Canada has a history of hosting literary gatherings of Black artists that have proved seminal in their artistic and social impact. The famous 1968 Black Writers Conference in Montreal brought together such noted writers and political thinkers as Walter Rodney and Stokely Carmichael. The Conference itself was a culmination of a series of writer lectures organized by the Conference Committee on West Indian Affairs (led by the noted St. Vincent historian, Alfie Roberts), which helped shape the future of Black people in Canada and across the Pan-African Diaspora, and featured such influential writers as George Lamming, C. L. R. James, and Orlando Patterson.
Most recently, a critical event carried on and evolved the intent of the 1968 conference. Spearheaded by Lillian Allen and a collective of Toronto-based dub poets, the 1993 International Dub Poetry Festival, was a ground-breaking gathering of dub poets with panel discussions and performances featuring the likes of Mutabaruka, Sister Jean Breeze, and Oku Onuora from Jamaica, Brother Resistance and Brother Books from Trinidad, Winston Farrell from Barbados, Ras Mo from Dominica, Martin Glynn from Britain, and Mzwakhe Mbuli from South Africa. The Festival inspired an emerging generation of spoken word poets, including a group of young poets from Montreal called DAP (the Diasporic African Poets) who were invited to perform and whose members included myself, the nth digri. My most poignant memories of that festival are of the electrifying Concert Hall performances, as well as the creative tension of the dynamic exchanges and welcoming/mentoring vibes of the groundation sessions.
Nine years later, Toronto again hosted the 2004 International Dub Poetry Festival, organized once more by the Dub Poets Collective. The scope was again international, with poets such as Britain’s Martin Glynn, Miami-based poets Malachi Smith, and Jamaica’s Cherry Natural. The festival also featured a number of Black Canadian spoken word poets – such as Dwayne Morgan, Motion, nth digri, nah-ee-lah – who extend dub poetry by fusing it with other genres (e.g. hip hop, rapso, and American slam poetry styles). Workshops included a ‘Master Class: Dubbing with Lillian Allen & Clifton Joseph,’ a panel discussion in ‘Re-reading Dub Poetry: Its Poetics, Politics & Culture’ co-sponsored by the Ryerson Caribbean Research Centre, and a panel on ‘Dub Activism’ co-sponsored by the Centre for Human Rights and Equity. The festival also featured a Performance in ‘Groundings & Soundings Open Mic’ as a ‘main source of initiation, experimentation and development for emerging practitioners’
The Northern Griots Network (NGN) gathering in Ottawa in July 2003 was a strategic meeting, accompanied by a momentous performance, of a next generation of Black Canadian spoken word artists, particularly in terms of the resulting NGN Xchange series that saw poets from cities across Canada – including Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa – travel to perform to new audiences. The fact that the NGN core membership were not only strong spoken word poets but skilled organizers and promoters helped drive the inception of the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in 2004. The Festival continues to thrive, having broadened to become a slam tournament for early career poets to test their skills and interact under the populist banner of slam poetry.
In August 2013, a group of five Black Canadian spoken word poets collectively titled Voices of Canadian Artists across Latitudes (VOCAL), traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to take part in the Cascadoo festival of Caribbean spoken word in Port-of-Spain. The group performed, delivered showcases, and networked with Caribbean poets in sharing the expertise developed in Canada as organizers and artists; reached new audiences with work that shared certain similarities of style and language, given the Caribbean origins of group members; and learned from the unique talents and forms arising in Trinidadian spoken word community (for instance, participating in a steel pan and poetry fusion performance). It was significant that that the tour took place during the 15th anniversary of the record WordLife: Tales of the Underground Griots, a collection of Canadian spoken word and music that documented the coming of age of the post/neo dub wave of standard-bearers for Canadian spoken word poetry. The five artists were WordLife contributors who had continued to not only grow their artistic careers but also foster the development of a next cadre of spoken word artists. In their discussions with their Caribbean counterparts, the VOCAL team – Dwayne Morgan, Motion, nth digri, Eddy Daoriginalone and Manchilde – forged a commitment to see Trinidadian artists travel to perform in Canada, in the same spirit of xchange that had proven so key in the delivery of the NGN vision.