Is art essential work? Toronto artist challenges with spoken word video

Poet, musician and artist Ian Kamau joined q's Tom Power to discuss the value of art and artists in a time of crisis, the theme of his latest spoken word piece, Non Essential.

'I would've quit a long time ago if I wasn't so stubborn,' says artist Ian Kamau

Ian Kamau is a Toronto-based poet, musician and visual artist. In a new video, he explores whether artists and art are considered essential in a time of crisis, like the current pandemic. (Milca Kuflu)

Browsing on Facebook one day, artist Ian Kamau saw a friend of his had shared a survey which revealed that artists were considered the number one non-essential job.

"She posted something from a newspaper ... that listed that artists were — at least according to the people who responded to that survey — the most non-essential of people," Kamau told q host Tom Power in an interview.

The question of who's an essential worker and who's not inspired the Toronto-based poet and musician to create a spoken word piece, titled Non Essential.

WATCH | Ian Kamau's spoken word piece, Non Essential:

The piece is one of three works commissioned by TO Live as part of a project with Canada's National Arts Centre that asks artists, "What would it take to transform our society for the betterment of all?"

In the video, Kamau ponders the value of art and artists in society, hinting at the emptiness of life without art.

"Of course we need the nurses, the grocery workers who stock the shelves, the truck drivers.... But what about this? Is this something? Why would I wake up for this?" he asks.

The visuals of the piece follow an average day in the artist's life during the pandemic as he wakes up, fries an egg and later sits down to play the piano with a shot of his fingertips touching the keys.

"I live on my own in an apartment in downtown Toronto," Kamau told Power. "Some days, I'm seeing the outside only from inside. And so I wanted to capture what my day-to-day life was actually like, and it kind of looks the same every single day."

While Kamau is a natural introvert, not having the ability to perform, collaborate or show his work publicly has increased his loneliness and depression — and many other artists have told him the same.

Artists can be taken for granted

Late last year, the Canada Revenue Agency said that artists might have to repay their Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a benefit put in place to provide COVID-19 relief. The tax agency said that artistic grants did not count toward the minimum income needed to qualify for emergency coronavirus benefits. 

For many artists, the CRA's decision only exacerbated the feeling that they were non-essential and therefore considered unimportant.

However, the CRA later backtracked and said artists could use grants as income to qualify for CERB and other emergency benefits. 

"I don't think that we've clearly defined what the value of artists and art actually is," said Kamau. "So I think the default when it came to the government response was to deal with what they understood first."

He said while it was clear that businesses like restaurants, community centres and barber shops would require support, artists have slipped through the cracks.

Kamau's ability to earn an income has been severely limited in lockdown because shows have been cancelled, venues have shut down and even alternative venues, like restaurants, are closed as well.

"It seemed like they didn't necessarily think about a group of people that weren't working in any of these traditional ways until much after the initial announcements came," he said.

"Even then it was very confusing. … I was very nervous that I would apply for [CERB], I would get it and then I would be asked for it back. I was nervous about that as I was applying. So when it started happening, it was even more frightening."

When something is so ubiquitous, we can take it for granted.- Ian Kamau

The feeling that artists aren't seen as essential to society is something Kamau has long thought about, even before the pandemic hit. 

"I think when something is so ubiquitous, we can take it for granted," said Kamau. "We don't think sometimes about who is creating it and how they get the opportunity to create it."

When asked if the COVID-19 crisis has made him reevaluate his life as an artist, Kamau said that it's the predominant thing he thinks about.

"I hope to be able to continue," he said. "And I hope for artists in Toronto where I'm from, or in Canada in general, to be able to contribute in the way that they want to contribute."

"I would've quit a long time ago if I wasn't so stubborn."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Ty Callender.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?