Who is Karen Richardson? - Part II

09 Jan 2006

What has the public response to your book T-Dot Griots so far?

The public response has been great. We officially launched T-Dot Griots in February at the Kuumba Festival, we had good reviews in Now and Word Magazine. We also had a favourable review in the Halifax Herald.  Steven Green is now based in New York. We enjoyed an opportunity to promote T-Dot Griots at a benefit for the children of Darfur on the library steps at Columbia University in the spring. I had 5 crazy weeks in New York performing almost every night.  People really enjoyed learning and laughing about black Toronto. Most of the public library systems in Southern Ontario have copies. Dr. George Elliott Clarke is teaching from T-Dot Griots in both undergraduate and graduate classes at the University of Toronto. I am ecstatic that the black owned bookstores in the GTA are in full support of the book. I feel blessed that they have embraced our vision of canonizing the stories of Toronto.

I know that the publishing world is very difficult to crack. Were there any challenges getting it published?

For us, the main challenge was money. We understood that as two first-time editors we would have a hard time convincing a publisher to do a large print run on such unique book.

Toronto artist Karen Richardson

 We also understood that it would take time for Canadians to really embrace T-Dot Griots. We didn't want to risk it going out of print before people understood what we were hoping to accomplish, so we collectively paid for the project. The funds were raised out of the $4 per head cover charge which was collected every Friday at La Parole™.  Outside of the honoraria paid to the featured performers, every penny went toward completely T-Dot Griots. It is now available through Trafford Publishing.  www.trafford.com, www.amazon.ca, www.chapters.ca and several other distribution channels.

Apart from being published, what benefits do you think that the book offers to the over 50 contributors?

Let's say membership has its privileges. According to our sales statistics, people are reading T-Dot Griots in Canada, the US, the Caribbean, the UK and Asia. The book acts as a directory of Toronto's black artists. I know of a TV show which used the book to find featured guests for their segments.  Several schools have used T-Dot Griots to find out who some of the hottest guest speakers might be for their classrooms. I think the exposure T-Dot Griots provides is great, but it's more than that. Finally, we as Canadian writers and speakers get to stand together as one. We can assert with pride that we are accomplishing great things together. When our contributors travel to perform or display their work, the people who purchase T-Dot Griots are introduced to many more creators. Together our names for further, our faces go further, but most importantly our stories go places that individually we may never go on our own.

Now that the book is out there, what is the next step?

The next step is to complete the teacher guide to T-Dot Griots and the Audio Book. The teachers guide will be a multidisciplinary collection of lesson plans geared at helping teachers communicate our stories in the classroom. The guide is currently in development and we are still welcoming interested accredited African-Canadian educators to get involved. It doesn't matter what you teach or to what grade level. We will provide the materials...and those who are chosen will be published and will also receive a copy of the teacher''s manual for their personal use. The audio book is not really a book at all. We're producing an entertaining CD which features hot production and both recorded studio and live to tape performances by some of the contributors to T-Dot Griots. We anticipate the project will be complete by the end of 2006.

Unfortunately Canada has been rocked by a large exodus of its artists into the USA and Europe; an artistic brain drain of some sorts which has many artists frustrated. Do you think that the Canadian government does enough for its artists or could it do more?

That's a tough one. I'm a little worried about the possibility of my answer being taken out of context. Canada as a relatively new nation is still struggling to define its own unique culture. That is complicated further by the fact that peoples of all nations of the earth reside here. Art is a vehicle that codifies and transports culture from one generation to the next. In a nation like ours the government has a hard time distributing its resources to support artistic projects which will communicate some aspect of Canadian culture to this generation and beyond.

Of course they could do more. But I have to say that artists in Canada are blessed with programs which support the arts at all. In most places creativity is a luxury. Where we fall behind though, is that the general Canadian public has not yet developed a palate for domestic arts. I think the real challenge to Canadian artists is not a lack of government support, because few countries have arts grants available. Rather, our challenge is convincing the Canadian public that our arts are important, convincing them that they have value. So, yes many artists go singers, actors, and a variety of other artsy type end up going where they can demand the compensation that befits their craft.

You are a poet, performer and writer yourself. What inspires you as a writer?

First off, I'm an observer. I love the little details, the things most people miss. The intonation in foreign accents, the texture in clothing the spectrum of colours in a pack of pencil crayons. I am inspired by difference. I am driven by the knowledge that I was created to be unique. No one else will be given the same words as me to write at the same time for the same purpose. It's exciting. As a kid, my biggest goal in life was to fit in. I wanted to be in the popular crowd and get invited to all the birthday parties, but God had other plans.

