My Words Will Heal You: On RISE Edutainment
Randell Adjei’s wide, toothy grin fills the screen.
“Hello, hello everybody! If you don’t know, my name’s Randell—”
He interrupts his own introduction with a constant string of enthusiastic interjections. “Hello Emily! How y’all doin? Allison! I see you Maya G! Stretch is in the building!”
With eyes shut, one could easily imagine he was up on a stage while a stream of exuberant spectators filled the room, all regulars he knew intimately, of course. In reality, it’s a one-way conversation, limited by the restrictive social parameters of Instagram live-streaming. The people tuning in, introduced by a quick flash of their Instagram handles, are not in the room with Adjei, but his warmth permeates through the glitchy, technological disconnect.
As the director of community arts collective Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere (RISE) Edutainment, this is not the type of open mic event he’s accustomed to hosting. Since 2013, on 46 Mondays out of every year, RISE has hosted open mic nights that invite emerging poets, rappers, and musicians of all kinds to perform, specifically those from communities that are underfunded and undersupported, whose cultural contributions have long gone unrecognized.
In a phone interview, Adjei recalled feeling silenced as a youth growing up on the outskirts of Toronto, in Scarborough, as if his and other young people’s stories were omitted purposely from the cultural conversation. “They’ll [media outlets] come to Scarborough when a shooting happens. But they won’t look into the poverty, they won’t look into the unemployment or the disadvantages or the lack of resources; they’re just always reactive. That’s what I mean by silence. They didn’t want to hear what we had to say.” Adjei, a poet himself, was 20 years old when he started the organization, and it’s ballooned into a tour de force leading to many arts and community-centric awards, including Adjei being chosen as CBC’s Torontonian of the Year in 2015. Christening the first Nuit Blanche in Scarborough in 2018 with live poetry and performances that lasted the whole night, RISE solidified its status as a beacon for the community.
Originally housed in the community resource centre of a local mall, the Scarborough Town Centre, RISE’s essence is rooted in intimate gatherings that empower, instill confidence in, and soften boundaries between performers and audience. Now boasting 28,000 guests collectively throughout the past seven years of events, they’ve maintained their tight-knit community spirit because at its heart RISE is a space that welcomes performers of all kinds to express themselves. “What I wanted to do was create a platform that could allow our voices to be heard. […] I recognized how much our pain festered and how that festering pain turned to anger and how that anger turned to violence, when realistically many of us are just looking for an opportunity to be heard.”
RISE avoids one of the pitfalls that ensnares many other arts communities—becoming so insular that they seem impenetrable to outsiders—because it was designed for outsiders to begin with. The organization’s members have a vested interest in spotlighting those who have never shared their talents before, who aren’t part of the “right” social circles, who don’t have the social capital or clout to get on the “best” lineups. RISE does away with all that pretense with the simple invitation: show us what you’ve got and we’ll welcome you with open arms.
RISE was running events out of their most recent venue, Burrows Hall Community Centre, in Scarborough until March 2020 when the province declared a state of emergency following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the lockdown, they adapted and pivoted their events to being online, mostly on their Instagram page. Remote Control was a collaborative Instagram takeover between RISE, another local community arts organization called Jane Street Speaks, and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) that ran from April to July. Remote Control is the most recent series in an ongoing history of collaborative community-centred practices, exhibitions, events, and workshops between RISE and the AGYU. Together, they won the Key Partnership Award at the 2019 Ontario Association of Art Galleries Awards, a testament to the fruitful and generative nature of their work together. Senior curator at the AGYU Emelie Chhangur is known for her curatorial ethos of “in reach,” a play on the word outreach, that involves in-depth, personal, and prolonged engagement with art institutions in collaboration with individuals, groups and communities—creating a symbiotic kind of relationship, transforming the institutions from within.
An earlier product of the long-term collaboration between the AGYU and RISE is the award-winning short experimental documentary film RISE. Shot in 2018 and directed by Brazilian filmmakers Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, it is an exploration of identity, connection, self-representation, and agency. Conceived following Truth Be Told, a joint AGYU and RISE spoken-word mentorship program, the film finds poets, rappers, and singers from across the Greater Toronto Area performing intimate pieces in the newest extension of the city’s transit system. The setting, which is a figurative but also literal symbol for the connection between the outskirts where many of the performers reside and the city centre, provides a stark and pristine backdrop to performances that are vulnerable, boastful, and explorative in their delivery. The diasporic nature of being, specifically as it relates to the first- and second-generation Caribbean and African immigrant members of RISE, is the crux of this collaboration. The poems and songs are odes to their motherlands and their conceptions of hybrid identity, as well as a way to work through myriad marginalizations. The film won the Audi Short Film Award at the 2019 Berlinale and was screened as part of an installation at the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art in 2019.
