Artist Spotlight: Borelson

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.

Born and raised in his early life in Central Africa, Borelson now calls Toronto home, and is a multifaceted fixture of the local arts and creative community. An advocate for the healing and spiritual wellness of Black and POCs, Borelson exemplifies fortitude, perseverance and innovation through his work in music and film. This week, artsUNITÉ sat down with the multi disciplinary artist to chat about the creative process behind his most recent projects, and how he channels inspiration from the tempestuous state of the world.

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

I would say I’m multi disciplinary artist. I make music and I’m a creative director or creator as sometimes I tap into different avenues of a creative project as long as I resonate with it. Music is my main thing – composing – I was actually classically trained and then went to a contemporary music school in Paris. I knew that music was my passion and that it was something I really wanted to do professionally, but you know for mainly my parents, I went to University to study. Especially with African or Black parents, they want security, they just want you to be guarded and safe. I was never going to give up my passion, so I just always found a way to study music on the side. Now that I have a degree they’ve been really, really supportive, my dad can’t wait for me to make a big song out here.

Q: Is there a quote or mantra that you live by? 

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “I didn’t come this far to only come this far,” which inspired my documentary, “ThisFAR,” that features the success stories of immigrants and first-generation Canadians. There’s a long story for me behind the word “far,” I actually ended up creating an acronym; the “F” For focus or faith, the “A” is action and the “R” is resilience. I like the fact that this acronym is actually the same thing in both French and English as well because I’m bilingual. The word “faith” in French is “Foi,” and action is essentially the same word in French, same with resilient, so this acronym is really something that I try to embody. I was born and raised in Central Africa, my mom being from Congo and my dad from a smaller country called Gabon, so literally, I’m that guy coming from a small town with big dreams who is trying to go as far as possible. I didn’t come this far to only come this far.

Q: Can you share a little more about the creation and process of your documentary series, “thisFAR” ?

I think it was back in 2018 that I came up with the idea, and at the time I was actually writing a song on my album, one of the main singles called “this far”. I started reflecting on my own personal journey while I was writing, I was thinking about how much talent there is here in Canada and my own story, I believe is really actually the story of so many others here. I’m pretty sure there are people who can relate to the idea of coming here to find a better life, especially black people and people of colour; you really believe a country is going to give you something better than you can get anywhere else. That was actually the starting point for that documentary, I wanted to create a platform where others can also share their journey.

I’ve always taken a lead role or been the creative director for past projects I had worked on, though not necessarily music related. To me this was a natural progression (into making the documentary, which later turned into a docuseries) because a few years prior, I had co- directed a documentary about the black identity in Paris. That gave me more confidence to do something bigger, where I will be the lead Director and more on the production side of things. Back when this was just an idea, I had become a member at Artscape Daniels Launchpad when it first opened and they were doing these kind of mixers/ socials for new members.  There I met many different people, and got to talking to my now friend Gabriel Couture about my idea for the documentary and he said that he had done something similar while living in Montreal. Then it automatically clicked, it was magic. Once we decided to do it, we broke it down and re- framed the whole project, went back to the Launchpad partnerships team at the time and pitched them the idea to see if they would be interested in being partners in creating the documentary. I think because it was early on, seeing members coming together to collaborate and also the fact that the project was backed by a Toronto Arts Council grant, they really didn’t even think twice and they ended up giving us access to the studio facilities to do the interviews.  Beyond that, they also even wrote a letter of support for the project for another grant application. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that one, but having that support was instrumental.

In terms of finding participants, we were definitely focused on black people and people of color (POC) and we also wanted to feature people who have made an impact not just locally, but globally as well. We did not include indigenous peoples because the story we wanted to tell was of a journey to a new country, and they are native to this land. That was some of the criteria, and then obviously we also wanted to represent people with different gender identities and sexual orientations as equitably as possible. Last but not least, we wanted to show people excelling in different domains, showing the audience (which is mostly likely a newcomer to Canada) that you can excel in as many areas as possible, not just where you are expected to because you’re black or a POC. At first we were just brainstorming and got a full list of like 20 people, but we ended up sending emails to a bit more thinking that some of them might say no. So many people said yes, and also recommended other people they knew so we ended up having more than 30 people interested in being featured in the film. We were literally overwhelmed and were like wow, okay, what do we do now? We had set out to make a full length documentary, but if there were too many people featured it would be too long, and me being more on the creative direction side I didn’t realize the intense technical and editing aspects involved in a feature of that length. So that’s why we decided to turn it into a docuseries, one episode per person.

The ultimate goal is to take this project to as many provinces in Canada as possible, because we believe that those in Toronto share inspiring stories similar to the ones you may hear from Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Nova Scotia; provinces where you have a large population of immigrants.

Get caught up on the Documentary series thisFar, with weekly episodes streaming via Youtube.

Q: You also released your debut album this year, As Far As Eye Can See. Can you share a little about your creative process?

Yes! It was released on May 21st, it’s my debut album although I did release a music project while I was living in France. I’ve always had a creative mind, and before I made the album I already had the vision for everything, even the cover art. I have a home studio in my place, so when it came to composing I would just write some music and be like, I know a producer who would vibe to this, reached out to them and starting working. We would start with either a base of some music I’d written or just some of my ideas they would add to, or a beat they would make and I would write the lyrics. There was a lot of creative brainstorming, it was a process. I’m grateful for the people that I was able to connect with along the way. I’m also so grateful that I was able to secure a music grant from the City of Toronto. My goal was to remain independent so that I can always have full creative control, but I was starting to build a team; myself and my manager did some research, saw there would be a potential budget for an album and just applied. I actually think being backed by the City of Toronto and Toronto Arts Council grants made it easier for me to partner with Launchpad, they saw I was really out there working hard to elevate and promote my art. I’m really grateful.

