Serving as a platform to encourage creativity and support emerging entertainers, Art Starts will be streaming its third iteration of the Virtuosity of Blackness (VOB) showcase on Facebook (August 4th at 6pm) featuring the best up-and-coming black performing artists in the city. In collaboration with RISE Edutainment, the showcase was not only to “reach intelligent souls everywhere” as per RISE’s motto, but also to celebrate what black ancestors have passed down through rhythm and inspired gifts. Both organizations hope that empowering black youth to create meaningful art, rooted in self-knowledge and self-expression, and providing an inclusive space to do so, will encourage youth to use art to deep dive into their personal history and stories and help them explore their vulnerability. The showcase aims to provide an atmosphere of interpersonal connection, mutual support, and respect, during a time where the ongoing global pandemic makes those aspects of community identification and healing more difficult.
The VOB showcase was first introduced to coincide with Black History month, however, it quickly became apparent that there is so much more to black stories than just the historical aspects. Black culture is rich with art, creativity, and innovation. Toronto has too much talent to be constrained to one month of the year. It has grown beyond that vision and will take place 3 times in 2021.
“Black history month is the shortest month of the year!” Judi Lopez the Art Starts’ Program Facilitator exclaims passionately, “despite the hardship of our history, we show resilience all months [not just the one].”
Randell Adjei, Ontario’s first poet laureate and the founder of RISE Edutainment has been involved in the Virtuosity of Blackness from the very start, with the desire to spread the message of hope and joy, while also lending validity to being authentic and opening up oneself.
“I had a lot of anger and trauma as a young black man,” Adjei explains, “and my friends would always come to me for advice [for similar issues].”
Realizing he wanted to provide a formal space to allow those feelings, questions, and solutions to come to fruition, he made the decision to give back to the community and do right by himself as well.
Adjei continues, “poetry [in my case] is the pure expression of the self, of experiences and of opinions. You just get to be you on stage with no expectations. I found that being a young, black person, no one [in creative spaces] really looks or thinks the way you do. It feels like there is no safe place for us to express our true selves fully, without judgement or misunderstanding, so I wanted to help create that kind of space for us.”
Another major objective of the Virtuosity of Blackness is to promote a sense of independence and entrepreneurial spirit within performers. One of the ways this is accomplished is by recording each artist’s performance and compiling a photoshoot for those involved.
“Creating an organized hub for like-minded individuals to create partnerships and networking opportunities [is one of our foremost objectives],” program facilitator Judi Lopez emphasizes, “we want to create an environment that evokes support and can afford decent exposure. Artists who take advantage can use our video or any of the photos taken for use at auditions or to boost their resumé.”
Art Starts and their team are only getting started too. The first Virtuosity of Blackness only took place about a year ago, in August 2020, and already the showcase has been hugely successful, seen many improvements and has further plans to evolve.
“At first, we really underestimated just how many talented creatives were going to audition for a spot in the showcase,” Lopez admits.
This time, with more experience under their belts, they narrowed it down to seven entertainers. Lopez acknowledges how difficult it was to limit the talent to so few, but also states that learning to plan and communicate more effectively made it necessary. Their ultimate objective is to create a strong and powerful showcase with the hopes of getting recognition for their artists from fans and record producers.
The original idea for the showcase has shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting every part of everyday life, but again showing resilience and problem-solving skills, the team has adjusted and learned to go with the flow. Updating their operations by socially distancing, taping the event at the Art Starts studio and streaming it on Facebook, ensured the survival of Virtuosity of Blackness.
“[We found] people are even more hungry for positivity and an outlet,” says Adjei as Lopez nods in agreement.
Now, with less than a year under their belt, the Virtuosity of Blackness 4.0 will be presented late summer on September 18th at the Earl Bales Park for the Arts in the Park programming. This will be a live show that will feature local vendors, drumming, a DJ and of course more spectacular talent from the Black community.
Program director Nicole Peña shared her thoughts on what her team has accomplished so far, “not only am I proud of the talent involved, I’m happy to support young artists from the community. One of the biggest rewards is having a chance to safely employ black performers during a global pandemic. I am hoping that their personal aspirations will be achieved one day.”
Virtuosity of Blackness is here to stay and it’s continued success depends on the visionaries of the Art Start’s team, not to mention the vibrant talent that continues to blossom in the GTA.
Written by Sydney Peña.