How Black Canadian youth are claiming space in the pandemic

During COVID-19, young Black artists and community members harness the virtual space to cultivate community and creativity.

Micheas “Mickey May” Mersha believes in living in the moment, even when the moment is unpleasant to live in. This outlook did not come easily to the 21-year-old Kitchener musician, but like all of his work, it is exacting and intentional.

“I never understood what that meant,” Mersha said of the ubiquitous ‘live in the moment’ mantra. “I’m like bro, how can I not live in the moment? Like I’m right—I’m here. Am I not here?”

(Photo by Micheas Mersha)

One of the benefits to this mentality is amenability to change—an asset in this moment when government orders, vaccine supply, and international politics can and do shift with little notice. Many, myself included, are clinging to a construct of a normal future in order to survive, which leaves us vulnerable to burnout and disappointment when that future fails to take shape.

“Especially when you’re chasing something, you get caught up in what’s next,” Mersha mused.

Mersha credits his change in perspective in part to The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bull’s 1997-98 championship season that ESPN released ahead of schedule last year. In an interview for The Executive Rule, a podcast about emerging community leaders, Mersha recounted how watching Jordan’s famous tenacity and gamesmanship shifted his thinking.

“Jordan never thought about the shot he was gonna take. He only thought about the shot he was taking. And I was like, okay, now I get it.” It was this mentality that motivated Mersha to perform a 30-minute visual concert titled Tomorrow’s Here where his alternative, experimental, pop-adjacent music could debut virtually.

(Photo by Micheas Mersha)

“I always wanted to do a live performance [but] never had the money to do it, the time to do it, the space to do it,” Mersha explained. When the opportunity came to do this concert through Studio On Sunset,  a live performance streaming platform, he couldn’t say no. “With COVID it’s hard to have in-person interaction. It’s hard to connect. With virtual, you can give them a piece of what your story is, what your vision is, insight to my world, what I see.”

Stills from Mersha’s performance show him in a dark room illuminated by projections of scenes from The Silence of the Lambs and Romeo and Juliet. The extreme close-ups of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins leave me claustrophobic and aching. In his performance of his original track Baby Driver, he sits on the floor at the convergence of two white walls. Knees to his chest, he sings of longing and low points over textured synths and earnest piano chords as film scenes reflect off the medium of his skin and the room.

(Photo by Micheas Mersha)

The unbearable closeness of Agent Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter punctuates how alone Mersha is for his first live show. It also serves as a poignant commentary on how many of us are spending our time now: in isolation, watching movies, desperate to recapture a moment of pre-pandemic closeness. It’s painfully nostalgic. His lyrics are raw, vulnerable, and honest. His body and his story are centered in the foreground, both physically and metaphysically.

One year ago today, I wrote a piece called “Keep the Volume Low: Being Black on Campus in Canada.” Published while we were under an emergency stay-at-home-order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning from George Floyd’s death was sweeping Canadians, and I was exhausted by what I perceived as performative activism and hypocrisy from my classmates and from my institution. In many ways, things have stayed the same since that moment. I am still exhausted. We are still under an emergency stay-at-home order due to the pandemic (though I recently received my first shot of Pfizer). 74% of COVID cases in the City of Toronto are among racialized people, who are just over 50% of the population.

For as long as I have been writing, my work has been concerned with the physical and conceptual space that Black people are afforded or denied. While COVID-19 and the policy decisions that accompany it have been wholly unkind to Black youth, the increased emphasis on virtual spaces in the pandemic has provided fertile soil for Black Canadian artists, scholars, and creatives like Mersha to experiment, to find community, and to heal.

(Photo by Micheas Mersha)

Last fall, I wondered how first-year Black students entering post-secondary would live in this moment without an on-campus community. My heart swooned with delight when the Guelph Black Students’ Association and the Caribbean Cultural Club launched “You’re Invited To The Cookout,” a virtual orientation on Instagram featuring recipe videos on Cameroonian Jollof Rice and Buss Shut Up. Each dish is carefully prepared and seasoned, accompanied by inviting music and close-up shots. The club also held an anti-racist book club for the text “I’m not Dying With You Tonight,” featuring visits from authors Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones, organized in collaboration with Hillel Guelph.

The club has hosted poetry writing and performance workshops “that aim to center the experiences of black and non-black students of colour through poetry.” All events are open to the community, and in the virtual age, physical proximity is no longer a restraint. The “Aftershocks” juried art show, which features art by “young creatives of the African diaspora,” has gone digital and continues to secure space for blossoming artists who have not necessarily been afforded platforms, and provide honoraria for their work. Weekly discussions, which were once held in the Guelph Black Students Association room, are now held virtually, addressing topics such as self-esteem, body positivity, representation, and belonging in virtual environments.

In many ways, this labour of love is a seamless continuation of what we have always done: connect. Perhaps our ability to survive and even thrive in a racist world has prepared us for the odious task of finding closeness in this moment. We reach through the screen and choose to be in community with one another, in spite of the jarring pain of physical separation. The C.J. Munford Centre continues to be a site of unity and refuge for Guelph’s Black Students. Mersha continues to create—his latest single, “Meet Me On The Moon,” is now streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. In spite of it all, we are still here in this moment. We are still here.

Laila El Mugammar is a Sudanese-Canadian writer and Waterloo resident. Her academic and creative work maps the Black presence in Canada.

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