KUUMBA Festival 2024 Returns As one of Canada’s Longest-running Black History Month Celebrations

KUUMBA Festival 2024 Returns As one of Canada‘s Longest-running Black History Month Celebrations

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About KUUMBA Festival 2024

KUUMBA returned for its 29th year on Thursday, February 1st, 2023. As one of Canada‘s longest-running Black History Month celebrations, KUUMBA is currently running a full month of exciting programming that honours and celebrates Black expression in all of its richness. Rooted in the Swahili word for “creativity,” attendees are treated to a variety of interactive workshops, visual arts exhibitions, film screenings, theatre, and live performances centred on the Black experience from Black-Canadian artists.
This year’s theme is voice. “Celebrating Black voice and also examining how we speak, to whom we speak, who is listening when we speak and how we’re being heard,” said KUUMBA‘s lead producer and festival lead Arinola Olowoporoku. All of the programming embodies this human right to be heard and transcends the historical narratives surrounding the Black experience. On KUUMBA‘s opening night, New York Times Best-selling Young Adult author Angie Thomas launched the festival with a keynote address entitled, “Find.Your.Voice.” A sold-out break-dancing competition was held on Saturday, February 3rd, and featured break dancers who will be competing in the 2024’s Summer Olympics in Paris, France. New at this year’s festival was KUUMBA 365, a video presentation that documented the creative processes of three poets (Randell Adjei, Dwayne Morgan, and Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony) over the span of a year, intended to show that Black culture is to be celebrated all year long.
Below are highlights from the three events Fashion Ecstasy attended during KUUMBA:

Why Black Women Whisper Spoken Word Performance

On Sunday, February 4th, 2023, attendees enjoyed a showing of Why Black Women Whisper, written and composed by Anne-Marie Woods (aka Amani). This multi-genre, poetic, spoken word piece that combined storytelling and performance with a backdrop of African rhythm and drums. “Why Black Women Whisper follows five women from different generations who meet monthly at Sojourner’s Book Club to read Micah’s Journey, a slave narrative used as a catalyst to reveal each woman’s personal story

Why Black Women Whisper called out the deep impact that racism and systemic barriers had on Black women‘s voices for centuries and the efforts put in place to censor and oppress them. In the performance, Shahaddah Jack played Jewel, a millennial Black woman who recalled all of the instances when people walked right into her on the street like she was invisible. This scene was met with nods and murmurs of agreement. When she exclaimed, “My space on the sidewalk matters,” members of the audience exclaimed, exactly!

The performance also explored the importance of having a safe space to share these experiences and how important it is to tell these stories. As a woman of colour, it’s hard to authentically exist in a world where every time Black women attempt to make their voices heard, they’re met with so much backlash, negativity, and more unpleasant responses. The label of the “Strong Black Woman” cruelly strips away our humanity, reducing us to unfeeling robots who must grin and bear all of these burdens with no complaints. 

Creating safe spaces is one of the many ways these characters reclaim their humanity. This was exemplified in the third act when all of the performers gathered for their monthly book club. While the topic of conversation was initially Micah’s Journey, the conversation helped everyone to open up about their lives. Each of the characters revealed their struggles, such as health issues, adultery, and childhood trauma. It felt like the audience was the seventh member of that book club as their stories resonated with many of us in the room. To share your voice in a safe space with people who share the same journey (or at least can sympathize) is deeply healing and empowering.

To learn more about the performance and Anne-Marie Woods (aka Amani), please visit https://harbourfrontcentre.com/event/why-black-women-whisper/

Film Screening of Chevalier

This 2023 biopic chronicled the extraordinary life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the first classical composer of African descent to attain widespread acclaim in Europe in the late 1770s. Along with being a brilliant composer, he was also a master swordsmith, virtuoso violinist, conductor, dancer, and citizen-soldier during the French Revolution

I was quite excited to see this film for two reasons. First, the film disproved the notion that white European men were the sole creators of classical music. To believe such a thing would be to diminish the massive contributions Black people made to the world of music. Second, this film disproved the notion that royalty is synonymous with whiteness. This notion could not be further from the truth. People of colour have long existed in the upper echelons of European society and royalty for centuries. Unfortunately, their stories are often excluded from history, never to see the light of day. All of them had fascinating lives, and their stories deserve to be told. 

