BY Dorothy Mombrun & Anthony Issa

Rwanda-born Canadian writer Ornella Teta, formerly known as Nella Tetam, developed a passion for storytelling at a young age.

With a focus on African politics, social justice, and human rights issues, she wrote as a means of “delivering the information people need to know about the world.”

The shift towards poetry was quite a challenge. Tetam originally struggled to tap into a more personal approach to writing.

“[Poetry] felt like a level of vulnerability and exposure I wasn’t ready to dive into when I was a teen,” says Tetam. “But in 2020, I discovered an online community of people who encouraged me to view vulnerability as a strength and that made me want to explore poetry with more confidence.”

girl sitting on a library chair reading a notebook

Nella Tetam practicing a spoken word poem from her poetry note book at the BANQ. Photo by Dorothy Mombrun.

“I use poetry as a means to explore and embrace my identity and my roots, but also as a way to reconnect and be empowered by my ancestors,” explains the young poet.

Those themes inspired Tetam’s very first spoken word performance, “Brave” on her Instagram page in April 2022.

That performance was her official submission to be Rupi Kaur’s Montreal opening act during her world tour. Later in August, she received the news that her performance was selected by Kaur and her team for the Montreal show at the end of 2022.

girl in a formal dress reciting a poem on a stage

Nella Tetam Performing her opening act for Rupi Kaur’s Show at l’Église St-Jean Baptiste. Photo by Dulcinée Tuza.

Nearly a week following her selection as an opening act, Tetam found a viral TikTok video promoting the launch of a Mic’d up MTL physical event.

“Seeing the promotional video felt like a sign from God that this event was for me and that it was time to get out of my shell,” explains Tetam.

Mic’d up is a Montreal-based monthly open mic event created and organized by authors and spoken word artists William Cleophat, Rubie Jean-Baptiste and Tihitina Semahu.

The organizers originally hosted it on the social audio app Clubhouse during COVID to create a safe and encouraging space for Black creatives of all levels.

In 2022, the three artists observed a need for an in-person edition of the event and partnered with Bar Le Jokey in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie to host the monthly open mic events.

The popularity of the monthly open mic was instantaneous. On the first night, the organizers estimate that over 180 people attended the event, despite The Jockey only having a maximum capacity of 100 people.

“The venue was so packed that, at some a point, there was a queue of people waiting outside to get in,” Semahu recalls.

The popularity of the event has continues to increase every month, and according to attendees, tickets tend to sell in a matter of minutes.

Performing for the Mic’d up MTL audience feels very welcoming. Everybody—performers and audience members—has such a supportive vibe… it’s like everyone wants to see you win.

Only six months since their launch, the organizers felt the need to relocate to the Tout Bon Bar Lounge, a venue twice as big as the previous one amid the continued increase in the demand.

girl with braids singing in front of a joyful audience

Roxann (left), a frequent performer at Mic’d Up MTL, singing on stage at the new location Le Tout Bon Bar Lounge. Photo by Dorothy Mombrun.

Tetam attributes the energy of the crowd to what keeps her and other performers coming back.

“Performing for the Mic’d up MTL audience feels very welcoming. Everybody—performers and audience members—has such a supportive vibe… it’s like everyone wants to see you win,” she explains.

“We’ve seen young artists, like Blaque Frida and Roxanne, blossom into confident performers thanks to the constant support of the audience,” affirms Semahu.

Mic’d up MTL has also helped the organizers themselves.

“Creating this event with my two friends has been a growing opportunity for me, both as an organizer and as a performer. It almost feels like therapy, and it’s something I look forward to every time,” says Rubie Jean-Baptiste.

Other Black-led initiatives are also often praised for offering more recognition and opportunities to Black Quebec artists. Since its launch in 2017, Fondation Dynastie has become a prominent voice within the Quebec Black cultural scene.

“Two of the founders of Fondation Dynastie, Carla Beauvais and Marjorie Morin Lapointe created it to address and advocate for the pressing need for more diversity and inclusion in the Quebec art, culture and media scenes,” explains Tracy Paulotte, operations manager for Gala Dynastie.

The organization has been working toward its mission by curating social initiatives like La Vie des Noirs Compte back in 2020 and cultural mediation events like Sommet Dynastie later in 2022.

Trophies given to the winners of Gala Dynastie. Photo by Dorothy Mombrun.

Since 2017, the annual ceremony Gala Dynastie rewards and celebrates Black Quebec personalities for their achievements in the arts, culture, and media.

According to Paulotte, the reception of the Gala has been generally ‌positive, especially amongst black Quebec artists.

“For many artists who have been nominated to this Gala Dynastie, the peer-to-peer recognition feels like a validation of their efforts, often not recognized by mainstream Quebec award ceremonies,” she says.

Fondation Dynastie’s partners and executive team being mostly composed of black-owned businesses is not by accident.

“We think it’s important to collaborate with as many Black businesses as possible because it reflects some of our core missions,” explains Paulotte. “To highlight and support our black talents in all of its facets, but also to develop and professionalize new entrepreneurs via opportunities.”

Numerous Black cultural initiatives in the province share a similar mission. Never Was Average, the Black Theatre Workshop, and the Montreal International Black Film festival are all predominantly Black-led cultural initiatives.

Never Was Average is a Montreal art hub that curates, collaborates and hosts projects from black artists. Video by Anthony Issa.

The Decolonial Perspective and Practices Hub (DPPH) is a multicultural non-profit organization that aims to support institutions, educators, and students in embracing a community-centred, decolonial method of teaching and learning.

“The goal is to de-center the Eurocentric perspective in our approach and to access strategies that are more adequate for the affected group,” explains the founding director of DPPH, Jamila Dei Sharpe.

That is exactly what they’ve done with their “Youth Power Lunches” project. In collaboration with Hoodstock, they invite Francophone Black and Brown entrepreneurs and artists to offer workshops and mentorships to racialized students of two Montreal-North high schools, Calixa-Lavallée and Amos.

The goal is to introduce students to a variety of professionals, such as possibilities in entrepreneurship and in arts, to counteract the erasure of racialized artists and entrepreneurs in the province’s educational curriculum, mainstream media and major art institutions.

Many Black creative communities seem to agree that the rise of more Black-led projects has been very beneficial for the black Quebecers, and that funding for these projects from media, art, governmental and financial institutions has been slowly increasing.

For example, in 2017, The Conseil des Art et lettres du Quebec (CALQ) launched the bursary program Vivacité, which seeks to “improve immigrant and visible minority professional artists and writers’ access to its financial assistance programs.”

Eligible artists can receive bursaries of up to $50,000.

statistics number of projects supported by vivacite program

The number of projects supported by Vivacité Program over the years. Chart by Dorothy Mombrun.

While more efforts are being made to support black artists financially, many believe that the change hasn’t been significant enough to appoint more racialized minorities in executive power positions:

“Institutions need to do a better job of diversifying people not only in front of the screen but behind it too,” says Paulotte. “The Quebec media and artistic scene need to dismantle this idea that executive positions belong to the same group of people by hiring more racialized individuals in these roles. True change can only happen when we get a say during the decision-making process.”

Main image by Dorothy Mombrun.
Published March 20, 2023.