I took my childhood angers and frustrations and channeled them into poems and journal entries. I was inspired by the poetry of the Bible; the Psalms, Song of Solomon. I’m inspired by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I was intrigued by the artistic element of the urban black working class, by the stories in their poetry. I felt like I lived those experiences with them. So, when I write, I''m not afraid to get personal. I want the listener or reader to feel like they know me...like they are walking in my shoes. Because I know that each person''s path was uniquely crafted for them, I measure good writing by how deeply it transports me into the life of someone else? Do I understand it? Can I empathize? Does the world look different from their point of view? So, in case you didn''t catch it my greatest inspiration is also the greatest cliché -- God. He created all and as the greatest artist ever, there''s no better example to follow.

La Parole™ which you founded was known in the underground artist''s world as an event which celebrated speech through open mic, poetry, music, visual arts and discussion. It won the attention of the CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, and Ambassador Magazine. For those who may have not heard about it, could you briefly tell us what it was and where you got the idea to start such a project?

I lived in Montreal for a few years to complete an undergraduate degree. Before I left Toronto, I was a member of the Fresh Arts multidisciplinary arts program. Through that network I got to liaise with the best talent in Toronto and I got the opportunity to begin sharing my words and performing. When I got back to Toronto, Fresh Arts was just a memory and I felt the need to facilitate a space that would help me meet other creative people in the city. La Parole™ was a weekly arts series that featured local and visiting artists. We met in a small space above the old Flava Restaurant on Yonge. Each week you'd get something different; spoken word, theatre, song, visual art and discussion.

To me an artist ought to be accountable to their community. Because I believe that artists are entrusted with the duty of conveying the messages and moods of their time to future generations, it is important that the artist doesn't exist in a vacuum. They have to be listening to what is taking place in their world a they have to be ready to face the criticism of both their peers and the community they serve. So La Parole™ included Question and Answer from the audience at the end of every set. The word simply means speech in French. Speech to me is that which welcomes the views and opinions of others.  If others are not free to speak, than you yourself should not be accorded that privilege. So, La Parole ™ welcomed all varieties of expression...including respectful criticism and debate. It was a very spiritual environment. I have built deep relationships with many people I encountered in that setting. Even the ritual of preparing myself to host those Friday nights was reverent.

I used to set up the room half an hour before the crowd arrive and pray for peace, understanding and clarity as I moved each chair. La Parole™ was a gift given to me. I believe it served a great purpose.  For me personally, it got me writing and performing again.  It kept me connected with and accountable to my peers. For the patrons and artists who filled those chairs or graced the stage.  It was a haven, where you knew you were ok. It introduced people to the wealth of talent in this city.  Beyond that...it was a popular landing pad for out-of-towners who wanted to sample Toronto''s artistic offerings or see how their work would be received in another city. Actually, a two-time Def Poet from DC emailed me last week to ask if she could be featured at La Parole™ next May.  Unfortunately, the event came to an emotional close in July 2004.

When did you start writing?

I started writing different kinds of writing at different times. I think I started writing poetry at age 7. Stories when I started school. Journals...on the 13th birthday...I used to address them to my mom, because I was sure she bought me the journal to spy on me. Rap lyrics in grade 9. Spoken word style pieces in grade 11. Articles in university.  Songs...somewhere in there.

You are obviously a source of inspiration for many African Canadian artists. Many artists speak warmly of you and your contributions. Do you see yourself as a role model and are there any pressures as a result?

Everyone is a role model. So long as your life is lived among others, someone is always watching your example. No, I don't think I'm the best role model. However, I am grateful for the opportunities I've had and even more grateful for the people along the way who have partnered with me to see my dreams take flight. I think that''s all people really need in life...partnership. People who will stick with you until you get the job done...whatever it maybe.  I've always been inspired by people who finish what they start...and I hope that if people notice anything about that, that would be one of the things they'll say.

Beyond that bringing people together is so important to me. What a different life this could be if we could all see eye to eye. But you can't do that if you never mix, if you never venture outside of your comfort zone. I've had role models. Most of them are people I know personally who introduced me to ways that were better than what I would have done or chosen on my own.  Some of them were just encouragers who helped me to expect more from myself. So, I would never instruct anyone to follow my example, because I've made my share of missteps and mistakes, but I encourage anyone who wants to take action to find those people who are willing to help propel you forward and see your ideas through to the end.

