All photos by: Tse Daniel
Manifesto, Toronto's award-winning hip-hop festival and non-profit community organization, is celebrating its tenth edition this year with its biggest, most in-depth festival to date. While the upcoming Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada and Daniel Caesar show is this year’s marquee event (not the mention the A Tribe Called Red-led block party at Yonge-Dundas Square), it was this past weekend's two-day Summit of panels, workshops and interviews, that cemented Manifesto's tireless commitment to championing community and culture in Toronto.
There’s a tendency among arts organizations that reach similar milestones to rest on their laurels and lean heavily on the past instead of using their momentum to continue to move forward. The benefit of Manifesto's longevity isn’t memory, but perspective. It gives the organization a unique outlook, allowing them to know which conversations were had, which ones we’re still having, and which ones need to happen. With that perspective also comes the experience of knowing the right people to have those conversations.
I’ve been exhausted by panels this year and that’s in part because the same talking heads keep showing up. This city has a wealth of experts, all from a diverse range of backgrounds. Finding new and interesting combinations of people not only ensures the same conversations aren’t just being repeated in different rooms, but that there’ll be something new to be learned from each one.
Journalist Desmond Cole delivered the keynote address on the first day of Manifesto’s Summit. On the surface, that might seem like an odd choice. Though Cole has been an outspoken critic of police brutality, racial profiling, and anti-Black racism in Toronto, his work as a journalist doesn’t seem to have a direct relationship with art. Both Cole and Manifesto anticipated this dissonance, as he prepared a spoken word performance to kick off the event and his address. Throughout his talk, Cole reinforced this connection, speaking about art’s ability to work in tandem with and inspire journalism to speak truth to power.
From Cole’s keynote, a theme began to emerge that would persist throughout the panels, workshops and interviews that followed: how our identities are inexorably tied to our art and work.
Though it was missing a scheduled panelist, the “Walk Like a Champion: Young & Queer In The Dance” panel proved to be one of the most rewarding conversations on day one. Yes Yes Y'all co-founder and DJ, Nino Brown, chatted with DJs Blackcat and Bambii about the challenges that come with playing Black music in queer spaces.
Blackcat recounted being pushed out of Church Street clubs, forced to play in churches after hours or any space that would have him. His choice to play a mix of R&B, reggae, soca and hip hop on his club nights exposed the racism in the queer club scene. Though Bambii faces fewer challenges than Blackcat did, she affirmed the idea that communities carry with them certain musical expectations, which is why she says that in order to play music across a wide spectrum of styles, she strives to play for audiences that typically do not belong to one sole community.
“Roxanne’s Revenge: Womyn In The Media” was another standout, detailing the rampant misogyny women face daily in the media. Moderated by BAREGYAL’s Sajae Elder, journalists Anupa Mistry, Kayla Greaves, Samantha O'Connor, and Amanda Parris recounted their personal stories, struggles, and motivations and how those inform their work and perspectives. On one hand, it was inspiring to see four women index everything they’ve overcome to get where they are in their careers. The panel served as part celebration of their hard work, and part cautionary tale. All the experiences they recounted were from within the past five years, thoguh, meaning there’s plenty more work to be done.
Even sessions not billed as being about identity found ways to incorporate that overarching theme of the weekend. The “State of the Arts: Thriving Creatively In a Digital World” panel on Sunday tasked a number of young creatives with discussing the benefits and pitfalls of working in a digital landscape. The discussion kept circling back to issues around social media and branding and the exhausting ways in which young professionals have to market themselves and their lifestyles in order to stand out and get work. The digital frontier may provide new and unforeseen opportunities, but they come at the expense of the amount of “work” that goes into branding oneself, maintaining that brand, and how that work is even being defined or compensated.
Similarly, TV personality and journalist Namugenyi Kiwanuka’s keynote was slated to “highlight how Nam has navigated through the industry, and reflect on her own personal stories.” Instead, Kiwanuka delivered a courageous and powerful account of her own childhood trauma. As I sat wholly absorbed in Kiwanuka’s words, it was clear how much that shaped her life, and how much more significant all of her accomplishments are in spite of it. Quoting Oprah, she stressed to the audience that “You are not your circumstances. You are your possibilities.”
Just by glancing at the itinerary, it was easy to see Manifesto was creating something special, putting guests like Director X, dancer/choreographer Esie Mensah, and supermodel Stacey McKenzie all under the same roof for its two-day Summit. Considering the organization’s connection to so many integral figures in the tapestry of Toronto’s arts and culture scene, it might have been tempting to turn the event into a “best of” or clips reel, looking back at all of the good the festival has done over the years. By featuring panels, workshops, keynotes and interviews that reinforced the closeness between identity and art, Manifesto instead celebrated its history along with the collective history of its community, while elegantly stating: “this is how far we’ve come, and these are the challenges ahead.”
Ten years is a nice milestone, but don’t expect them to stop now.