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Afros In Tha City Media Collective: Centering Black voices and experiences in Calgary and beyond

Calgary, AlbertaCalgary (Alberta)

Story Seeker: Kelly Hill
Person interviewed: Ado Nkemka, Editor
Interview date: July 29, 2021

Founded in 2016, Afros In Tha City is a small, multidisciplinary arts collective located in Calgary (Mohkínstsis, as it is known in Blackfoot, a recognition of place that the collective includes in its communications). In July 2020, a media collective (largely composed of writers, all of whom are Black or mixed-race Black) was created within Afros In Tha City. Distributed mainly via its website, the collective’s stories “centre Black lives, discuss issues that concern Black people, and explore topics relevant to the Black experience”. Whether sharing stories about white supremacy, skin tone, or hair, the collective “is committed to producing high quality, local, trope-less, stereotype-less content that amplifies Black voices and supports community”. (Source: Afros In Tha City website).

Editor Ado Nkemka felt like the collective “would be a really good opportunity to just say all the things that I’ve wanted to say that I haven’t always had the courage to say”. Through the collective, she said, “I finally found the place where I feel human, and where I feel like people understand where I’m coming from.” The collective has seven members and operates quite informally.

While the collective is firmly rooted in Calgary, online distribution means that people from around the world “get to hear our stories”.

In the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, the writing collective significantly expanded its partnerships and reach, thereby helping to build both the organization and a sense of community among Black artists in Calgary and beyond.

The Innovation: Developing partnerships to build a fledgling organization

Ado noted that the act of managing independent writers can be done online, and this aspect was not too challenging to coordinate during the pandemic. On the other hand, community building became much harder without the ability to bring people together in person.

Members of the Afros In Tha City writing collective visit the Planet Superblend / Afros In Tha City space on July 28, 2021. Credit: Dooshima Jev.

To address this challenge and, more generally, to develop the collective, Afros In Tha City and its writing group built on its foundation and the reputation of its work to develop solid partnerships. As Ado indicated, the collective sometimes reached out to potential partners, and other times the potential partners reached out to them. Ado noted that the recent partnerships have been with a range of different organizations, some Black-led and some not.

Ado highlighted three important partnerships of Afros In Tha City Media collective, all of which were developed in the context of the pandemic.

Afros In Tha City Media collective gained momentum and legitimacy by working with the Canadian Association of Black Journalists (CABJ). Following Ado’s participation in the CABJ’s Media Startup Bootcamp for Black digital storytellers in 2020, the Association awarded Afros In Tha City Media collective a $5,000 Seed Grant. The grant helped Ado realize that other people in the media industry value the collective’s unique perspective: it “put some sort of battery in our pack to keep going”. Afros In Tha City Editor-in-Chief Tomi Ajele is a participant in the 2021 edition of the Bootcamp. The partnership with CABJ has now extended to mentorships and regular updates on job opportunities in the media industry.

The collective’s partnership with The Sprawl, a crowdfunded independent Alberta journalism site, “has really been instrumental in our growth”, said Ado. The Sprawl’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeremy Klaszus, helped mentor the collective’s members. The Sprawl also published a profile of Afros In Tha City.

The collective made an important connection outside the publishing world via the Sled Island Music & Arts Festival. The Festival reached out to Afros In Tha City, which resulted in funding from the festival to help program Black artists in 2022 in partnership with the festival.

The Challenges: Mental health, retention of Black artists, and space issues

Like many other Canadians, members of the writing collective experienced the mental health effects of isolation during the pandemic. In response to this, the collective showed flexibility toward its members regarding their schedule and deadlines. Ado indicated that this level of “understanding has helped us with our sustainability” through the pandemic. The collective is “trying to make people feel like they truly have a voice and a space”, even if members (including Ado) have not been able to submit as regularly as they would like.

Keeping Black artists in Calgary is a major challenge, one that Afros In Tha City is working to change. According to Ado:

In Calgary, we have a hard time, at least for Black and [people of colour] communities, keeping our artists here. We are trying to build a community where people don’t feel like they have to leave to make it or to feel legitimized as artists.

Afros In Tha City lost their multidisciplinary arts space in August of 2021 (after the interview with Ado had taken place). The space had been temporarily “loaned” to the organization, but the host company needed the space back. The irony: just as certain COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings are being lifted, the only spaces available to the collective are now digital.

The lack of a “fun gathering place” where there are few barriers to artists’ participation has made it more difficult to build community and “provide a safe and understanding space for Black artists and artists of colour“. Afros In Tha City is looking to find co-working space with an existing or potential new partner.

The Financials: Small pots of money from various sources

In addition to funds earned through working with the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and Sled Island Festival (both noted above), IndieGraf Media, a company that supports independent local news startups, has accepted the Afros In Tha City Media collective into a grant program that also offers a training component.

Virtual meeting of members of the Afros In Tha City writing collective, July 28, 2021. Credit: Dooshima Jev.

The collective also raises funds from arts supporters who use the Patreon platform. Working and presenting online over the past year has helped the collective develop its base of supporters. For example, after an online panel discussion presented by Afros In Tha City in February, the collective obtained many new Patreon members.

Through subscriptions and other generated revenues, the collective has been able to pay its writers for their work but has not been able to compensate them for time spent on story editing or the group’s administration and organization.

Despite having some success in raising funds in various ways, the collective’s members are still working to expand their funding and funding sources. To date, the collective has not received any public funding.

The Takeaway: Understanding Black lives requires freedom of expression and a willingness to listen

Through their work, the members of the Afros In Tha City Media collective have helped raise important issues in the Black community, both in Calgary and throughout Alberta. To continue to do this, Ado underlined the importance of freedom of expression among Black people as well as the importance of Black leadership in organizations:

If you want to understand Black lives, we need freedom in our expression. Some people in our collective have had experiences working with different organizations and felt that they were censored through the editorial process or felt like they had to wrap their story with a nice bow, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes there isn’t necessarily a happy ending. There’s always something to learn, but I think it goes back to that freedom, flexibility piece. If you really want to hear our voices, you have to be committed to opening yourself up to accepting truths that are not necessarily fluffy and easy to digest.

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Cover page for report entitled Innovation and resilience in the arts, culture, and heritage in Canada: Insights from 29 stories of artists and organizations using innovation to find resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Synthesis report by Kelly Hill and Blanche Israël. Stories by: Anju Singh, Blanche Israël, JP Longboat, Kelly Hill, Margaret Lam, Melanie Fernandez, and Myriam Benzakour-Durand.Kim Kilpatrick, keynote speaker at a Virtual Coffee session of Artist Connect