You are a segment producer and publicist for a new program on SunTV called Echo. How did you land that exciting opportunity?

I have worked as a publicist for a few years, while I was working on T-Dot Griots and producing La Parole™. Following those projects I moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia to complete a degree in Journalism.  I saw journalism as a good catch all to channel the skills I use as a performer, host, writer and storyteller.  I went in wanting to really learn about TV since I had no experience behind the camera and I was fortunate enough to land the CTV (ATV) Media Scholarship. I actually found out about Echo through Sonia Godding, an amazing editor who used to come out to La Parole™.  I wasn't interviewed right off the bat but a position became available and I've been there since. The experience has been very rewarding. It's a blessing to be doing work which you truly believe in.

You are also musically inclined. I read that you studied classical Alto I under Robert Ingari in the McGill University Women's Chorus; simultaneously rehearsing contemporary Alto I and Soprano II under Sheryl Moore in the Evangel Youth Gospel Choir. Any plans of moving into the music business in the long term?

I love music. Yes like most black kids in the suburbs, I studied royal conservatory piano up to grade six. Then I quit, because I was too lazy to practice. I've always sang in choirs contemporary, gospel and classical. I haven't done that in about five years but I'm never too far away from music. I do write songs and I'm teaching myself the guitar. I also used to play the trumpet. I don't see myself moving into the music business but I have found ways to marry my love for music with my expertise in journalism and publicity.  I worked in St. Vincent last year as a reporter for a newspaper where I got to interview some local music producers. That translated into helping them to promote and publicize their soca songs internationally to radio and club djs. So from journalism to publicity back to journalism.  Now one of those DJ's...Dr. Jay the Soca Prince has me on his show every week delivering a humorous international soca report called the Prognosis. I do love to sing though.  Many of my poems have refrains that I sing.  I''ve even sang back up for a popular afrobeat band.  So, I wouldn''t close that door just yet.  Music is a powerful tool.

You are a very busy woman. You are also on Flow 93.5 FM weekly as the voice of "Nurse Karen" on Dr. Jay''s Soca Therapy on Sundays between 6 pm and 9 pm. Can you please tell us more about that?

The prognosis is a two minute humorous report on Caribbean carnivals and the music and culture of the West Indies around the world.  It's an idea that I pitched to Dr. Jay several months ago.  I began recording the segments at the beginning of December.  I enjoy doing the research and I have a great time in the studio. Dr. Jay is a hard-working professional who has done so much for promoting several aspects of Caribbean culture not just here but around the world. I wish him continued success and I am honoured to be working with him.

Who are the people who you look up to?

My parents, Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, Joseph Chatoyer (Carib Chief who successfully defended St. Vincent [that is her background] from British colonialism) and my grandmother. She had 11 children of her own, but she took in orphans and children whose parents couldn't provide for them. Lots of them. Even in her old age, she gave. She never wanted any attention for herself. She just gave and gave and never complained. I remember watching her cook once.  She was frying fish and one of her cats jumped on to the counter and took a fish right out of the pan. She just laughed and dropped another fish in the oil. That's what I want to be like....just happy to be experiencing it all. She was a praying woman. I believe her prayers have guided my life. She was feminine and strong, loving and firm and forever devoted to her husband, her children and her community. I love her and the many lessons I''ve learned from her in life and in death.

What is next for you?

Whatever God wants me to accomplish.  I've never really seen myself as a career person.  I wasn't able to choose one thing I wanted to be when I was growing up. I just wanted to be. I'm still that way. I enjoy everything I do. So yes, so long as the opportunities arise I will write, I will produce and I will promote. So long as I have the opportunity to communicate real life experiences I will tell those stories in which ever format is available to me.  I mentioned the audio book and the teacher's manual. I will be giving performances in several schools for black history month and hopefully some more travel this year.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

It’s not terribly important that I be remembered. However, if more people are creating and sharing their words and ideas freely, I will be happy. If those humble starts can begin a process of healing within the black community, I will be happier. If black youth begin to understand that their full potential is the full capacity of God's love and power, I will be happiest.

Finally what is a beautiful woman in your experience?

My grandmother- Catherine Alexandria Richardson- is a beautiful woman. I was named after her. Her domain was geographically small, but her influence has now gone all over the world through her children and grand-children. She instilled in us the value of education, the importance of family, how to be good neighbours and citizens. She showed us God listens. I thank her for that.

For more on Karen Richardson, please visit: www.mustardseeds.net