Story Untold: “Everybody’s Fighting a Hard Battle”

Story Untold with TOBi.

TOBi’s debut release, STILL, is out now. Photo credit: Nilly.

TOBi is having his moment. In the last four months alone, the Nigerian-Canadian singer-songwriter has been name-checked by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jamie Foxx, and invited to Los Angeles to work on music with The Game. (“My fans are now your fans,” the Los Angeles-raised emcee posted on Instagram.) Add to that the release of STILL earlier this month — his debut full-length project under Same Plate Entertainment/Sony Music — and 2019 has shaped up to be quite the year.

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“I’m where I’ve wanted to be for so long,” says the 25-year-old artist, born Oluwatobi Feyisara Ajibolade. “The last four months has been a period of exponential growth.”

Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria before he moved to Canada at the age of nine, TOBi’s earliest works found a home in a notepad his mother gifted him.

“I used to write everything. I’d write stories, fictional tales, songs, poems,” he says. “My mom gave [it to me] before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.”

Early on, his musical influences ranged from DMX to Lil Romeo. His older cousin introduced him to the former’s music; he played the latter in a school production at the age of six or seven.

“My mom gave me a notepad before I left Nigeria. So I had that with me. And I would just write everything in there.” – TOBi

“I had the whole attire down and everything,” says TOBi. “The durag and the oversize t-shirts.”

At nine, he left Nigeria with his father — arriving in Canada before the rest of his family could join them. He was chosen to go first, he figures, because he was the “low-maintenance” one of his siblings. At first, they stayed in Ottawa, then moved to Toronto and eventually Brampton. All the while, TOBi waited for the rest of his family to arrive.

“[My Dad] was working so much. He had like two jobs, so I rarely saw him for that first year,” says TOBi. “I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing.”

There were the early struggles. Body language, and unfamiliar expressions, and the isolation that comes with being separated from home.

“The little social nuances, I didn’t understand any of that,” he says. “I would argue until this day, I still grapple with certain things.”

In high school, TOBi wrestled with anxiety and what he describes as “different mental health issues.”

The first year and a bit was very difficult. I didn’t want to be here, so I spent a lot of time with myself writing. At the time I didn’t know, but it was me coping, self-soothing.” – TOBi

“I couldn’t even contextualize it, because I didn’t know the language,” he says. “Part of that was going through counselling, therapy, getting some work and understanding what was going on. And a lot of that was self-directed until I found somebody who was able to guide me through it.”

His first time performing music, it was in front of his tenth-grade classmates. For a civics project — the Youth Philanthropy Initiative — he had to profile a non-profit organization.

“I did one for Victim Services of Peel. But my presentation was a song,” he says. “And that was the first time I ever performed music for a group of people. And I won the whole [contest]. It was lit.”

After high school, TOBi studied biology and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. For his family — as is the case with many first-generation Canadians — post-secondary education was expected.

“It’s been instilled in me since I was a fetus,” he says.

He completed his degree, but struggled with doubt throughout his time at Laurier.

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me,” says TOBi, of his studies. “Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing?”

“I just kept picturing myself as an older version of me. Like, am I going to enjoy what I’m doing? That picture wouldn’t leave my head. And that happened the whole undergrad. Literally the whole undergrad. It was cemented in my mind.” – TOBi

His first big musical break came in 2017. A song he wrote as a demo — one he wasn’t sure if he would even release — landed on HBO’s Insecure. In the meantime, TOBi worked in mental health, both as a youth engagement coordinator and on a crisis line for those in distress.

“Man, the crisis line changed my life,” he says. “I learned that everybody has their own worlds and paths that they need to traverse.”

It was also 2017 when TOBi started crafting STILL. Over the next two years, the project would grow into thirteen songs, with production from the likes of !llmind (Kanye West, J. Cole, Ariana Grande) and Arthur McArthur (Drake, Rick Ross, Big Sean).

“It almost felt like I had all these stories and ideas in my head that I had no choice but to get out,” he says.

