Why a lineup of young, Black musicians are taking the stage at Canada's National Music Centre

Kuzi Cee will be performing at the National Music Centre on Thursday. (Submitted by Julijana Capone - image credit)
Kuzi Cee will be performing at the National Music Centre on Thursday. (Submitted by Julijana Capone - image credit)

There's a narrative in Calgary's music scene that Beni Johnson has been working to change.

"Often, corporate rooms in this city are not supportive of hip hop acts, R&B, soul acts," he said.

"It's very rarely a space for young, Black artists to be innovative, to be expressive, to dip into their realities and expressions, and you can blame that on a bunch of different reasons."

Johnson is the founder and director of 10 at 10 Music and Culture — a platform that seeks to amplify the arts, music, and Black culture in Canada.

Since launching the platform in 2011, Johnson has been partnering with organizations and companies to showcase the talent that up-and-coming Black artists in Calgary have to offer.

For Black History Month this year, that meant putting these artists on a national stage so people who wouldn't otherwise experience their music have chance to do so.

"I wanted to go out to these cats and give them an opportunity to level up their music," Johnson said. "For a different kind of crowd."

Supplied by Glen Co Photography
Supplied by Glen Co Photography

At National Music Centre's Studio Bell, a lineup of Black artists from Edmonton and Calgary will take the stage on Wednesday and Thursday starting at 1 p.m.

The showcase was inspired by the 1970 song To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone.

Musicians featured in the two-day event include Temia, TeQuan, Moto, Kuzi Cee, Two World Creatives, and Malaika Hailey.

It's something Johnson said gives these artists a chance to showcase their talents to a group of people who, otherwise, wouldn't listen to them.

As much as they're able to do their club shows and concerts, these performances are more geared toward the general public and school groups.

"It's about changing that stigma of hip-hop and R&B being a genre of negativity and of violence and making [others] understand the cause of representation of it," Johnson said.

Soul on deck

Music has been a part of Malaika Hailey's life for a long time.

The Calgary-based R&B singer has used it as an outlet of creativity and expression, but its also a big part of her identity.

"It's almost, like, a translator of unspoken emotions," Hailey said. "Regardless of who you are, where you're from, music is a way to bridge the gap between a lot of conflicts and a lot of, like, differences."

Supplied by Malaika Hailey
Supplied by Malaika Hailey

Since the age of six, Hailey has been performing and has done several recitals — but she says it wasn't until recently that she'd started doing music at the level she is now.

On Thursday, Hailey will be on stage for the showcase at the National Music Centre, something she says will be a new experience.

"I'm just honoured to be a part of this event and that they asked me to be in it," she said.

"So I feel very special."

Hailey, however, is hopeful this showcase can be used as a launchpad for more representation.

"There's like a lot, so much pressure on that one month to try and blow up Black artists and make sure that they're seen and acknowledged," she said.

"Instead, it can be a consistency of, you know, one event a month where we showcase Black artists or something like that, where we can kind of keep the conversation going."

Year-round representation

Others involved in the event agree they want it to be part of a bigger dialogue.

"I think the danger, sometimes, with these kinds of initiatives is if it is done with lip service or without a real commitment to diversity in an organization's DNA, then it will be just a token expression," said Adam Fox, the centre's director of programs.

"We've worked really hard to ensure that diversity expressed, which is expressed not only through race and class and gender, it's also through genre, it's through locale and region of the country."

As an organization that works with artists on a national level as well as locally, Fox said his team doesn't always have the insight on what's happening musically on a city level. He said partnering with people like Johnson is important for that reason.

Johnson echoed the sentiment, adding more representation beyond February will lead to better understanding.

"It's very easy to make something off to be evil, or dark, or negative when you don't interact with it. Black people aren't the boogeyman, and they don't need to be highlighted only 28 days of the year."

Young Calgary

CBC Calgary is looking for more young voices to help shape the news.

If you're age 16 to 25, join our text messaging community to share your ideas.

Highlight the heroes in your life. Tell us about the challenges you're facing down, and make suggestions on what you'd like to see CBC Calgary cover next.

It could be fun, and we promise to keep you in the loop the whole way. It's free and confidential. Unsubscribe any time.