The death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis prompted an outpouring of creativity from Ottawa-area slam poet-musician Wise Atangana as part of a quest to understand the roots of systemic racism.
“When he died in front of everybody, that was a big push,” said the 34-year-old Cameroon-born artist. “It made me very interested in understanding systemic racism: What is the cause? What are the consequences? What’s the solution?”
He started to research the issue, and the words began to flow into poems and then songs. He worked incessantly, staying up long past his children’s bedtime. In a month, he wrote and recorded demos of 30 songs, more than enough for an album.
After whittling it down to 12 tracks and recording them in a friend’s professional-quality home studio, his second album was born. Entitled Justice For Peace #Black Lives Matter, its tone is hopeful, with messages intended to inspire justice and love in society.
While he was working on the project, Atangana realized that the creative process itself could be part of a solution to the problem of systemic racism. That revelation led him to the idea to establish a centre where Black youths could work on their own creative pursuits and receive mentorship from Black artists.
“I really love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s something that makes me happy, makes me feel good, makes me know who I am. I want to help other people be comfortable with themselves and believe in themselves.”
Atangana launched the album last week, and at the same time began a fundraising campaign to raise money to open an Afro-Black cultural centre in downtown Ottawa.
“It’s good to march but I think that creating a cultural centre for the Afro-Black community will be something more concrete,” he said. “You create a platform, a voice, a feeling of integration. You will inspire the whole Black community in the city to take action and do something for themselves and the community.”
He holds up the 2018 Hollywood movie Black Panther as an example of a creative project that has the potential to dismantle systemic racism.
“It’s one of the great movies right now because it deconstructs the stereotypes and prejudice about Black people,” he said. “It shows that having an accent is good, being Black is good and that Blacks had a civilization before slavery and colonization.”
Atangana, who was born and raised in Cameroon and learned the art of storytelling from his grandfather, immigrated to Canada about seven years ago when his partner, a Canadian working in Cameroon, became pregnant. The couple has two children, aged six and four.
He’s been working as a full-time artist and educator, giving more than 200 performances and workshops in schools in the last five years through Ottawa’s Multicultural Arts for Schools and Communities (MASC) program. Working in the francophone and immigrant communities, he found that children tended to gravitate to him as one of the few creative, Black, male, francophone role models in the education system.
He believes a cultural centre equipped with a studio, collaborative space and recording and video-production equipment — as well as guidance from Black professionals — will give young people the tools and experience they need to deconstruct the systems that result in anti-Black racism.
“If we have more works of art and creativity that can tell people the truth, I think it will create a positive dynamic in our society. It will help the next generation to expose the lie that whites are superior,” he said. “There’s a lot of negativeness stuck on Black people every day. Even if it’s very subtle, when you become aware you can see it everywhere. I’m really tired of it.”
The goal is to raise $100,000 through CD sales and donations to a GoFundMe campaign (gofundme.com/f/Supporting-Black-Lives-Sustainable-Change). The money will pay for the first year’s rent on a downtown space, and cover some of the equipment required to outfit a studio.
An opening date is targeted for January 2021.