This Emancipation Day Celebration Shows That Art Is An Act Of Resistance

For many, Emancipation Day — a commemoration of the abolition of slavery across the British empire on August 1, 1834 — begs the question: What does freedom mean for Black people across the diaspora? In Canada, it provokes a deep contemplation of what work to ensure the freedom of Black people remains undone. For Ngozi Paul, Emancipation Day is a call to gather, rejoice, and remember.
Since 2017, Paul, who is an award-winning stage and screen actress, director, writer, and producer of Da Kink In My Hair, has celebrated Emancipation Day with Black Canadian artists in Toronto. This Sunday, August 1, the gathering will be streamed nationally for the first time. Free Up! Emancipation Day is part variety show, part celebration that blends visual arts, music, poetry, and performances by Black Canadian artists. The one-hour program, streaming on CBC Gem, includes multi-generational Black Canadian artists — from Toronto’s Little Jamaica to Africville, N.S. to Saskatoon — and will be hosted by the creator herself. It includes performances by Canadian rap legend Michie Mee, Polaris Prize winner Haviah Mighty, celebrated mono-dramatist d’bi.young anitafrika, and includes rising artist-activists such as Anyika Mark, poet laureates Randell Adjei and Peace Akintade, and Juno-nominated artists Silla + Rise.
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Black communities around the country have been acknowledging Emancipation Day for decades, and yet, a big part of the work that still remains to be done in mainstream Canadian media and in schools is recognizing Emancipation Day at all. The creator and cast of Free Up! Emancipation Day wants us to remember that although the federal government has motioned for Emancipation Day to become nationally recognized, there are still material, economic, and physical conditions that continue to hinder Black life in Canada. 
Ahead of Free Up! Emancipation Day’s release, R29 Unbothered spoke with Paul, along with d’bi.young anitafrika, and Michie Mee about the new program, using performing arts as an effective method to shape social change, and what freedom means to them.  
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What is FreeUp! Emancipation Day and why is it important to Canadian audiences? 
Ngozi Paul: Free Up! came about in 2017, which was Canada 150. I invited Rosemary Sadlier — who I had interviewed years before, to come to our first celebration to honour her. That was the first Free Up! open mic and we vowed that we would always do something every year between now and evermore. 
In 2020, we were going to do a show at Dundas Square. And, of course, the pandemic hit. I love the stage and we’re shooting [videos of] performers, so we ended up reaching out to CBC to pivot to a digital special, like we did last year. The goal is to allow Free Up! to grow and to be a connector around Emancipation Day, civic engagement, and artistic expression as it relates to freedom.”
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Michie Mee: “It reintroduces Canadian audiences to a bunch of free music and arts. We are here to represent and express different elements of freedom in whatever art that we do. I think this is a really good way to reintroduce a lot of [Black Canadian artists] and to see what's really happening now that we haven't had an opportunity to see or learn about before. I'm also learning from this process.”

We arrived at emancipation because of the resistance from Black people and our allies. In struggle, we fought for that emancipation.”

d’bi.young anitafrika
d’bi.young anitafrika: “When I think of emancipation, I can't help but think of how my multiple identities connect with the original people on the land [of Canada]. A program like Free Up! Emancipation Day is crucial to me because it has the potential to not only celebrate freedom, celebrate survival, celebrate struggles, celebrate liberation, but it also has the potential to connect multiple liberation movements, histories, and stories, and to remind us of our ongoing responsibilities and accountabilities to each other and to the land.”
Depending on which version of history we're receiving, young people will be sold the narrative that the British government realized that ultimately enslavement was wrong, and so gracefully decided to liberate and free enslaved Black people. That's not how it went down. We arrived at emancipation because of the resistance from Black people and our allies. In struggle, we fought for that emancipation.”
What is the meaning of Emancipation Day within Canadian and global Black communities?
Ngozi Paul: “I think that it's very important [to remember] the notion of human evolution [and the] immoral practice of enslaving humans, commodifying them for profit [and] for control, in such an absolute way, for hundreds of years. What are the things that we are doing now that future generations might look back at and say, ‘that was wrong. What are the things that we can continue to engage with, for the evolution of humanity? To continue to expand, and do better? We have Black and brown people scattered across the globe, disproportionately living with oppression [and] poverty. There are many enslaved people living in the world right now. It's an opportunity to genuinely self-reflect, and as an artist, create a platform for us to sankofa — to look back — and work together to build the kind of future we want.”
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d’bi.young anitafrika: “Canada, in order to continue its process of reconciling [and] rectifying, needs to address the systemic oppressions within policing, the ways in which the education system is completely discriminatory, systemically oppressive hiring practices in multimedia. We're all sort of developing this language, where we can talk about macro systemic oppressions. How do we develop the tools where we can deconstruct and understand how colonization and colonialism functions within our own bodies, and the ways in which we project those functions? That is the place where I put my focus, because it's where I have the most access to the potential for change. 

