Black creatives in Toronto are challenging the racial politics of public space

Published On: September 2nd, 2021|Categories: People and Places|Tags: , , , |

As a blazing sun slipped behind the jagged, steel horizon of the downtown core, the youth danced as if the world was ending.

A little further away from the group, FOREVER and GEIST stood near one of the large speakers brought in for the event. They are the Black creatives who organized this rave at a large park in the east end one evening in June. In an online interview, they said it was planned with the intention of being a creative outlet and a healing space for people in their community.

According to GEIST, having an event outside was the best option besides not having an event at all. The pandemic meant events could not be hosted at indoor venue spaces. FOREVER said finding an affordable, accessible venue space was hard before the pandemic and now, they are practically non-existent.

“The idea was to have a safe space to just exist. Because if that is taken away, what else do we have left?”

But outdoor events come with their own set of challenges. According to the City of Toronto’s park by-laws, having an event with more than twenty-five people is illegal unless you have a permit. Additionally, it is illegal to have “amplified” sound in a park without a permit. At the time, only five people could gather outdoors. Non-compliance with any of these laws could result in being fined.

These laws create an opportunity for increased policing and surveillance because they must be enforced. This significantly impacts those without the shield of white privilege– so, the same people who attend these events. They create more opportunities for the Black community to be harmed by police violence. Furthermore, increased policing disrupts the healing spaces Black organizers have used their own funds and labor to establish by re-traumatizing community members.

In fact, FOREVER said the illusion of safety at the event was quickly shattered when several police officers descended the hill towards them.

“There was a few of them, armed,” said FOREVER. “You can’t ignore the guns.”

In the end, GEIST said they were fined and instructed to end the event early.

“I ask myself, why is Black joy criminalized? When white people hold events like this, they don’t get shut down as early or as frequently. But when Black and queer people host, [police] threaten to confiscate equipment and fine us.”

Kazeem Kuteyi, the founder of global youth culture platform New Currency, helped host several outdoor events this summer. During our interview on the phone, Kuteyi said that the police are always on his mind when organizing these events.

“Because of our history with the police, there’s already that intrinsic fear, or the idea that anything can happen. We think about like, yo, are the cops going to come? What’s the police presence like in that area? We don’t want to put our people through that.”

Kuteyi said that once, the police had already arrived at the location they chose for a rave before he and other organizers even had a chance to show up.

“We don’t know who is following us on social media, right? Right. So, we don’t know… somebody undercover could be following us on Instagram.”

When interviewed Marisa Grant, they said they decided to continue to host events online to reduce the likelihood of re-traumatizing their community members with police interactions.

Grant is a Black, queer person and the founder of StrappedTO, an online platform which primarily depends on social media to promote events for the queer community.

Their online life drawing sessions and erotic film nights ensured Black, queer sex workers had an opportunity to still earn income while their traditional places of work were closed. Grant said they wanted their platform to be a portal through which Black queer folk could find others to relate to. They added that they see their events as a protest of the oppression that is inflicted on their community because of their sexuality.

Like many organizers, Grant depends on social media to promote their parties. But policing manifested as censorship presented itself as another obstacle in the digital realm.

“[Because of our content], there’s always that fear that our social media accounts will get shut down. We never know who might be out there, and we have to be very careful about our advertising, and sometimes not use certain words.”

The number of challenges Black creatives must overcome to host events that benefit their community makes their success even more significant. In addition to the labor of organizing, Black creatives take on the labor of resisting as they challenge the racial politics of public space.

“Public space is space that is not policed,” said Kuteyi.  “And we’re not even necessarily saying just like, police officers. There’s the white gaze [for example].”

The concept of the white gaze has been explored by notable writers like Toni Morrison. It is a form of surveillance through which non-white bodies are scrutinized according to the standards of white ethnocentrism. It also often enforces ideals of whiteness upon non-white bodies with the purpose of controlling who is and isn’t allowed in a space.

“You go to a park [as a Black person] and there are eyes on you, indirectly asking you the question, ‘why are you here?’”

Kuteyi explained that if white people don’t like that there are young Black people dancing to loud music in a park, they can call the police to intervene without having to worry about their own safety. In this way, white privilege is used to control who and what is allowed in a space.

Kuteyi and other organizers view their events as a way of refusing to conform to the standard of whiteness. They are affirmations of our existence and our right to take up space. They preserve culture while also stimulating its growth.

“Despite what’s going on in the world,” said GEIST. “Culture needs to continue. And Black people are at the forefront of that.”

In terms of cultural preservation and development, Kuteyi said that as a DJ, the music he selects for his set are intentional. The outdoor setting of these parties gives him the freedom to be purposeful about what he plays.

“When we do these parties, we’re not catering to the needs of venues that are trying to have music be a catalyst for sales.”

Speaking of sales, the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions led to a heightened control of movement in relation to commerce. Bars and patios were allowed to re-open. It became socially acceptable for people to gather in the private, commercial places. But this stimulates economy and not necessarily culture.

“Patio spaces are extremely white,” said FOREVER.

“These spaces aren’t welcoming to anything that isn’t formal whiteness. It’s about ownership, entitlement and control.”

When creating spaces for Black people though, FOREVER said he believes it’s more about community and connection.

“That’s a really distinct difference. We’re not trying to kick people off the space and control it. We’re trying to open it up.”

Kuteyi said he believes outdoor events are all about the pursuit of freedom and acceptance because he can “play whatever [he[ want.”

Currently, Kuteyi said he enjoys playing a genre of music called amapiano; it’s a hybrid style of jazz and house music that originated in South Africa. But he also plays local Black artists like Bambii and global sounds from places like Brazil. Kuteyi said he recognizes music as an important cultural element of community building and a way to ‘connect the dots.’

Furthermore, he added that these events provide an opportunity for creatives to meet one another, and forge relationships that may ultimately lead to collaboration.

“You never know what the domino effect of meeting other people could have.”

The development of relationships in creative and marginalized communities are very important when thinking about the future. If we are to truly abolish the archaic institutions that exist to oppress us, we need to begin building the foundations of new institutions that will liberate us. However, this can only be done by creating together, connecting with one another, and caring for our communities. When we choose to resist, we are actively shaping the world into a place where we can unapologetically be ourselves and thrive. We are doing the work to create a future where we can be freer than ever before.

    Citations: Unsplash, Rui Silvestre (Feature Image)

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    About the Author: Daysha Loppie

    Daysha Loppie is a writer currently based in Toronto, Ontario. She runs her own arts and culture platform, Good Fortune, which documents the nuance of the Black experience in Toronto and beyond. At the moment, however, Daysha is focusing much of her energy on more personal projects as she continues to heal and grow through written expression.

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