The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. We wanted to invite individuals working within the creative field to provide their voice, opinions and suggestions for the improvement, development and future of the Canadian creative community.

Affrica Spence is an introvert through and through. Pushing beyond her natural comforts as the woman behind the camera, Affrica has made waves with her poetry series and platform Voetry, now into its third season. ArtsUNITE sat down with the filmmaker, poet and painter to learn more about her creative process and to chat about the ways the pandemic has forced her to show up, not only for herself, but for her family, friends and the creative community.

Q: Can you share a little about yourself and your creative practice?

As you mentioned, I would consider myself an introvert and don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself but in the spirit of an interview, I’ll give you a few bullet points:

  • I have lived for more or less equal amounts of time in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, Canada.
  • I am a big Erykah Badu fan
  • My favorite dish is linked to my Caribbean heritage, Oxtail!
  • I studied political science because I chickened out from going into film production (but felt I had to at least  – and did –  minor in film studies)
  • My family and friends have been the biggest influences in everything I do

When it comes to my creative practices my principal mediums are poetry, film and painting. I have been a poet my entire life. My mom got me started writing in a diary early on to learn how to express myself and it just kind of grew from there; most entries ended up being poems. When it comes to film, I started as early as elementary school trying to get my hands on any kind of gadget that could record. Painting, similarly I would say, peaked my interest in elementary school so I pretty much ran with the foundational arts skills that blossomed early on.

It wasn’t until high school that I got into spoken word. It was on the Kanye West song, “Never let me down” which features an artist called J.Ivy. When he jumped on the track it sounded like poetry but it wasn’t quite the poetry I knew. It could have kind of been rap but it wasn’t quite rap, it wasn’t even singing. It was something completely new to me and it wasn’t until later when I found the Mos def Def Poetry Slam that I finally had a name for it, spoken word. Every artist just brought something new whether you liked them or not, it was just art- something beautiful – and I wanted to be part of it. I started going out to open mic nights on my own but I’m shy to the bone. I didn’t want anyone to know me but I would go up and perform my pieces to have my release and then would sneak out of the venue as soon as possible.

Q: What led to the creation of Voetry? Can you share a little about your process?

Voetry was born out of a challenging night and in a funny way, out of a mother’s love. I was so frustrated looking for internships and opportunities in the film industry and though I did have relevant experience, always felt discouraged by the requirement of having more significant projects under my belt to even stand out. I was left to build a portfolio without any direction but I knew I was passionate about doing more. I was on the phone with my mum one night, feeling unfulfilled, and she said, “why don’t you just film something? Why don’t you just get up and walk downtown and film people walking? Why don’t you just film!” I kind of wrote off the idea in my head at first because I thought, that’s not how it works. I realized I had been following this rule book in my head that was telling me, that’s just not how it happens, and I really had to learn to undo that. Though I didn’t want to fill my camera with random content as my mom mentioned, it urged me to think about what was actually worth filming.

One of the biggest inspirations and things I love the most in my life were the open mic poetry nights. I can’t really describe it to someone who has never been because you never know what you’re about to experience. It’s just someone going up and saying their piece – their truth – and that to me was worth filming. Going back to that night of frustration, too nervous to actually ask someone to be part of my film, I pointed my camera toward the kitchen and I started filming myself. It was the first episode I filmed and it was a challenge. I had to double check if I was even still in the frame, running back and forth behind the camera and see if it was a good take. That was the beginning, until I slowly started to reach out to friends and then later reaching out to better known artists. It just kept growing and eventually people started reaching out to me. Next thing I know, I’m on season three.

But as I said, Voetry was born out of a challenge and it definitely was just that. Trying to create a formal process took me the whole first season. The first episode I did with someone other than myself was a complete gong show. I started to realize I was using up way too much production time because I didn’t have a clear plan, so I started story boarding. It’s not that I didn’t know what to do, I just wasn’t disciplined in my practice yet. Storyboards, shot lists, making sure you have a venue nailed down, making sure that you have food for the artist (I learned early on that a hungry actor/actress does not make for good film). These are basic things but you don’t think of them right off the bat. I learned how to direct people to get certain emotions out of them, I would give them pointers and coach them so that they could learn to better capture the audience. You learn how to communicate in such interesting ways because an idea in your head is great but if no one can connect to it, you have nothing.

Q: You currently have two seasons of Voetry available online, now available through Seeka TV and Amazon Prime, congratulations! What’s next for the series?

I really love that I have the opportunity to not only support artists who are already part of the culture but that I can introduce more people to spoken word. Voetry is very much meant to be consumed in small doses, which is why it’s made up of small pieces each three to five minutes long. I wanted to give people an appetizer, just something to wet their pallet into poetry. I hope to bring a different conceptualization to the monotone readings that many people think of when they hear ‘poetry’. I want to expose and share the performance of spoken word, the rhythm, the way each word is enunciated, every piece of it that makes this medium so unique.

For season three, I’ve finally been able to line up some people despite the restrictions of the pandemic and physical distancing. Although I do still reach out to people, many are now reaching out to me or have been very willing to participate even without an extravagant budget. They are willing to volunteer their time because they have seen what I’m doing and that feels so amazing. I’ve been getting more and more known artists rather than having to coach up and coming poets and though I will always keep the series open to new poets, branching out to have veterans interested is bless. I also want to take the cinematography to another level.