Now that the album is out, complete with a billboard at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square, TOBi can enjoy the fruits of his labour — including the shout-outs from Foxx and Snoop.

“All those mixtapes that I was doing, all those writings, all those songs that I made for 20 people to hear,” he says, “it wasn’t in vain. It was a set-up for bigger and better things.”


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Travel Bites

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 5.38.52 PM

I chipped my tooth on a soft shell taco in Mexico.

It was my eleventh night of tacos in two weeks, and my second helping of tacos that night—something of a celebration after the Raptors had won Game 7 and Kawhi had won Toronto’s heart and the ball had bounced around on the rim for at least ten seconds after the buzzer went, or so it seemed as I watched on a corner TV in a restaurant near the Caribbean coast.

It was the fourth restaurant my friend and I had pleaded with to show the game that evening, perhaps because in my attempt at Spanish I had dumbly asked if they could please put on the basketball juice instead of the basketball game. (Such errors are, mercifully, overlooked by kind waiters.) The beer was good, which is to say it was cold and cheap, and the first round of tacos proved excellent. We ate Baja fish and shrimp tacos garnished with cabbage slaw and tartar sauce, a wedge of lime on each plate. It was wonderful. Divine, even.

Baja tacos

Baja tacos in Tulum, Mexico. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

The second round of tacos is where I ran into trouble.

We went to a street vendor on Tulum’s Calle Osiris Sur, down the block from Parque Dos Aguas where a late-night game of basketball unfolded in the late spring heat, and I imagined myself stepping on the court and hitting my own version of The Bounce, the ball suspended in air like a city’s collective hopes and dreams, imaginary clock hitting zero as the ball left my fingertips and went skyward.

I had a good buzz going from the first two beers, but mostly from the endless replay in my mind of a shot I’d spent twenty years of Toronto sports fandom learning to expect would never fall. Which is, of course, why I went for the second round of tacos in the first place.

We’d been to the same street vendor the night before.

It was the most popular one among the dozen-odd food stands that lined the street and served tacos for less than a buck apiece—or 10 pesos, if we’re getting specific. The prices weren’t always easy to pin down. The night before, I’d bought six tacos for 80 pesos while my friend paid 40 for four of the same. Such is the deal one strikes, I suppose, for tacos bought on a street corner where the meals are served on plates wrapped in clear plastic bags. Better not to question such things.

I went for another order of six tacos this time. Partly because of the whole Kawhi afterglow, and partly because of the way the pork sizzled in front of an open flame, and partly to see whether the price would change from the night before. (It was 60 pesos this time.) That, and I derived no small pleasure from ordering more food than the rest of my friends, if for no other reason than to prove that I could eat it all.

They were served al pastor, a style developed in Central Mexico and influenced by the Lebanese immigrants who came in the 19th and 20th centuries. The pork was spiced with chilies and sliced thin, topped with pineapple and cilantro and chopped onions. It was heavenly. The best tacos I’d ever had, when I’d eaten them the first time around. Nothing that ought to chip a tooth.

Who chips a tooth on a taco?

Pastor tacos

The delicious culprits. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been on a mission to find the best tacos since arriving in Mexico two weeks prior.

It started in Isla Mujeres, then spread to Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, where each night—and sometimes each morning and afternoon, depending how the mood struck—I’d track down another spot that seemed promising. The rule, as always, was to go where the locals ate, no matter if it was a noisy restaurant or a vendor selling food out of a plastic bin. Often the plastic bin tacos tasted better than the restaurant ones, anyway. At the very least, they were cheaper.

I made it through the first five tacos no problem, and even through most of the sixth, before it happened. I felt it instantly. Like something had wedged itself in between my front bottom teeth. A bit of pork, perhaps. I poked and prodded with my tongue until something came loose. And then I really noticed it. A gap. An absence. A chunk missing from the back of one of my teeth.

Maybe the front, too?

Shit. I couldn’t tell. It was dark; I needed a mirror.

