Exploring Freedom through Black Expressive Culture

A Canada Research Chair’s lifelong pledge to discover what it means to be Black and Free

Date published: 2024-02-19 4:30:00

Ken Daley, Moko Jumbies, mixed-media painting on wood (2023). Commissioned by Black and Free. Collection of the artist.

Photo: Black and Free

For as long as she can remember, Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae has been drawn to community engagement, cultural expression and the creation of art.

“I grew up with parents who were heavily involved in community building,” says Keleta-Mae, Canada Research Chair in Race, Gender and Performance, associate professor in Communications Arts at the University of Waterloo, author and multidisciplinary artist. “My parents, who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in the 60s, were members of the Afro-Caribbean Association of Manitoba in the 70s before I was born. I grew up understanding that no matter what your profession was, you found a way to be engaged in your community.”

Canada Research Chair Naila Keleta-Mae recording her third album, Fire Woman, at Planet Studios in Montréal in 2019.

Photo: Danny Girl

Born in Toronto, Keleta-Mae says artistic expression was in her blood. She has a passion for poetry, writing, singing, and songwriting. At a young age, she realized the connection between performance and advocacy. “I was writing poetry and speeches in elementary school that were thinking about Blackness in different ways. In high school, friends and I informally started a production company, and we would organize cultural events often featuring Black students and ideas related to being Black. After my undergraduate degree, I opened a cultural production company and put on events featuring Black culture for the public. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t showcasing Blackness through my art.”

The Birth of Black and Free

In a 2017 Twitter (X) declaration Keleta-Mae made a pledge that would solidify the trajectory of her work: “right now, all i want to think about for the next forty years is how to be #blackandfree in all aspects of my life (sic),” she wrote. Those words Black and Free, would be the catalyst for Keleta-Mae’s first SSHRC-funded Insight Development Grant research-creation project.

“Black and Free is about what we can learn by paying close attention to Black expressive culture, everything from visual art, to dance, film, theatre, blog posts and sports,” explains Keleta-Mae, about the  Black and Free research-creation project she now leads, funded through her Canada Research Chair program, an Ontario Research Fund Research Excellence grant and a SSHRC Insight Grant, and which includes a robust team of academics, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as private and public organizations.

“In the broadest strokes, this project is about thinking about Blackness and freedom in the 21st century,” says Keleta-Mae. “Sometimes conversations around Blackness will become conversations around oppression and anti-Blackness, racism and policy, but instead, what if we started the conversation from a place of freedom? What if we could imagine a reality without white supremacy, one where Black people are free? If we examine the lives and expression of Black people through the lens of things like visual art, music, dance, poetry and sports, we see them demonstrating to the world what is possible. That gives all people, regardless of skin colour, hope for a world free of anti-Blackness.”

The Beyoncé factor

Keleta-Mae says a prime example of Blackness and freedom in cultural expression is the life and career of the legendary female artist Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. So fascinated by Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, Keleta-Mae wrote a book, Beyoncé and Beyond: 2013-2016(2023), and has developed a university course that includes studying the singer-songwriter, performer  and businessperson.

“Beyoncé has incredible business acumen; she’s a financial force,” says Keleta-Mae. “She grew up competing in beauty pageants. Those helped her learn the ways to be accepted and how to accentuate characteristics that allowed her to win. She has now spent about four decades using that training in ways that contribute to expectations and definitions of Black womanhood. It makes her a complex example of Blackness and freedom.”

Black and Free gaining global momentum

Beck Deresse, Metamorphosis, pen and ink, watercolour, gouache (2023). Commissioned by Black and Free. Collection of the artist.

Photo: Black and Free

From research to a movement, Black and Free has become a dynamic force under Keleta-Mae's leadership. The project's evolution into a global endeavour includes site visits to locations where Blackness and freedom are expressed.

“I’m channelling the information out of the classroom and into public conversations,” says Keleta-Mae. “I’ve been to different spaces in the US and Canada. I recently visited Jamaica where I went to a historical community that resisted being colonized by the British and is now celebrating more than 240 years of existing on Blackness and freedom. I’ve partnered with Toronto’s Young Peoples’ Theatre to bring theatre education and training to children and young people to help them understand how expressing themselves through performance is a way to explore Blackness and freedom. I’ve partnered with The Museum and the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum, both in Kitchener, to feature groundbreaking exhibitions, art series and symposiums that explore the theme of Blackness and freedom. We host markets where Black vendors can sell their wares while receiving 100 percent of the profits.”

The Future of Black and Free

In her latest book, Performing Female Blackness (2023), Keleta-Mae argues that “perpetual performance” forces Black women to always be figuratively on stage regardless of cultural, political or historical contexts.

“In my own life, I’ve found it very useful to understand the difference between the spaces where I have to perform to manage and manipulate the space, and the other spaces where I can be who I really am.”

Keleta-Mae says the Canada Research Chair Program has given her the ability to conduct her research while simultaneously focusing on her artistic practice and expression.

“Being able to have a research team that trains students and engages other academics all while providing public-facing programming and education through the funding we receive is a privilege. It allows us to focus on the process, the art, the research and how to share it all with others, and that is tremendous.”

Want to learn more?

Check out Naila Keleta-Mae’s January 2024 conversation, Black and Free - A Reasoning with Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, in Kingston, Jamaica. To learn more about groundbreaking art exhibitions visit the 2023 Black and Free Art Exhibition and Bringing Blackness and Freedom to Life. Listen to Keleta-Mae’s latest of three full-length albums, Fire Woman.