Voetry is also starting to grow into something beyond more than just episodes, it is starting to become almost a hub in itself. The website has an event page where I try my best to reach out and promote shows in the poetry community, which includes highlighting local poets. I love to connect people with what’s happening on the scene and hope to flood their feeds with anything and everything poetry. Voetry has also created a bit of a sister initiative, a writing group for inspiring each other. We generally do improv poetry writing and exercises. My dream for next steps would be to do some workshops to get people into poetry and if I’m really dreaming big, maybe even artistic retreats. It would also be really great having artists be able to submit their work in a way that I become part of helping to get their art showcased in some way, be it through Voetry or partnered with other organizations. I want to be part of the community; I don’t want to only offer a product but an experience.

Q: Is there a quote/ mantra you live by, how has that shaped your practice?

A quote that I really live by is to let every step forward or backward carry purpose. It’s pretty much jumping off of the notion of falling forward. I heard that line in University at one point and it gave me this sense of hope; that a failure is not meaningless, rather it’s a stepping stone. As corny as that sounds, it helps let me feel that everything I do, every step I make, is getting me somewhere. Where? Who knows, but it’s a step. This has helped to embrace some unfavourable outcomes and it’s also opened up the doors to new opportunities.

Q: How do you envision the future of in person events like live music shows and poetry slams? As a maker of digital content, do you see this being more incorporated?

It’s so tough to say, honestly it’s amazing what people have been able to produce while being faced with such a change to their environment. A lot of folks in the arts community just took the (restraints of) the pandemic head on. I’ve seen lots of poetry events move online and they still manage to ‘fill up’ a virtual crowd, which gives me hope that at the very least it seems poetry can’t just be snuffed out. There seems to be a natural demand for it; the community has tapped into a way of delivering poetry that has enabled it to have its own existence. Whether or not we can return to in-person events, I don’t think the online elements will simply disappear.

That being said, I’m very much looking forward to in person slams again. I think, even though it’s not ideal for profit, I’m excited that the number of attendees might be lower which will mean a more intimate event. I’d love to hold space for that; I am naturally an anxiety-ridden person so something about bonding intimately in a group like that would be great. I wonder if others feel the same or if they are in need of the energy of a larger crowd to perform. I’m curious to see how that plays out.

Q: (How) Has the pandemic and physical distancing measures affected you/your art?

I’m glad the pandemic hasn’t stopped the production of Voetry but it’s definitely slowed it down, though not necessarily in a bad way. The pandemic made the steps towards season three more intentional rather than just, let’s film, let’s film, let’s film! It’s given me time to think of the pieces that were missing: Do I have a proper promotional content? Have I tapped into the proper community groups and resources? Have I thought through my storyboards?

Another aspect of this new normal is thinking about what role I play in keeping my artists safe. Do I even take on a responsibility like that? I’m already thinking about venues and how comfortable artists will be. I’m thinking about Uber rides and providing masks and/or gloves. The saying, “I am my brother’s keeper” comes to mind. This pandemic really makes you think about what responsibility you have not only to yourself but to family, friends and even strangers.

Q: How has the increased awareness around violence against Black and Indigenous lives and the global Anti-racism movement affected you/your art?

While there has definitely been increased awareness, I’ve seen people that look like me, people I identify with, that look like my family, my brothers, my sister, my mother and father being hurt over and over again. The image of this starts to take a toll and though I tend to shy away from being political, the truth is that just existing as a black person is political. I have no say in the matter, you can’t take off your skin.  Something I noted when creating Voetry was that even before these movements I was warned that I was too Afrocentric and focused on black bodies. Thinking about it, it wasn’t even intentional, it was just my reality. I have black friends, I have black family, these are my supports. They were the first people I could reach out to in supporting my art, this was my community.  Centering black people as the protagonist made me “urban,” so even when I was not trying to be political, it became so. Black is my reality and that will always shine through, I do not see how it can’t.

Q: What is the most important tool in your practice? 

It might sound a bit weird but there are many things I can live without when it comes to my art. I don’t need high quality equipment. All I had when I started was the lamp from my bedside table to do my lighting. The thing that matters the most is imagination and inspiration. I can’t create anything without feeling inspired.

Start with an idea and the rest will come; you just might have to get resourceful to figure out how to make it happen.

Q: As an artist, what are you looking for when reaching out to the ‘creative community’? What advice do you have for young creatives starting out?

What I’m looking for within the artist community is to take part in it. I’m not looking to impose, I’m not looking to outshine, I’m looking to be part of something; I want to be a resource for others.  I hope to connect through words and spark something within those watching. If even one other person can share something in common with my words, that is a win.

A little advice I would give those starting out would be to remember that it is OK to just be where you are. Give yourself a little credit when you think you’re not (doing) enough. Remember that as much as success is a big part of motivation, one of the most comforting things for myself has been knowing that whether a success or not, I’d be doing this anyways. Sometimes I feel defeated that my art isn’t paying my bills, then I think how silly it is to pout because I know I’ll be stitching together videos well into my old age, either way, just to create. I can’t picture not doing art, it is a service to myself first.

painting by Affrica Spence