Arts·Black Light

What is COVID-19's impact on Black culture and activism in Toronto?

Until We Are Free is a new book by Black Lives Matter Toronto. Amanda Parris speaks with three of its authors about art, activism and adapting to life in lockdown.

Three artists from BLMTO discuss art, activism and adapting to life in lockdown

Black Lives Matter Toronto activists take part in Pride Action at the Toronto Pride Parade, July 3, 2016. (Anique Jordan)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

When I initially requested an interview with Rodney Diverlus, Syrus Marcus Ware and Ravyn Wngz — three members of Black Lives Matter Toronto — malls were open, award shows were still scheduled and no one was fighting in grocery aisles for toilet paper. The world has drastically changed since then, and when I spoke with them over Google Hangouts, it was inevitable that our conversation would cover more than their new anthology of essays. The new reality of COVID-19 has fundamentally altered all of our lives, but the book is still worthy of attention. 

Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada explores the emergence, significance and ongoing resonance of the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) movement. Although their various actions and protests have been widely documented and debated by mainstream media, as the editors (Diverlus, Ware and Sandy Hudson) note in the intro, the book is their attempt to finally articulate and frame their own history. 

Until We Are Free: Reflections of Black Lives Matter in Canada is in stores now. (Syrus Marcus Ware)

What particularly sparked my attention was a section of essays on arts in activism. Ware and Wngz discuss the topic in one piece. And Diverlus, who is a dance artist, explores choreography and performance in the art of protest. 

The three of us spoke about the book for more than an hour, talking about the waves of Black activism that have happened over the years in Toronto ("I think November 2014 gave my generation, folks that heard about the Yonge Street Riots, possibility to ask for more, to demand more, to push for a Blackened Canada," Diverlus said at one point). We discussed the Black cultural renaissance they believe is happening right now (said Ware: "It's a magical time to be Black, to be an artist, to be involved in this movement"). We also talked about Wildseed Centre for Art and Activism, a space that BLMTO opened last fall which functions as a gallery, dance space, meeting space, event space and co-working space for communities ("Wildseed is a part of activism around rejuvenation and connecting to community outside of chaos and violence and police officers," Wngz explained). 

And of course, we talked about the lockdown the city is currently under, and the Black Emergency Support Fund that BLMTO created to support communities in response.

I couldn't include everything, so what follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

From the Wildseed launch, March 7, 2020 in Toronto. (Roya DelSol)

Rodney, I was so fascinated by the discussion in your essay about Black Lives Matter Toronto's protest as an act of political choreography. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?

Rodney Diverlus: Because we have a team that's composed of choreographers, of dancers, of visual artists of artists whose work imagines the visual effects of people, of things, I think that as each action was developed, we realized the importance of the look of the action, the feel of the action, the sound of the action. Black bodies in space, how that space can be blackened by our voice, by sound, by visual elements by art. 

The Black Panthers had coordinated looks about them. There was a message that was delivered by fabric, by costume, by props. Even our Pride action, as an example — the ways that that action unfolded was sequential. The first thing that happened was this coloured smoke to bring eyes in. And then our Indigenous folks led with the drumming. And then we had the samba squad come in to create that sort of sonic alarm that something was about to go down. And then the bodies flanked on the side and hand by hand. We created the barricade from which a single person came with a microphone and the megaphone to let everyone know what was happening. 

Black Lives Matter Toronto Pride Action. July 3, 2016 at the Toronto Pride Parade. (Paige Galette)

We feel that art is a great conduit to bring people into our work. If you're not hearing the words, if you're not hearing the chants, if you're not understanding the demands, see our bodies, see our tone, see the music, see the Blackening of the space as a way of letting you know what we need or what we want.

Ravyn, as a dancer and choreographer, how has your artistic practice shifted as a result of your experiences with activism? 

Ravyn Wngz: Almost completely. I didn't feel like I was allowed to represent Black. So a lot of what I was creating was about representing queerness and trans-ness outside of my actual colour because I was raised to believe that I shouldn't be in the front of any march or I shouldn't be the visual sort of thing to look up to. 

I'm supposed to be what people are afraid of. So for me, I always took it that my part in the global Black movement was to just be excellent, and I'm just gonna be excellent over here, doing my thing and advocating for queer and trans folks and that somehow Black folks will see themselves with me on the stage. That's sort of what I thought was the limit of what I could do or be. 

Then when Black Lives Matter approached me to do the flashmob, it really got me thinking about purpose, what I'm here to do and why I started dancing in the first place. So when we were performing at Spadina and Queen — that area isn't actually safe for queer and trans folks, especially me — it was this miraculous thing where all my worlds collided, where I felt like a place that I feel completely unsafe, I am shifting and changing and using this art that I fought for to make people feel alive and seen and heard and for us to embody what power looks like. 

Black Lives Matter Toronto Pride Action. July 3, 2016 at the Toronto Pride Parade. (Uranranebi Agbeyegbe)

When we moved into tent city action, I felt like what I could offer was harm reduction — so movement practices that would allow folks to release the trauma that I could visually see in people's bodies. People have to stretch, people have to move this violence out of their body. My art and movement practice changed completely. It [feels] like every time I get on stage I have a responsibility to share and to teach and to represent and that I'm now allowed to represent. 

