s ok.

Colourful Woman Wednesday: Lindsay Hall

This is the second in our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which will feature stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via Tumblr,Twitter or Facebook.

Lindsay HallLindsay Hall is a brilliant, young dancer who recently finished a series of performances with the J CHEN PROJECT in NY. She is currently working with a new company called Liberation Dance Theater.

Born in Canada but raised in Tobago, Lindsay’s style of dance is an elegant but seductive mash-up of influences. Trained in Ballet and Modern from the age of 5, Lindsay grew up in Tobago where she was surrounded by Caribbean rhythms, Folk dances, and Dancehall. In May 2011 she became the first Tobagonian to graduate from The Ailey School’s Certificate Program in New York. While in New York Lindsay has been honoured with full scholarships to attend both the Ballet Hispanico Summer Intensive and the Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts. She has had the great fortune of working with some amazing choreographers, including Darrell Grand Moultrie, Earl Mosley, Robin Dunn, Andrea Miller, Peter London, Francesca Harper, Bradley Shelver and Kevin Wynn.

When asked why she is a Colourful Woman, Lindsay said this;

Lindsay Hall I am mixed in every sense of the word. I am of different races and different countries (Black/white and Trinidadian/Canadian) and my influences and interests are just as varied. When I was younger and I met other people who were one race and from one place, I thought their lives must be so much simpler, not having to constantly explain where they are from and why they look the way they do, or (like in my case) why they have a Canadian accent but say they grew up in Tobago. But now that I am older (and I would like to think wiser as well!) and I am delving more and more into the dance world, I realize how unique my story is, and that I can use my background and my story in my dancing. I can embrace my story and not feel so bothered if I have to explain why my hair is the way it is or why I have freckles but my skin is brown.

I am colourful because I have embraced ME. Performing has given me the confidence to express myself in a way that we generally do not do in every day life. While I dance, I face people and I am not afraid to show them who I am: honestly and whole heartedly. Who I am is someone who may be compliacted (which I have learned is ok), full of surprises and not easily figured out in one glance, and I kind of like that idea!’

Check out Lindsay’s Youtube channel to see her in motion!