I ran my tongue over it again and again, fretting over the possibility that my dating prospects had further dwindled. It wasn’t the tooth that bothered me as much as what it implied: if a soft shell taco could chip my tooth, how soft did that make me?

Burrito soft?

Baby formula soft?

What did it say about me that a flour tortilla could claim checkmate over the hardest part of my body?

Barbacoa tacos

Late-night Barbacoa tacos. (Photo: Martin Bauman)

I’d been questioning my travel-hardiness from the start of the trip—wondering whether I still had it in me after thirty-some countries.

Perhaps I’d burnt out. Used up all the magic. Perhaps it dwindled the last time I ran out of toilet paper in a bus station bathroom, or slept in a room with seven strangers who either snored or shagged loud enough to keep the rest of the room awake until dawn. Maybe I’d become more of the “rented car and Airbnb” type, to be replaced one day by the “hotel with a Jacuzzi” type, and later the “cruise ship with bingo and line-dancing” type. The whole progression-of-life kind of thing.

My one friend—one who would gladly sleep in a room with seven strangers, and probably seventeen, if it meant a cheap enough bed for the night—teased me about this when I tried to book a room for our first night together in Mexico. It was a week before we were to arrive in Playa del Carmen, and the reservation was just for a night.

Too soon, was the message I got.

Real travel meant showing up in a place without a reservation. It meant finding a hostel by asking the locals. It meant giving up your pillow. I thought of my last trip to Ecuador and Peru—one I’d booked over a month in advance—and felt a flush of embarrassment.

This couldn’t stand, of course.

What had happened to the guy who spent three months cycling across a country? Who braved murderous lapwings and never found an airport terminal he couldn’t sleep in?

I needed to make a change. Prove to myself that I still had it. That I wasn’t afraid.

I went back to that same taco strip the next night. Steely-eyed. Determined.

I found the first stand selling tacos.

And this time… I ordered four.

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Story Untold: “It Always Feels Like We’re Writing Some Kind of Fiction”

Yasuko

If a writer’s greatest asset is life experience, then Yasuko Thanh has no shortage of material. The winner of 2009’s Journey Prize and 2016’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Vancouver Island-based Thanh left home at the age of 15 and lived on the streets of Victoria and Vancouver, where her most prized possession was a curling iron. Her latest book, the memoir Mistakes to Run With, tells the story of Thanh’s experience with homelessness, drugs and jail, and her teen years as a sex worker.

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“Though I’ve never been ashamed of my past, it’s also not something that I’ve talked about with even my closest friends,” says Thanh, who teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria.

“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to,” she added. “I was a weird kid … there was this one side of me that was deeply religious, and there was this other side of me that drank and smoked and shoplifted and got into all sorts of trouble.”

Born to a German mother and Vietnamese father, Thanh slept on the streets of Victoria as a teenager, scrounging up money with other homeless friends to pay for the occasional motel room. To earn money, she turned tricks and asked for food outside of shopping malls.

“I sort of saw myself as some kind of Siddhartha-esque figure, moving through different walks of life, trying to learn the lessons I needed to.” – Yasuko Thanh

“The main thing that I noticed was how either invisible or how hated you became by most of the people that were just walking past,” she says. “But as a result of that, the community which I became part of was very strong. I mean, that’s an intense bonding factor when the rest of the world is looking down their nose at you.”

Still in her teens, she met Jay — her first pimp — at a party and fell for him.

“He had this pink suit,” she recalls. “It was the eighties, but he looked all Miami Vice. He had Jheri curled hair … and he knew how to dance.”

Along with Jay, Thanh moved to Vancouver and earned money for him out of motels on the East end.

“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile,” she says. “Which was, you know, in my 15 or 16-year-old brain, ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’”

“I was just trying to maintain this illusion that what I had with this person was love, and therefore, that made everything worthwhile … ‘If I just give him enough money, then he’ll really, really love me.’” – Yasuko Thanh

Thanh’s next pimp, Avery, promised that all they needed was to raise $500,000 and they could retire, start another business.

