Standing and singing in the face of violence
How our artists have an impact on social issues — in Hamilton and beyond
In 2008, I took what I hope will go down in history as the last airplane flight of my life. Being a bit of a chicken, I prefer a more grounded lifestyle and, surprisingly to many, find cycling around Hamilton a safer yet equally adventurous alternative to travelling the world.
However, the trip was historic for far more important reasons than being my final feat of flying. Renée was presenting her master’s thesis, “Social Location, Mobilization and Globalization: The Role of Art in Creating Social Change in Hamilton, Ont.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
We’d been together just two years and I’d never really known an artist, at least not anyone that identified as one like she did. It is central to her being. Renée likes to say I’m an artist too because I play guitar and sing and write stories for you. It doesn’t feel the same. Those are gifts I’ve been given and I’m happy to share but they’re not first in the lineup of things I would say make up my identity. For people who call themselves artists, like Renée, it’s at the top of the list.
Now I was standing in a room full of them in Leiden, Holland. Leiden is home to the Netherlands’ oldest university (1575), the one from which the tulip was introduced to the world. It is also the birthplace of Renée’s grandfather.
People were gathered from around the world to discuss “Inclusive Museums,” including three of Renée’s cousins who lived nearby. Who’d a thunk it? A full house listened intently as Renée explained how artists were having an impact on social issues in Hamilton, Ont. As an outsider to both the art and the academic world, I was fascinated.
I used to think more shallowly about the purpose of art, seeing it mostly to soothe, entertain or conjure up religious stories. Now, everywhere I look I see how artists use their gifts to communicate prophetic messages of social change around this mad, mad world.
A brief glance at my calendar reminds me of my latest close encounters of the arts and social change kind.
Aldershot High School introduced me to the local Tottering Biped Theatre on April 12 at the Halton District School Board’s Day of Difference. Trevor Copp and Jeff Cox have taken the traditionally gendered activity of partner dancing, where the man leads and the woman follows, and added the Liquid Lead, an equalizing move on the dance floor which they then use to navigate deeper conversations around homophobia and sexism. Their rhythmic and flowing TEDx talk is changing hearts and minds.
The last weekend in April we attended the 26th annual London (Ont.) Lesbian Film Festival, North America’s longest running and Canada’s only fest of its kind. Part of the weekend’s merrymaking and social changing events included a concert headlined by Alysha Brilla. Brilla uses her third album, Human, to issue a clarion call for peace through many of its singles, but No More Violence entered solidly at No. 3 on the CBC Top 20 adult-alt music chart, and is arguably the most popular audience participation piece in her current queue.
On June 3, I’ll be engaged in two more artfor-social-change events. During the day, local artist Sylvia Nickerson is leading the painting of a funky Dr. Seuss-like weather station in the Beasley neighbourhood to draw attention to women’s homelessness in this city as part of the 100in1day.ca events. Another local response to the same issue is Singin’ Women, a choir formed six months ago to engage the community in this and other social justice issues through song.
That same night I’ll be at the Lincoln Alexander Centre for a Queer Cabaret presented as part of the Matapa World Music Series. Guess who’s coming to town? Alysha Brilla is bringing her message through her music to the Hammer that night.
I like to start my day with a music list I’ve created called “Still and Still Moving.” One of Brilla’s songs, Ahimsa, inspires me from there. “This world is mad. This world is mad. This world is mad. But I still sing a song. Yes, I’m still singing a song.”
I am grateful for artists who are gloriously mad enough to stand in the face of violence and sing a song.
Everywhere I look I see how artists use their gifts to communicate prophetic messages of social change around this mad, mad world.