Ola Mohammed, an assistant professor at York University, has shelves filled with books and records in her office. Her ardour for music likely sparked after hearing Tracy Chapman’s music for the first time when she was around six years old. She remembers asking her mother about the meaning behind Chapman’s songs and what they meant to her.
In “The Art of Black Cultural Production,” a video featuring Mohammed uploaded by York in February 2021, she says that moment was the first time she encountered Black studies and Black feminist thought. Black artists, she says, can delve into the interiority of Black life.
“Oftentimes, there’s this kind of disconnect in understanding Black life and Black being on its own terms,” Mohammed says. “When we do Black studies, it often gets caught up in thinking about particular numbers of violence that Black people disproportionately experience, which is absolutely important for us to understand.
“But the thing is that Black people don’t just exist in relation to violence, right? We are also creative — we live everyday, ordinary lives, too,” she says.
Mohammed names hip-hop music as an example, which can articulate themes of identity and the struggle to belong. K’naan and Shad, for instance, are two Canadian and East African artists whose music resonates with Mohammed.
“Hip-hop music was one of the ways I was able to make sense of my relationship to Canada and belonging to these types of groups,” she explains, adding that she’s a second-generation immigrant to Canada and is East African herself.
During her time as an undergrad, Mohammed wrote about this connection for a critical race studies class she took at McMaster University, which she graduated from in 2011 with a combined honours in English & Cultural Studies and Anthropology.
This term, Mohammed is teaching HUMA 4307: Black Toronto Sounds and CLTR 3318: Black Popular Culture. She also does research in Black studies, cultural studies, and sound and popular music.
Pop culture, she asserts, is a way to disseminate knowledge for the masses; music and art are mediums that can address understandings of race, identity, and placemaking practices.
Jellisa Ricketts is a first-year PhD student in York’s Black Studies & Theories of Race and Racism stream, within the graduate program of Social & Political Thought. Ricketts, whose work includes Black geographies and filmmaking, agrees that art is a form of knowledge that can highlight lived experiences.
“It allows us to express parts of Blackness and experiences that are maybe difficult to vocalize but can be imagined in different ways,” Ricketts says.
In 2021, for a Dean’s Award for Research Excellent (DARE) project, Ricketts created Recommended Readings and Film, a publicly accessible database that showcases literature and art in Black and African studies based on the user’s searches.
“I think people should recognize that there is a big local music scene here, where there are a lot of folks who are very talented and innovative,” she says.
Mohammed names a few ways of supporting these local artists: talking about them, streaming and/or purchasing their music directly from their websites.
She adds that one way of discovering more local acts is by attending festivals like Honey Jam, which has “worked with young emerging Canadian female artists of all cultures.”
“There’s constantly events that are going on in Toronto,” Ricketts says. “It’s a hub for so much Black creation.”
She locates the local art scene around York — like Jane and Finch, for example — as an area that she says produces lots of great art that ranges from music to paintings.
“The Nia Centre for the Arts is a really great resource. It’s a Black Toronto-based non-profit that focuses on the Black diaspora and the arts,” says Ricketts.
Mohammed and Ricketts urge Canadians to seek out local Black artists — explore, enjoy, and support their work.
“Think about the artists from here and what kind of messages and stories they tell about Black life in Canada,” says Mohammed.