Remote Control is a different kind of community project, although equally moving and sentimental. The performers were selected for their particular ability to engage with an audience that isn’t directly in front of them, artists whose energy can tangibly pass through screens. Most of the artists were from across the GTA, with some dropping in from as far as the UK. Some were familiar faces from the days of in-person meet ups, and others were artists that the team had been hoping to work with in some capacity for a while, this series presenting the perfect opportunity.
The May 19 iteration of Remote Control started with Adjei imparting a few motivational words about learning the lessons the pandemic has offered up. A discussion followed in the chat about epiphanies around sense of self, purpose, faith, trust, intention, discipline, running from trauma, and counting blessings. Playful banter and camaraderie between acts cut the displays of public vulnerability, balancing emotion al catharsis and reflection with joy and entertainment. It’s a good environment for artists to play new material for the first time, since the audience is so engaged and receptive; the hollers and claps of the live setting have been digitized and transformed into flame and bull horn emojis, and heart reactions.
Of course, technical difficulties ensue, and as a director that typically manages weekly performances, Adjei is acquainted with rolling with it but Instagram is a different beast. Internet connection issues, lagging video, pixelation, the app’s irritating insistence to automatically end all livestreams as soon as they hit 59 minutes and 59 seconds. Luckily, these are all minor hiccups compared to the satisfying sound of an artist’s soulful mezzo soprano or their intricate guitar strum ming flowing out of an iPhone speaker.
The platforms we are using to convene online during this new period of adaptation—Twitch, Zoom, Instagram, and the like—all existed before this current cultural moment, but we’ve harnessed their potential for connectivity more in the past year to fill an encroaching void. We crave interaction, as it used to be, and have been looking for fillers in the meantime. The way we define arts communities will probably have to change for an indefinite amount of years, until gathering en masse is safe, from a health standpoint, and also comfortable, after such long periods of isolation. “I’m so used to being out there. I’m used to being in the community, connecting, going to difficult events. I think it’s really difficult to not have because that’s where my community is: creative people who come together and are able to embrace our creativity. And I don’t know if I’ll ever really get comfortable with the online community in the same way,” said Adjei.
During this worldwide, pandemic-fuelled slowdown, there has been a rise in civil unrest, two inextricably linked phenomena. As a result of the lockdown, many people now have more mental capacity to deeply critique the hegemonic structures governing our daily lives and the time to actually enact systemic change. Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, eruptions of anger, frustration, and exhaustion spread across the continents like wildfire. Anti-Black racism, police brutality, and abolition became the mots du jour, and campaigns for education and action swept across social media. The Show Must Be Paused was an initiative started within the recording industry to critique the unbalanced nature of the contributions Black artists bring to the multi-billion-dollar music industry. On June 2, the organizers, industry executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, planned to have a social media blackout day where no Black artists would post or release anything to illustrate the colossal absence of culture without them. One of Remote Control’s streams had been set to fall on the same day and some performers suggested postponing it to stand in solidarity with the initiative.
The June 16 iteration of Remote Control was the second livestream following The Show Must Be Paused and the energy was noticeably different from previous weeks. Adjei skipped his usual opening remarks and pleasantries and went straight into introducing the artists. There seemed to be an emphasis on letting the artists speak to the ways they were grappling with the current cultural moment through their music. First up was Charmie Deller, a RISE regular and a performer Adjei has been working with for eight years, watching her grow and develop her craft. She performed an original song called “Black Lives Matter.” From her balcony, as the evening sun shone a warm light across her face, her breathy and textured voice sang the harrowing opening lyric: “do I really need to bleed for you to see me?” After the performance, she and Adjei had a candid conversation about what she was feeling following the protests. She spoke of the challenge of writing from a place of anger about the treatment of Black people but wanting to convey the feeling of love that propels her to keep fighting—a concept Adjei refers to as “transmuting pain into power.” Next up, ZeneSoul was also inspired to write new music about the debilitating forces inflicted against Black people. Her lyrics, “I will not be silenced, I will not yield, I will not be quiet,” became an anthem, growing more powerful with each refrain. This particular livestream laid bare the importance of art in protest, the need for artistic expression as a place for healing after the battle.
But spaces like that don’t just appear, they must be painstakingly created and maintained. Adjei himself is unsure if he’ll ever fully grasp the impact that RISE has had on artists and the general community through out the city. He wants to leave behind a legacy, one rooted in community care, making it better for whoever comes next.
The “edutainment” part in the collective’s name comes from the acclaimed OG of conscious rap, KRS One (whose other stage name is, fittingly, Teacha) who coined the term on the 1990 Boogie Down Productions album of the same name. The reason Adjei wanted to add the word edutainment to their name was to home in on the fact that he wanted performers who could put on a show while teaching the crowd something meaningful. “I’m looking for artists that understand the power of being in front of a crowd and that there’s inherently a lot of responsibility in that you have an opportunity to inform, to inspire, to empower, and to really give people something that they can remember for the rest of their lives.”