Syrus, I was really moved by your description of your work in the book, and how important sustainability for activists is to your work and your practice. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to make that core and central to your work and how you are able to take the lessons that you've learned over time, into the work that you're doing with Black Lives Matter Toronto?

Syrus Marcus Ware: I started doing this project of writing love letters to activists and getting people to write love letters to these unknown activists and develop these networks of care that spanned across the world. I've ended up mailing thousands of letters across the world at this point. And then I got more interested in wanting to get to know who these activists were a little bit better. So that's when I started drawing them really large and using my drawing practice as a way of trying to celebrate and honour these people. 

There's an intimacy to drawing, especially just graphite on paper. It's very accessible and it draws you into these people, and it makes you want to know who they are. It makes you care about them, even if it's just for that moment while you're staring at their eyes and they're staring back at you. So I've been very interested in how art can make an emotional reaction happen that might transform into an interest in participating in mutual aid and shared care. 

Portrait of Dainty Smith and Kyisha Williams by Syrus Marcus Ware. (Syrus Marcus Ware)

As an activist, I've seen what happens when burnout burns through our community. It is something that sometimes we don't survive. So I have basically dedicated my artistic practice to doing projects that foster love and compassion and engagement and a desire to connect across difference, like Audre Lorde encourages us to do. 

There's this Toni Cade Bambara quote where she says that the goal of the oppressed artist or an artist from an oppressed community is to make revolution irresistible. And I was like, "Oh, now I understand my entire purpose of my practice." The entire thing that I've been trying to do is to make revolution irresistible. 

I'm interested in doing this for the long haul because we need to win. So we just need everybody to be able to make it, every warm living body. So I'm interested in making sure that we all cross the finish line together and that we all get to thrive.

What do you think the impact of this lockdown will be on Black cultural creators and artists right now?

SW: I think we're going to see a proliferation of creative practice because one of the things that I often hear from artists is that they don't have enough time to do the projects that they've always wanted to do. Necessity is the mother of invention; the more bored we get, the more we're going to start coming up with ideas to entertain ourselves. Humans in times of crisis often turn to creativity as a way to understand the world and understand what's happening. 

RD: I think my glass half empty side fears that we're also going to see a great amount of loss in terms of Black working artists in this country, and in this world really. 

I feel like there's a good number of us that have been talking about the ways that these economic systems are not helping us. We have to constantly defend the works of arts and culture; we have to constantly defend the economic impact of us as people, of our need of existence. 

[I'm] excited for the art, not excited for the lack of working artists that are going to be left at the end of this.- Rodney Diverlus, artist

I'm excited at the groundswell of activity and frustration and agitation that will come out of this. I also fear, though, for those who were already chronically underemployed, already at ends meet — for those who were already considering changing their career choices to something more "practical," for those who have to go back to their parents for support, for those who have to take on an additional loan in addition to the student loan that they're paying. I'm really afraid for our people in that aspect. 

[I'm] excited for the art, not excited for the lack of working artists that are going to be left at the end of this.

RW: This ableist, disabling, capitalist system forces us as artists to feel like we're not ever enough, doing enough, important enough. And then when times like this come up, we are the ones who are looked at. We are the ones who are all over Instagram and all over the place sharing our thoughts, sharing our videos, sharing things to keep people entertained throughout the day. And so I'm looking forward to the end of the coronavirus and the beginning of something different. 

Black Lives Matter Toronto has relied very heavily and very successfully on physical mobilization: the blockades, the occupations, the marches, the die-ins, the surprise actions. So what does Black Lives Matter Toronto look like as a mobilizing and advocacy force in the era of social isolation, when you can't rely on those traditional arsenals?

RD: The beginning of our strategy has been to create stop gaps, create opportunities for people to not be evicted, to be able to make their ends meet this month and uplift others who are doing it. I think that the only way we'll be able to agitate is to [first] address the reality, which is that for most of us in our communities, we're still in a dissociative stage right now. I still feel like a lot of my conversation with Black folks is, "I can't believe we're here." It's reimagining what their plans were for the year. At this current stage we have to make sure we can weather it, then let's go fight this.

Black Lives Matter Toronto activists take part in Pride Action on July 3, 2016 in Toronto. (Paige Galette)

SW: We are a very agile movement. We are an intergenerational movement. We're a movement that is made up of folks who are probably the most marginalized: Black, mad and disabled people, queer and trans people. And as a result, we've had to adapt so we're very agile.

When you look at an arts institution like the Art Gallery of Ontario, their ability to turn on a dime is gonna be very very different than us young upstarts. So I think that our movement is responsive. It's always been responsive to the moment and to the needs of the moment. 

So the moment and the need right now requires us to be doing organizing online and requires us to be doing organizing from our homes and with our families and our babies hanging off our shoulders, and we will adapt to that because we can. That feels really good to me.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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