Rhythm & Flow: How Music Shaped My Blackness
Illustration by Beena Mistry
‘Growing Up Black in Canada’ is a writers’ series brought to you by Black Futures Now Toronto in partnership with Shameless Magazine. The series is meant to bring forward local and personal Black histories that do not fit into mainstream narratives about what it means to be a young person in Canada. Throughout the series we will highlight the non-fiction work of five young writers from various backgrounds. Through their stories, we will explore what growing up Black in Canada has meant to them, and the impact that these experiences have had on their sense of self. These pieces explore themes of personal growth, systemic injustices, community, self-awareness, longing, and joy that are unique to each writer, and speak to the particularity of experiences that comes from growing up different locales in Toronto and beyond. Our hope is that by sharing them, they will resonate with others in ways that push them to look at who they are more closely and Canadian history, as well as cultural identities more critically. This is Part 3. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.
Musical experiences shaped my sense of belonging to my communities. Growing up in a Ghanaian household meant hearing and dancing to highlife music, soukous, reggae, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie everyday on rotation in massive sound systems, walkmans and car stereos. My father used to blast his Daddy Lumba CDs so loud in the car that whenever I opened the car doors to get to school, I felt like the music was accompanying me inside. I knew I was Ghanaian. But, in several ways, I didn’t know that I was Black.
It’s not that I had never looked in a mirror. It’s that I had no reason to associate myself with images and sounds of Black people in Toronto. Unlike south of the border, your heritage is not consumed by Blackness; here, it is mistaken for another ethnicity. I’ve been mistaken for being Jamaican, Haitian, Grenadian, Guyanese and the like. This act of mistaking signalled to a younger me that I was too different to be the same standing under one umbrella, especially when it came to music.
I have vivid memories of seeing all shades of brown skin with afros, long wavy hair and waves to match on TV. In this sense, I saw myself reflected. Fancy Choclair videos, colourful K-OS videos, and hearing the sultry soul of Jully Black fueled my dream of being in a music video. I wanted to be seen and celebrated like the Black women who looked like me and sang about relatable topics.
The music, however, didn’t lend itself to being part of the fabric of definitive Black Canadian identity. In other words, it wasn’t validated in a way that made me feel rooted in Toronto, especially when it was always juxtaposed with Black US/American music. On TV and radio stations - except for Flow 93.5 - there were show slots dedicated to “urban music”, but nothing beyond that . Black Canadian artists were relegated to elsewhere even in media. I needed to see Black Canadian artists supported in order to understand myself as belonging deeply to the spaces I occupied.
I remember the first time I listened to Flow 93.5. I was in after-school care with my friends jamming out to the radio. Bow Wow was playing and we were so excited, shaking our bodies and fantasizing about meeting him at an upcoming Toronto concert stop. As soon as they played a Canadian r&b or hip hop track, we switched the radio off. We were unimpressed at the smallness of the tune and how it seemed to have no home here. We knew it was Canadian, but it didn’t represent us the same way the [exported] American Blackness did.
This idea shaped my sense of Blackness as being and belonging on the peripheries of the Canadian imagination, including mine. There were all of these inflections, Caribbean and African alike with Black US-American sprinklings, and I couldn’t hear nor find the cohesiveness, the “sound”. I listened to the tunes of Melanie Durrant, Keisha Chante, Deborah Cox, Tamia and several other great Black Canadian musicians. Flow 93.5 served as my source for the music I connected to and the people that made that music. With its original programming - with everything from OTA Live to Soca Therapy to Real Freqs - I found the space where I belonged. But, what was it that made it a part of Black Canadian culture? Was there even a single or unified Black Canadian culture?
It didn’t help that Black Canadian artists were rarely described as Black and Canadian. Those two words were hardly ever in the same sentence as a description, and still aren’t. But, is this experience of always being in between what brings us together?
I answered this question at a specific moment in time: the day Flow 93.5, the beloved and sole urban radio station, was sold in 2011. I started to reflect on how much having the radio station as a choice impacted my sense of self: it meant that I could carve out my own definition of Blackness at any time of the day. I didn’t have to wait for Black History Month or Caribana or Afrofest to be at the centre of my own identity. When I connected these dots to what being Black in Toronto means I felt the most connected to my people than I ever had before.
Black Canadians exist in between being invisible to definitions of Canadian and hypervisible to stigmas, stereotypes and discrimination in every part of society. This space is reflected in music, through a declaration of Black traditions, staples, language and cultural markers. It’s in the way we talk, walk and navigate space, just like any other people. In short, we are here. Before, I thought that this all made Black Canadians too different to even be similar. Now, I know that it made us too similar not to be family.
Jean Boampong is a media literacy educator and a freelance writer based in Toronto.