Calgary spoken-word, hip-hop artist Zaire Ink to share Black poet’s message at Arts Commons cabaret

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When Zaire Ink came to Calgary from Montreal as a 16-year-old budding poet and spoken-word artist, he had limited experience on stage.

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For all its vibrant culture, Montreal was not an easy market to crack for a teenager. Ink arrived in Calgary a decade ago with his mother to join his father. He didn’t know anyone, having left behind his friends and what he “thought my life would be.” But when he began performing spoken-word at open-mic nights, spinning out stories and observations about his youthful dramas and the struggle for identity, it didn’t take long for him to find a receptive audience.

“Montreal, in general, is very metropolitan, so I find it’s hard to get a foot in that space,” says Ink. “Calgary, being a smaller music scene, it’s much more community-oriented. I found initially when I started doing open mics and poetry and spoken-word, I was immediately met with a community. That really helped me blossom and grow and transition more to the music side of things as I met more creatives from the local space who wanted to collaborate and figure out a way to build Calgary’s musical identity.”

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That was a decade ago, but Ink’s story isn’t that unusual when it comes to both the city’s spoken-word and hip-hop scenes. On Feb. 26, Ink will join several artists for Now Listen: A Black Poet’s Message at Arts Commons’ Engineered Air Theatre. It’s the latest cabaret presented by Arts Commons as part of the TD Incubator, an interdisciplinary professional development program that included 20 Calgary artists in its 2021-2022 season. It was overseen by Calgary artists Contra and Jae Sterling. Both Contra, who is half of the internationally acclaimed hip-hop duo Cartel Madras alongside sister Eboshi, and Sterling, a hip-hop and visual artist, have devoted considerable energy to building a community around the city’s music scene. While Now Listen: A Black Poet’s Message, the second TD Amplify Cabaret under the program, is geared toward celebrating Black History Month, the entire program is about helping emerging artists, including many from a BIPOC background. It was a natural progression from Sterling and Contra’s work as co-founders of the Calgary collective THOTNATION/SANSFUCCS, which began in 2018 as a way to unite the hip-hop community in Calgary.

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On Saturday, Ink will be joined by Zimbabwe-born rapper and artist KTheChosen, spoken-word artist Priscilla Bukasa and singer-songwriter Uyemi for the cabaret. For his performance, Ink will be accompanied by his musical partner Afuhmbom, a producer and singer-songwriter who grew up in Cameroon and Canada. The pair founded their indie label, Two World Creatives, in 2018. It will serve as the home for an upcoming EP in the spring or summer. But the long-term plan is to help emerging artists as well.

“Our focus is to develop young artists, specifically people of colour, and bring them into a faith-based lifestyle,” Ink says. “Both myself and Afuhmbom are Christian and it’s a large part of our identity and our music as well. So we definitely try to share that with other people.”

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Ink has released some singles under his name and has been involved in some interesting collaborations. His most recent single, Swept Off Your Feet, is a tender soft-vibed ode that he dedicates to his new wife. He provided some rhymes to Oliver Miguel’s dazzling Latin-jazz dance number Tear This Night Apart. On the 2019 single Let’s Talk About It, he directly addresses his faith.

But, in general, Ink says his work in hip-hop flows naturally from his early days in spoken word, where he would offer narratives based on his life and observations that nevertheless reflected the reality of the broader community he was becoming involved with.

“A lot of my content focuses on youth struggles, specifically youth of colour, and the struggles they have in the community, especially immigrants,” he says. “And, as young people, trying to find your identity in a culture that isn’t necessarily designed or has you in mind when you first arrived here.”

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While the work can certainly have a political bent, Ink says the politics aren’t necessarily overt.

“I would say it’s more storytelling,” he says. “Politics is always implied, but I always try to tell a narrative, whether it be from my perspective or other people I’ve met and how social, political factors played a role in our outcomes in life. For myself, when I came here there wasn’t much in terms of Black representation, in terms of Black history being taught, in terms of a mentor that I could look up to. It was an interest of mine, going out of my way to research different individuals who I could look up to so I could find a way to develop my identity based on people I knew, but I didn’t know too many local people of colour. So it was historical figures. Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X – different people that were my foundation in my development in my teenage.”

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As a teenager, Ink initially didn’t share his poetry with others. But he saw it as cathartic and therapeutic to create. While he was always passionate about music, he didn’t have access to tools beyond his paper and pen at first. But there was a natural overlap between hip-hop and spoken-word communities. Ink met Afuhmbom at a showcase and the two collaborated on a spoken-word piece called Manhood. Afuhmbom’s background includes playing with the Cameroon-based collective Cielo, a hip-hop and soul outfit that found airplay in his home country.

“I was dealing with my parents’ separation and he was having some struggles with his father and their dynamic growing up,” Ink says. “We collaborated on that piece and the more we started to connect he said ‘Hey, why don’t you try rap, too?’ So I fell in love with music the more time I spent with him as we worked on different beats and play around with different styles.”

Arts Commons will present Now Listen: A Black Poet’s Message as part of its TD Incubator program on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Engineered Air Theatre. Visit artscommons.ca

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