Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

OBT Black History Series: Mahlikah Awe:ri

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The Beat Goes On (Diaspora Dialogues)

This Sunday at 2:30 p.m. join Mahlikah Awe:ri, Andrew Moodie and Donna-Michelle St Bernard at The Music Gallery on John St. for The Beat Goes On, part of Diaspora Dialogues' celebration of Black History Month. An afternoon of spoken word, music and drama will be followed by a lively moderated conversation with CBC’s Garvia Bailey.

Here, Mahlikah Awe:ri gives Open Book a preview of the event and talks about her work as a spoken word artist, her heritage and more. For more information about The Beat Goes On, please visit our Events page.

Open Book:

You are one of the featured artists at The Beat Goes On, Diaspora Dialogue's celebration of Black History Month. What can we expect from this event?

Mahlikah Awe:ri:

The event is part of Then and Now, a series of events celebrating African Heritage Month, presented by TD and Diaspora Dialogues bringing together Andrew Moodie, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and myself. We will be weaving spoken word, music and drama together to explore historical and artistic evolutions, followed by a lively moderated conversation with CBC's Garvia Bailey.

OB:

You made your debut as a spoken word artist as a member of The Young Poets of the Revolution. How does spoken word differ from what we might normally associate with poetry?

MA:

For me spoken word in the simplest of terms is oral spoken rhythm. Most of my pieces manifest directly from my internal narrative out my mouth and never start on paper or in the notes section of my iPhone. I will then record it later or write it out later. It is performance, verbalative expressiveness which resonates throughout the poet's body.

OB:

Tell us about the first time you performed in a spoken word event. How did you face the challenge of performing your poetry in front of an audience?

MA:

My first official spoken word performance was with YPR at the Bickford Centre in Toronto in the early 1990s. I was still in my teens. I was really nervous because it was my first time performing as a member of YPR and I was one of only two female poets in the crew. No one knew who I was or what my flow would be like. I prepared by rehearsing like crazy right up until show time — I also worked on creating an image that would set me apart from the other poets. Unlike the fatigues-Timberlands and pro-black slogan t-shirts my crew members sported, I went bare foot, wore tights and a flora flowing top and hoop earrings. I integrated movement and mask....but still came hard. It was well received and even more than ten years later people who attended that show or other former YPR members remember my performance and can even recite the pieces I did.

OB:

How would you describe your cultural identity, and how does this diverse background contribute to your work as an artist?

MA:

I am Afro-Native of Haudenosaunee Mohawk, Mi'kmaw and African descent. My roots are from the Atlantic Coast Nova Scotia. I can trace my African roots back to Rose Fortune, born into slavery in Virginia. As a youth she was shipped to Annapolis, Nova Scotia in the 1700s with her slave owners as a Black Loyalist. Growing up close to my grandparents I have always been immersed in my Afro-Native roots and aware of the shared legacy of red and black people in the Americas...Turtle Island. My bloodlines inform everything I create, but it is organic. It is more than a contribution...it is who I am. So since I live my art, my art will always reflect the corn-husk doll teachings of my grandmother, the seven fire teachings of my grandfather and the spiritual practice of Hoo Doo which intertwines the beliefs of animism from Africans and the First Peoples.

OB:

Tell us about Red Slam, the collective you founded that brings together Indigenous writers, musicians and performers.

MA:

Red Slam Collective is poetic song stories infused with reggae hip hop, soul rock, and drum talk. A variety of themes are expressed in the pieces, but the underlying goal is to: uplift, self-identify and promote unity through Spoken Lyricism which Arranges Meaning (SLAM). Red Slam grew out of slam poetry and song writing circles I was running out of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto back in 2008. Since then we have received musical mentorship from Juno-recording artists Digging Roots; developed our first tour called DissemiNation, which took us to major venues in Toronto like Dundas Square, the Gladstone Hotel and Lee's Palace, as well as Brantford, Hamilton, Wikwemikong, Port Credit, Ottawa and Akwesasne. Now we are preparing to release our first radio single, "Bring It Back," and a set of EP projects from various collective members for 2011.

OB:

One of the programs organized by Red Slam is S.L.A.M. I AM, which runs twice a week for Indigenous and diverse kids ages 6-15 at Eastview Jr. Public School. How do you encourage kids this age to try out spoken word and participate in Slam events?

MA:

The key is connecting relevant social issues that the youth are dealing with in the present to cultural teachings of the past and infusing these with integrated art forms which appeal to this age group.

Our kids come from orality so spoken word is natural...it is our stories, stories delivered with rhythm and music. As for participation in Slam events, the Collective is more interested in encouraging activism and warriorism within our youth, enabling them to create their own Slam ciphers within the community.

OB:

You were recently named to the 2010-2011 OAC Roster of Aboriginal Artists in the Schools. What sort of work will you be doing as a member of this organization?

MA:

I will be delivering my project My Owena; My Okra (My Word; My Story), which explores creating poetic pieces and rap lyrics inspired by indigenous visual images, music and social issues for Grades 4 to 8.

OB:

How does your engagement with the creative community benefit you as a writer?

MA:

It keeps me motivated and inspired to write. Keeps me open to new ideas and perspectives and encourages me to collaborate and push my creative limits.

OB:

Which writers and artists have had the greatest influence on your work?

MA:

I would say Martha Redbone, Nina Simone, Afua Cooper, Mutabaruka, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Bob Marley, John Trudell, Kid Cudi, Robbie Robertson, Digging Roots, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Jeanette Armstrong, Spike Lee, Ntozake Shange, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, NAS and Tupac.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MA:

Aside from my Arts Facilitation Projects with Ontario Arts Council and the Aboriginal Education Centre for 2011, I am preparing to launch the EP release of Serpent's Skin, the first recorded spoken word offering from The AngelHeart Riverwalker Project which features Red Slam Collective member Isaac Riverwalker and myself. The EP contains five recorded tracks and one live single. The release party will be March 17th at LAMBADINA LOUNGE in Toronto.


Mahlikah is Kiswahili for Angel and Awe:ri is Mohawk for Heart. Mahlikah Awe:ri is an oralist of African/Mohawk/Mik’maw heritage with Nova Scotian roots; she is based in Toronto. She debuted as a spoken word artist as a member of the Young Poets of the Revolution. She provides Cultural Arts programming with the RCM's Living Through the Arts and Youth Engagement Program. Mahlikah is a founding member of Red Slam; a diverse collective of Indigenous writers, musicians, and performers. Red Slam completed their OAC-supported DissemiNation tour this October and are now gearing up for the release of their first single, "Bring It Back." Mahlikah is currently the Artistic Coordinator for Red Slam’s first TAC Community Arts Access Project: S.L.A.M. I AM, running twice a week for indigenous and diverse kids ages 6-15 years at Eastview Jr. Public School, in partnership with Native Child and Family Services House of Ghesig After Four programs. Mahlikah was recently named to the 2010-2011 OAC Roster of Aboriginal Artists in the Schools and was selected as an emerging writer participant in the Diaspora Dialogues 2010 Mentorship Program. She can be found at www.myspace.com/mahlikahaweri, www.myspace.com/redslamcollective" and www.mahlikahaweri.podomatic.com.

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