Q: Did you apply for the grant yourself?

Yeah, I actually applied for many grants and that was the only one that I was able to secure back then. I have a friend who is a brilliant writer, and she helped me with about half of the application and also reviewed it at the end. To be honest, what I like about the City of Toronto is that their system is not as complex as some of the other arts institutions here, I think they make it more straightforward for individuals to apply. Though, I would always encourage you to have someone read over your application.

Q: How do you envision the future of interactive events like panels and live concerts given physical distancing measures may be in effect indefinitely? Do you think the future is all digital?

We are living in really interesting times. I think we will definitely see more technology being used, most of the interactions we’re used to right now is through these online platforms. We might see something that is totally virtual, where you just sit and watch someone performing on a stage in 3D, or in some sort of augmented reality or virtual world. I mean way before the pandemic, these worlds already existed (for gamers). You could be exposed to new music, movies, and art from everywhere around the world.

Of course we will get to a stage where we are ready to go back to enjoying events in real life, I think they would just make some adjustments for social distancing which is something I’m really interested to see. Something I really like is social circles,  I think we will see that a lot for live shows. You can limit attendance to the city gathering limits, know exactly where you are going to stand/sit and be free to dance and move inside your circle. I think there will be many different ways to making it safe, but also leveraging technology so that we can enjoy interactive events. With virtual events the impact is not the same, just different, so we’ll see how things go.

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

At first it was pretty overwhelming, but I was actually thinking before all this that I needed to take a little break – not from art –  but I wanted to actually do some sort of retreat and just focus on my creativity full time. So I had no choice but to use all my new found free time to work on my craft more because I was staying home all day. A less positive part is that as an artist, most of the time we need live events or shows to present our work and network and meet people. That part has been a lesson, and we have definitely have had to make some adjustments. For instance, the documentary was supposed to have a screening, now were thinking it will have to be all virtual. When I dropped my album I was already in the process of working with and booking venues, I was supposed to go to Paris to perform… all of that is postponed. So there has been both positive and negative.

Q: What are you up to right now?

A few weeks ago I actually became a certified Reiki Master; I’m a wellness advocate because I really believe that with anything you want to accomplish in life you need to be aware of your total wellness and health, that includes mental health. Reiki and other meditation tools can help us be more aware, present and stable, allowing you to better learn and do better not just for your community but for the good of the world as a whole. For me, that was the main reason why I decided to embark on that journey, and it was a natural connection with music as well; everything is energy frequencies. I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast this fall, just to share the different tools available and let people know there is no shame in taking care of your wellness, or using any tools you need to feel better.

Q: What are the differences – if there are many-  that you’ve noticed between the creative communities you have been a part of (in the Congo, Paris and Toronto)?

They are more similar than different I would say. In most African countries, what I’ve noticed as the main difference versus here in Canada or in Paris is that I think people in first world or non developing countries have a little bit more freedom of expression, more liberty. It’s something you might take for granted and don’t necessarily realize the different challenges that people can face in other parts of the world where it’s not just about having access to tools, but also, how can you use the tools? How are you permitted by the people in power, or in your environment to actually use them? Another thing we might take for granted is creative spaces, like for instance Artscape Daniels Launchpad or organizations where you can access studios, workshops and creative space. These spaces also help with networking, and actually help the creative community come together to collaborate. So while there is more access to information, more facilities and freedoms, that doesn’t necessarily mean more artistry because those difficulties can actually amplify your creativity. With funding, in my personal experience it seems like there is more funding for established artists in Paris, whereas in Toronto it seems to be more like the opposite where they will give more money or put more effort into what we would call emerging artists. So I wouldn’t say there is a gap in the level or quality of the artistry, there are just varying degrees of creative liberty in different social and political systems.

Q: What do you think companies/collectives/local organizations need to be focusing on to address the ongoing systemic racial inequalities in the arts and culture sector? Thoughts on #BlackoutTuesday?

I think all these movements like the blackout day or any other hashtag or social media campaign that creates momentum is great, but I think institutions and corporations need to invest in making an everlasting impact in terms of equitability. It’s not something that can be changed overnight or with one hashtag. Companies need to open the conversation within their communities and ‘target audiences’ and actually really listen and believe what people are saying. The work is not that complicated, we know what has to be done, what needs to change and its more about, are you willing to do that? Are you willing to be uncomfortable, maybe loosening your grip and monopoly over an industry in any market? Or do you just want to stay in your comfort zone and just make some empty promises? That’s the question organizations need to be asking themselves, because at the end of the day especially moving forward into 2021, they are all going to be held accountable.  Everyone is paying attention, we are making sure that those statements are followed up by real and concrete actions.

Q: What inspires and/or motivates you right now? Do you feel inspired?

Aside from it giving me the opportunity to focus more on my art, this pandemic has also helped me to better understand what is actually going on in the world. We are witnessing a global shift, and maybe that’s a change that we have been asking for for so many years, but there is a momentum right now where I think we can make an everlasting, positive impact. So to me, that’s what actually is inspiring and empowering for me, and I’ve tried to channel that energy productively into my creativity; channeling the negative into a positive. I strongly believe that by 2021, I will be ready to drop another project because there’s so many projects and things on the go right now. For the rest off 2020 I feel inspired to create and work towards a better world for all of us.

“Art is a great way to be a part of history and tell stories, create something that will live on forever and reflect the changes of our time.”

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    About the Author: Meagan Barnes

    Meagan is a content contributor and partnerships coordinator for artsUNITE/UNITÉ des arts. Prefers flora over fauna.

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