By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It started with a lack, and a need.
“I needed it to be a festival that I would be excited to go to!” says the excited curator of Black Arts Matter (BAM!), a new multidisciplinary celebration of Edmonton’s large and growing talent pool of black artists. And if you don’t know who they are — yet — well, that’s the point.
BAM!, opening Thursday under the Chinook Series umbrella, is the brainchild of Nasra Adem, a 22-year-old activist dynamo who’s Edmonton’s Youth Poet Laureate, a multidisciplinary artist herself, and a repository of bright ideas for nurturing talent, encouraging cultural diversity, and inspiring community participation.
When Workshop West’s Vern Thiessen decided that this year’s edition of the annual Canoe Festival would be devoted to international black artists, he reached out to Adem to create a local black showcase to run in parallel. “He recognized that there was a local of visibility, of people of colour, in our artistic spaces.… He left it up to me, so we dreamt up BAM!” says Adem, a MacEwan University theatre grad who grew up in Ontario and spent her summers in New York, “checking out the poetry scene, hanging out, soaking up the vibe….”
“I wanted to bring back that high energy to Edmonton; I knew we were craving it!” says the effervescent Adem, who talks in exclamation marks, fast!.
Nextfest audiences know Adem, now an associate artist at Workshop West, from her contributions to the “night clubs,” performance parties assembled by Catch The Keys Productions. She still considers Catch the Keys’ Megan and Beth Dart “my alt-theatre moms!”
Adem’s ideas tend to operate on the centifugal principle. Sister 2 Sister, the expansible monthly showcase for and by women artists of colour she launched a couple of years ago, started with poetry, music and dance; now it has workshops, a book club, a DJ collective, with more to come. “It’s all about community-building,” Adem says.
So it is with BAM! Adem wants it to be “a hub for the community of black artists to see each other, to feel the excitement of being in the same room with people who look like them! I want to help them know what it feels like to belong, to stoke that up!”
It’s a contagious idea. When the word went out, applications came flooding in, she reports, more submissions than she could accommodate. Calgary artists applied, but Adem kept BAM! local. “I knew this would happen, she says happily of the response. “All we needed was an avenue.”
“I knew that Canoe had the theatre side covered”; that festival has solo shows, from Toronto, New York, and Senegal. “So I was thinking music and dance; I knew poetry, spoken word, would be a big part,” says Adem who started out as a dancer (“hip hop predominantly, and jazz in high school”) before she went into musical theatre or took up spoken word performance.
Musical theatre has fallen off her radar, at least for now, the result, she thinks of “me not seeing musicals that have my story in mind. More artists of colour!”
BAM! didn’t start small or tentative. The cast list includes dozens of artists, and each event “is centred around a theme or an idea,” explains its creator.
Poemcees Cipher, Friday night’s show, for example, is dedicated to poets who are also MCs and hip hop artists, and features Brett Miles. Saturday’s Young Lungs: Speak The Word is devoted to spoken word. Adem herself is part of Black Girl Magic Feb. 16, a large-cast all-female showcase of diverse talents.
Monday is devoted to workshops and panel discussions on everything from marketing to anti-oppression to media relations. Adem describes them as “the back story of the art, the ‘life part’.”
“It’s why we celebrate…. We get to the root of things; we look at the core issues, the conditions under which our art is created and our voices are heard; the social and political conditions we’ve grown up in.” There’s even a playwriting masterclass with Canadian award-winner Cheryl Foggo.
BAM! opens Thursday, with a showcase that combines hip hop and West African dance, drumming, hip hop artist Selassie. And, of course, there’s a closing night party Feb. 19! Bring your own exclamation points.
The full BAM! schedule of events is at chinookseries.ca.
Black Arts Matter (BAM!)
Where: ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Feb. 19
Tickets: chinookseries.ca or in person at the Arts Barns box office where pay-what-you-will tickets are available two hours before each show, first come first served