In terms of historical accuracy, Chevalier does a pretty good job of staying true to Bologne‘s life story. He was indeed on good terms with Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, and she was a huge fan of his work. He did pursue a love affair with the married Marquise Marie-Joséphine de Montalembert, who gave birth to their son. The baby was indeed killed by her racist husband, Marquis de Montalembert. A petition to deny Joseph the role of director for the Paris Opéra was circulated by three of the Opéra’s leading ladies, one of whom was Madeleine Guimard. The reason behind it is that they refused to work with a mixed-race person. It’s also true that she drafted this petition out of pure spite and scorn. Bologne previously rejected her sexual advances, which reeked of fetishization, so this was her way of getting back at him. 

While the film had its moments of inaccuracies, it was in these moments that we saw some excellent acting from Harrison Jr. and Lucy Boynton, who played Marie Antoinette. In this scene, Joseph is in the process of rebuilding his musical career when Marie Antoinette visits him. Before this visit, the two had fallen out over the petition that prevented Joseph from landing his dream job at the Paris Opéra. She remained silent in that blatant display of racism out of self-preservation. Since then, he joined the revolution and returned to composing music after being inspired by the angry populace. On his desk, she noticed a copy of his newest concerto entitled Uprising. After flipping through its pages, Marie Antoinette said, “I suppose you’re doing this to get back at me. I guess that’s the point of all of this.” Joseph replied, “Not everything is about you people. That’s the point.” While there’s no actual record of this conversation, this moment brilliantly delivered a very important message about the shallow nature of performative allyship. You can’t be a true ally if you’re always focusing on your own lived experiences rather than the lived experiences of Black people and other racial groups who need your support. To slightly misquote Bologne, it’s not about you. 

Overall, Chevalier was a well-researched biopic about an extraordinary artist whose story was nearly lost to the whiteness of history. It’s a grave injustice that there aren’t more films, TV shows, and documentaries about these Black historical persons and their families. The stereotypes of the Black community in mainstream Western media (e.g. enslaved people and gang members) are extremely harmful, and we are over these depictions because they’re rooted in racism. We owe it to future generations to introduce them to more famous Black aristocrats and other nobles of colour, past and present. Future generations of Black children and youth deserve to know that they are the descendants of royalty and nobility, and no one could ever take that away from them.

Jully Black and Aqyila Live in Concert

Canadian music icon Jully Black headlined this year’s sold-out concert. Hailed as one of ‘The 25 Greatest Canadian Singers Ever’ by CBC Music, Jully brought her powerhouse vocals and off-the-chain stage presence to the Harbourfront Centre Theatre on Saturday, February 17th, 2024. She was joined by Aqyila, the up-and-coming Toronto-based R&B singer-songwriter who opened the concert that night.

Aqyila‘s opening set was simply enchanting! She charmed all of us with her crystal-clear and sweet vocals, captivating harmonies, and soulful rhythms. Her single, “Vibe for Me,” was a catchy melodic bop about the importance of self-love that got many singing from their seats; it’s a vibe for me. She also performed a selection of songs off of her Juno-nominated albumFor the Better, including “Hello,” an uplifting jam that encourages the listener to release the past with love and look forward to the future with optimism. 

Before Aqyila‘s set, Arinola and the Harbourfront Centre staff issued one rule to the audience: to stay in our seats to preserve the intimate nature of this concert. However, that rule was thoroughly broken as soon as Jully Black strutted onto the stage. After performing “Queen,” she gave us all full permission to get out of our seats and dance in the aisles. Since you can’t say no to a queen, let alone Canada’s R&B queen, most of us happily obliged. Pretty soon, half of the audience was in the aisles dancing to crowd favourites, including “Sweat of Your Brow,” “Seven-Day Fool,” and “Rally’n.” On the topic of dancing in the aisles, Jully brought an audience member onto the stage and danced with her! 

Jully ended her incredible set with a “Three Little Birds” cover by Bob Marley and the Wailers and encouraged everyone to see the recently released filmOne Love, in theatres. At the end of the concert, she graciously signed merchandise for all of her fans and concertgoers. Please scroll to the bottom to see the awesome picture of me and Jully at the autograph table!

Fantastic Ending to KUUMBA

Thank you to KUUMBA for inviting Fashion Ecstasy

to this year’s festival. This writer truly enjoyed every moment of it. For more information on KUUMBA, please visit https://harbourfrontcentre.com/series/kuumba/

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