February is Black History Month in Canada, which provides an opportunity to celebrate some of the movers and shakers at the heart of this country’s arts and culture scene – and the icons who helped inspire them.
?Canadian culture-maker: Stephan James, Toronto actor and Selma star.
Most influenced by: Oprah Winfrey.
Why: “[It’s] what she’s been able to do for so many people, just as a humanitarian, as a giver, as a lover of people. [She is] somebody so charitable, who has been able to have such a large effect on so many different people. That’s somebody I definitely look up to.”
On working with Oprah on Selma: “She’s everything I thought she was. Working with her was a complete honour, she’s so personable, and once you get over the whole ‘oh, she’s Oprah!’ … it’s kinda normal.”
Most influenced by: Muhammad Ali, American boxing phenom.
Why: “He came into his prime as a boxer and as a civil rights activist when I was a young boy. You are always open to influence and to inspiration when you’re a child. It wasn’t because he was a champion boxer – if that’s all he was I wouldn’t have paid much attention to him. It’s because he had the courage to give up his heavyweight boxing title and refused to go fight in the Vietnam war – a war he knew was unjust.”
Canadian culture-maker: Shad, Juno award-winning hip-hop artist.
Most influenced by: Lauryn Hill, American singer-songwriter and former member of The Fugees.
Why: “Not just for her incredible music and just how fun it was to listen to — but her courage. The fact that she was a whole person. She’s fun and also spiritual and also smart and so having that example of a really whole and complete person in the media, I think that that was important for me in high school.”
Why Shad’s mother was his true role model: “What was important to her was that I was a caring person and an honest person, a fully human individual. [That’s] a really important lesson in retrospect, a super valuable lesson, because this culture and this world is difficult to navigate … especially for a lot of young black people.”
Most influenced by: Sterling Gosman, her father.
?Why: “He’s always been very civic minded: he was a city councillor; he was a deacon; he worked for the CBC. He was also an athlete, but then in his retirement he went to university for the first time and became a pastor. He’s been relentless and has never once brought up the issue of race as anything but a thing that either needs to be addressed and overcome – never ignored – but it wasn’t ever going to be a factor in his success or failure.”
Brueggergosman describes the evolution of her black identity and what Black History Month means to her in the video link above.
?Canadian culture-maker: Clément Virgo, feature filmmaker and director of the hit miniseries The Book of Negroes.
Most influenced by: Bob Marley, international reggae music legend.
Why: “I’m from Jamaica. Bob Marley is from Jamaica. When I was a child he was a big influence on us in terms of his politics. Growing up, it was a political upheaval in Jamaica and Bob Marley was a voice of peace and of reason. I was too young to have met him, but he would be someone I would’ve loved to have met.”
?Virgo’s top-rated TV adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes is currently airing on CBC-TV. The six-part series premiers in the U.S. on BET on Feb. 16.
?Canadian culture-maker: Esi Edugyan, novelist and author of the award-winning book Half-Blood Blues.
Most influenced by: Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.
Why: “I was just blown away by her voice, the strength of that and just how idiosyncratic it was and how she was searching to find ways to write or to articulate certain black expressions. I was completely floored by this. I was given permission, reading this book, to have a go with that myself. She was hugely influential for me.”
?Edugyan is working on a new novel that she hopes will be out next year.