To recognize Black History Month in 2023, SOCAN asked several of our Black members to write a piece about whatever they choose. Here’s what R&B/hip-hop singer-songwriter TOBi has to say.
“Black history, Black future.”
When I first said these words last year, I said them in a freestyle, and it signaled a paradigm shift in how I’d like to start thinking about Black History Month. Re-imagining old paradigms in a new context is a part of the job. An interesting part about being a Black artist is that your skin colour is an ongoing conversation in relation to your art. You can choose to engage with it or not, but it will show up. People will challenge your style of music, your accent, your tone, your hair, your look, the validity of your perspective on a certain topic, or your lack of perspective. Being too Black, or not Black enough. These questions/criticisms will likely land your way and you should stand unshaken, because you are a valid expression of who you want to be, as you are.
The conversation about race will either cause discomfort, heal our wounds, or fly over the heads of those who don’t care to see its value. We see all these possibilities play out on a daily basis via in-person and online conversations. Some people opine that we collectively move on as a society and live in a “post-racial” world, yet are often quiet when asked to describe what this world would look like.
Does it look like rebuilding the prosperous Black neighbourhood Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was burned down in 1921 by a violent white mob? Would making amends look like providing the residents’ descendants with the equivalent in resources and infrastructure, adjusted for in today’s dollars?
In Canada, what about the descendants of the residents of Africville? It was a predominantly Black village that was neglected, disrespected and ultimately destroyed by the city of Halifax. Does it look like a settlement for its residents’ descendants, adjusted for inflation? It’s a story that I wish more Canadians were familiar with, as we often forget the incidents that took place in our own backyard. Would including these historical facts in our children’s history books be welcomed, or incite rage and dissidence?
Most folks reason that a “post-racial” world means letting bygones be bygones. If the present is an overall accumulation of actions of the past, how do we posit a better future without intentional and actionable solutions?
As a Black musician, I often think about the body I represent in a post-colonial landscape. With a Yoruba name and identity, I represent a tribe that has representation in almost every corner of the globe, either via the slave trade, or more recently, through migration. After visiting Cuba a couple of years ago, I was awestruck to see the Yoruba spiritual system and deities (Orishas) that have been discarded in my home country of Nigeria, actually celebrated with respect and reverence. A remnant of colonialism, which may not matter to more than 99% of the world, but it does to me. And that’s why art matters, for every child, or inner child, that has felt under-represented during their lives. Our existence is resistance. I will double down and assert that my name TOBi, means “Great” in the Yoruba language and is not a shorthand for Tobias, nor is it in any way associated with the Toby name forced unto the character Kunta Kinte in the movie Roots.
Being a Black musician means having an awareness of how your art has an impact on your audience, your sense of self, and your community. It means some youth will look at you as a role model for the mere fact of visible representation. It means standing firm in your skin, because Blackness is not a monolith, and the experiences are as vast and boundless as the universe itself. Even within the individual there are multitudes. Being a Black musician means carrying on the legacy of Black music in your art. Because music has always been a space to express culture, and identity, it’s almost impossible for a Black artist to not engage with the socio-political aspects of it. Whether consciously or unconsciously. Whether it’s in a space such as hip-hop, R&B, or reggae, that traditionally offers more Black representation, or in the pop world, that historically doesn’t. It’s easier for a Black artist to blend in a genre that historically has artists that look like them, so as to not feel like an outlier, but with that comes forging a distinct lane so as to not be confused with others, to a mainstream audience. Conversely, to be a Black artist in a genre like pop, folk, or country, may elicit feelings of imposter syndrome, or conversations of tokenism, which I’ve heard from my peers.
Where do we go in the Black futures timeline? It’s scary to think we live in an age where the most fringe theories can find a welcome home in the darkest corners of the internet. Where there’s an increase in Holocaust deniers and a rise in anti-semitism. In an age where critical race theory is being challenged in school curricula as being untrue, I think it’s more important now than ever for our society to come together in dialogue. To reduce the fragmentation of thought and engage with Black artists from cultures of which we may have a limited understanding. The present wouldn’t be as beautiful were it not for the contributions of Black artists, and the future is dependent on the support for these artists in the present moment. A future that we want for our children is one that we all have an active hand in shaping together, in the present.