Politics and partying: This event celebrates the resilience of Toronto's black queer community
Toronto Pride's Blockorama doesn't just uplift black queer art — it offers an inclusive safe haven
All photos courtesy of Setti Kidane.
Joy, love, freedom: a few words that don't even come close to encapsulating the true essence of Pride's annual Blockorama event.
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Anyone who's ever attended Blocko knows that the event gives off an indescribable, overwhelming sense of love, acceptance and black queer joy in a way that's hard to put into words. Blockorama is the hub of all things black and queer. It's an event put on by the BlacknessYes! Committee, a small group of volunteers who dedicate their time each year during Toronto's Pride Festival. It's a celebration of black queer art in the form of music performances, dance, words and images — and a safe haven for those in the community.
Last Sunday, the event held its 19th annual show featuring a performance from drag legend Michelle Ross, work by visual artist Oluseye and performances by Cakes Da Killa, Evelyn "Champagne King" and South African-Canadian songstress Zaki Ibrahim. For black members of Toronto's queer community, Blocko is a vibe in itself. It's an intergenerational coming together of black queer bodies in search of an event that honours and reflects Toronto's black queer scene.
In other words, issa block party.
But to hone in on Blocko's celebration of black queer spirit alone is to dismiss the intrepid history behind it. The event was created in 1999 out of the need for more open spaces for black queer folks. Since then, members of BlacknessYes! committee have worked tirelessly to remind us of the safe-spaced community work and rooted activism that's behind it.
"[It's] important for black queer, trans, disabled [and] cash-poor bodies and experiences to be recognized, celebrated and valued during Pride festivities, which have historically [been] dominated [by] white, cis, male, class-privileged able bodies," says BlacknessYes! event organizer Kyisha Williams. "Blocko shows us that we are not alone, that we are resilient and [that] we know how to express ourselves [and] showcase our talent in healthy ways and have fun in a [world] where we were never meant to survive."
Blockoshows us that we are not alone, that we are resilient and [that] we know how to have fun in a [world] where we were never meant to survive.- Kyisha Williams, event organizer
For many members of the queer community — especially those of the African diaspora — Blocko remains a safe haven for those who have an appreciation for black art, black lives and ultimately, well, blackness. What's important to note is that the very existence of Blockorama dispels the narrative of black political activism as having a "one issue" stance.
Artist, activist and community organizer Syrus Marcus Ware makes it clear that Blocko is a space that is safe for and inclusive of black, queer, trans, disabled, mad and deaf people's bodies and work. "Blockorama [was also] the first stage to have ASL interpretation, and the first stage to have deaf interpretation at Pride," says Ware.
"Blocko has been leading the way for accessibility and for the diversification of Pride for 20 years," he continues. The event is a reminder of what Pride originally stems from: resistance from oppression. Also a member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Ware reminds us of Pride's political roots by reinforcing BLM's message at this year's parade. "May we never again have to remind you that we, too, are queer," read BLM Toronto's signage — a message that is the ethos of Blockorama itself.
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The fact that this event exists is a reminder of how politically activist art can be for creatives of colour, especially for black creators. Black queer artists exist in a unique space in which their work is interpreted differently and held to different, sometimes higher, standards. They are not often afforded the luxury of creating art that exists outside the realms of race, sexuality and sometimes class — and, as Atlanta-based multimedia queer artist Devyn Springer puts it, are often tasked with choosing "between the need to be political based on the inherently politicized nature of [one's] own identity, and the desire to just create art for the sake of beauty itself."
Now, at a time when sociopolitical change is in the air, this year's Blocko serves as a reminder of the historical damnation that racialized members of the queer community have always had, and continue, to face. It's an event that exists at the crossroads of intersectionality. And as Pride comes to a close, it's an important reminder of who serves the city's queer underbelly — and why visibility, inclusivity and safe spaces around the black queer community are not only worthy of protecting but are intrinsic and necessary to Toronto's queer black culture.