What are the things that we are doing now that future generations might look back at and say, ‘that was wrong? What are the things that we can continue to engage with, for the evolution of humanity?

Ngozi Paul
How is the performing arts an effective way of igniting social conversations and political change? 
Ngozi Paul: “I'm an artist. I'm a storyteller. It's what I do. And I believe that stories are reexamining many of the stories that we've been told for generations. I believe that the arts and storytelling shapes our thinking, our physiology, ignites change, and [consider] the different things that are happening in the world. The arts and creativity is paramount to giving you a different way of thinking.”
Michie Mee: “That's part of the expression. It helps social change [because] it tells you what is not being complied with, in terms of what the artists, a person, or a people of a culture want. It translates language and culture within that language. We can all know that we want the same things, but it's interpreted differently through the arts, with different people's backgrounds. We all get to come together and see how much we have in common. Even though we are oppressed, we have so much in common to kind of find a way out. This is the part of North America that you may not know. I think all eyes are on Canada. And this is just another facet in our arts world.”
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d’bi.young anitafrika: “The arts sit at the essence of our humanity. This is how we make meaning of life. The thread [connecting] all societies know themselves through storytelling. Religion, dance, film… you name me one thing [and you’ll find] storytelling. It is through stories that we’re conditioned, and it is also through stories that we will be reconditioned or deconditioned. The arts are central to our ability to not only know ourselves but to change. We see people out there chanting, marching, they're singing different kinds of songs. They're pointing us in a particular direction of justice and freedom based on a long tradition — whether we're using film, dance, theatre, literature, visual arts, or multimedia — being driven by art. 
What does freedom mean for you?
Ngozi Paul: “Freedom for me at the moment is the ability to feel safe. From the inside, out, and loved from the inside out. Creating a place of trust and not [being] in a state of fear or anxiety, but rather trust, peace, and presence. A state of wellness is liberty for me. I think that the pursuit of individuals and communities being able to explore and live in their own freedom and in a state of wellness, for all, is creating space where we can do that for each other as a community in a healthy way.”
Michie Mee: “Freedom means no boundaries, no borders — it’s expression that comes from love. If we can’t, we’re in trouble. It's being able to love freely and finding a way to express myself. Some things have been here long before us, and some things will be here long after us. 
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d’bi.young anitafrika: “Freedom to me means having access to peace, inside, and outside, of my body in each breath, and in each moment of my life.”
Which performance are you looking forward to most? 
Ngozi Paul: “I can say one because it warms my heart. We have a young artist named Asher. He's 11 years old and he composed a song on the piano for Free Up! It's lovely. He saw Free Up! last year and was inspired to create an original piece. It’s delicate. It's a beautiful seed being planted and sprinkled — little offerings.” 
Michie Mee: “Haviah Mighty! I see her. I'm a fan of all female MCs. It's [been] such a long time since we've had presidents. To see her there, it's very humbling. Go ahead, girl. I've seen her come up in the scene, to see her [shoot like] rockets and go to space. I'm loving it.”
d’bi.young anitafrika: “I don't think I can [view] it in London, UK. I’m getting an award so I better see my award acceptance [laughs].”

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