Afros In Tha City: ‘Who better to tell our stories than us?’
New Calgary outlet gives voice to Black experiences.
Over the summer of 2020, a group of Black Calgarians decided it was time that Calgary had a media platform that was about, for, and run by people who looked like them.
The media collective that emerged, Afros In Tha City, is still new, but it already has a robust catalogue of articles that highlight the diversity and complexity of Calgary’s Black communities.
Earlier this month, I had a chance to talk to Tomi Ajele, one of the editors behind Afros In Tha City, about how it’s going and why it matters that we have Black voices in Alberta's media landscape. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)
Can you tell me a bit about how Afros In Tha City got started?
So I should preface this by saying that the organization Afros In Tha City has been around for some time. It was started by Dooshima Jev, and it was focused on events and bringing artists together. And then with everything that was going on with COVID, Dooshima started a Discord online community where Black folks in Calgary could just connect and chat.
Afros In Tha City Media really started because a lot of us started talking about the media coverage we were seeing from the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer. We were really surprised—I shouldn't say surprised, I guess just disappointed—to see the kinds of reporters that were being sent to the protests.
It just seemed like the only people that were writing about these issues were white people. And there were people in this group that we were talking to who were journalists and who had worked with some of these organizations, and they were Black, and they were not asked to cover these things—or maybe they wanted to cover and had an angle and it just wasn't interesting enough for the publication.
We don’t have to live inside this really really small space of Blackness that has historically been designated to us.
So that was really frustrating to see, and the more we started talking about it, the more we were like, “Well, who better to tell our stories than us? Who better to create a space where we actually feel appropriately represented and heard than us?”
It really just started as us airing frustrations, and then the next minute we're like, “Oh, are we doing this? Are we just starting a publication? Okay, cool, let's do it.”
What are you excited to cover?
I have often felt really disconnected from government and policy, and I feel like there are a lot of people like that, who are just like, “Eh, I don't understand that.” I think that there's an opportunity to bridge a lot of those gaps, and to kind of say, “Okay, how can I, as an everyday person, understand what it looks like to truly participate in democracy? What does civic engagement look like for me?” That's what excites me, because I can learn just as much as I can maybe help somebody understand the world around them.
What do you think the barriers from engagement are for most citizens?
I think language is a big one. There's a reason why a lot of people get their news from Instagram and from memes, and it's because they're digestible and easy to understand. They're like, “Well, either I can go read a 20 page document with a lot of language I don't really understand, or I can take this meme’s word for it that summarizes this issue into five easy peasy points,” and I think that unfortunately people choose the latter, which I totally get.
And I think that for a long time, there was really one kind of person with any real political power. The people sitting in those seats have historically always been white men, and for me, specifically, there's kind of been this learned helplessness when it comes to that—like, “You don't care about me anyway.”
There's that level of just kind of disengaging before we even get started because I expect that these policies aren't necessarily looking out for me. I don't think that that's actually the case, but for me that's been how I've engaged with this stuff for a really long time, which has caused me to disconnect.
There’s a reason why a lot of people get their news from Instagram and from memes.
What's your favourite story that Afros In Tha City has told so far?
One of our writers, Oualie, started a series about black metal. I'm not into metal at all, but I love that series so much because they start by talking about how many times they've been told that their taste in music makes them less Black, and I feel like that is an experience that I have had so many times, whether it's my taste in music or the way I talk. “There's a way to be Black and you're doing it wrong.”
We always get such narrow views of what it looks like to be Black, and I think it's so easy to forget that to be Black is to be human; it’s as simple as that. When Oualie started that series, it was just kind of a reminder that we don't have to live inside this really really small space of Blackness that has historically been designated to us, and that we actually get to express the full range of human experience on this platform. We don't have to live in this tiny tiny space anymore.
Yeah, I was excited about that series as well. You talked in your recent Huffington Post piece about Black Canadians feeling like they have to crib so many touchstones of Blackness from American Blackness in order to perform Blackness in a way that will be acknowledged by their white peers. I feel like when we talk about Black folks’ experiences in predominantly white subcultures, it winds up taking this tone of, “We deserve to be here, this is for me too!” So I get really excited about articles exploring how a subculture can be enriched by a diversity of fans.
In that Huffington Post piece, you talked about spending 2020 delving into Black Canadian art and culture and writing. Was there anything specific about that experience that you feel like you have got a glimpse of since then?
As cliché as it sounds, it was just such a reminder to engage with real people and not caricatures. Of how important it is to exist as we are. No group of people is a monolith; people are complicated, they're multidimensional.
Engaging with these Canadian Black artists and seeing myself in them, but also seeing something completely different, was just such a reminder that there are so many ways of knowing and being in this world. It hit home for me just how important it is to—I don't want to use the word authentic, but you know, to live authentically; don't engage in this one notion of Blackness that you grew up watching on TV.
People talk about the “Black community,” and there is not one Black community. I say this so much, but to be Black is to be human.
Yeah. For me, it's specificity. I think where tropes and stereotypes can be useful is if you see your own specific experience reflected in a broader cultural experience, but it doesn't feel good if you see this bigger picture that you then have to fit yourself into exactly. The best case scenario is that you see your own lived experience echoed in someone else's and you connect on that human level.
Absolutely. And I think that just fosters that sense of belonging and identity, which then frees us to go and find what's unique and special about us.
What's next for Afros In Tha City?
We have a Patreon, which is exciting. We're also developing a membership base, and a part of why that's important is we want our members to be able to submit their personal stories. People talk about the “Black community,” and there is not one Black community. I say this so much, but to be Black is to be human. And so I think what Afros In Tha City wants to be able to do is be a platform to amplify all of those voices, regardless of what organization you're with or where you're at or what you're doing.
We want you to feel like there's a space where you can have your voice heard. So our membership plays into that. Nothing we do is behind a paywall; we really want our membership to be focused on building up a community here in Calgary. We want to hear from our members in terms of what they want us to write about, what they want us to make more accessible to them, but we also want this to be a platform where they can come and share and feel like our priority is telling their story.
The whole thing is still very much in its baby stage, and I think that's what's exciting: we don't have a specific roadmap or blueprint of how to do this. We just have a team that is really committed, because we are who this platform is for.
We really want it to be a space where the younger community especially can come and learn and feel that their experiences are heard; that this city and this province is a place that could actually represent them.
This can be a space for you, and there is belonging to be felt here.
Miranda Martini is a writer, editor and musician in Calgary. She's also The Sprawl's membership editor.
Join The Sprawl and Afros In Tha City on Wednesday, February 24, at 7:00 p.m. for a discussion on how 2020's lessons on systemic racism can be applied in 2021 and beyond. Get your ticket now!
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