“I think even at the time, I knew that was a fiction that was never going to come true,” she says.

Always a writer, Thanh came across a story one day at 21 years old. Caroline Adderson’s “Oil and Dread” was in Quarry magazine.

“I saw at once that these words were different from any I’d read before,” she writes in Mistakes to Run With. Inspired, she spent more and more time writing, submitting stories to literary magazines. Her first book, Floating Like the Dead, was named a Best Book of the Year by Quill & Quire and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. In 2013, CBC named Thanh one of ten writers to watch.

“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.” – Yasuko Thanh

“[Writing] was a place to go where you always feel at home. Where you always belong,” says Thanh. “If I had a frustrating day, or someone had hurt me, I would go, ‘Fine, f— them. I’m going to go write.’ … It was that place to go when things weren’t going well.”

Asked to make meaning of her turbulent years, Thanh is reluctant to seek pity or pass judgment where others might.

“Whenever I need to speculate,” she says, “it always feels like we’re writing some kind of fiction, right? Because at the time, I didn’t know what was drawing me to certain kinds of behaviour, and even now, the things that I come up with are just ways that we invent to explain behaviour that still puzzles us.”

“It’s interesting, because we waited until I had a couple books under my belt before we came out with the memoir,” says Thanh, “because [my agent and publisher] didn’t want people to be prejudiced against me, but of course, that’s exactly what the book is trying to fight against, is just that type of prejudice.


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Story Untold: “I Can Still Love This Community and Want It To Be Better”

Story Untold with Danielle Williams

Photo from melaninbasecamp.com

Danielle Williams has no quit. An army veteran and Harvard graduate, she has been an advocate for diversity in outdoor adventure sports since 2014, when she co-founded Team Blackstar Skydivers. An African-American skydiver living with a disability, Williams has over 600 jumps under her belt, and has also launched Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

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Born in New York, a fourth-generation army veteran, Williams spent her childhood across the United States — “all up and down the Southeast,” she says. Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee.

“I loved the idea that you could just pick up and move and start over,” says Williams. “It was always kind of this underlying assumption that we would join the military, because that’s what my dad did, and that’s what his dad did, and that’s what great-grandad did … I never really considered doing anything else.”

Williams found skydiving in 2011, after she’d returned from a deployment in Iraq. At the time, she’d been building roads and repairing culverts. She wanted something to ease the transition to civilian life.

“I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.” – Danielle Williams

“While you’re in a war zone, you have this sort of feeling, and when you get back to the States, a lot of people look for it in different avenues,” she says. “I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.”

She went to a drop zone in Kentucky and signed up for a tandem dive.

“They had a little Cessna 182, which is like a small four-seater plane,” she says.

On the plane with her, another diver was going up alone.

“That just blew my mind,” says Williams. “I didn’t know you could skydive without being attached to somebody.”

Soon enough, she was logging jumps at every opportunity — enjoying the hospitality of a culture that seemed to open its arms so readily. Dinner invitations. Offers of guest beds in camper vans.

“I remember jumping at this one drop zone in Mississippi, and I had just gotten there … and this eight-year-old girl approaches me. She’s like, ‘Hey, you’re new here! We have an extra bed in our camper. Do you want to stay with us?’” she laughs. “That’s just, like, how the culture is.”

“It’s really motivating to see people — especially women, especially women of colour — to see them just killing it and performing really well at professional levels.” – Danielle Williams

Still, Williams didn’t know many skydivers that looked like her. When she found a group one St. Patrick’s Day Weekend in Georgia, they decided to go for a record: how many African-American skydivers could they get together in one jump? They were six friends and one videographer in total.

“We just kind of ran with it,” she says. They called themselves Team Blackstar. “It’s been five years, and we’ve grown from that original group of seven people … to over 270 people in six different countries.”

Things seemed promising. Exciting. That first record-setting jump, says Williams, “was right before my life fell apart.”

In 2015, Williams was deployed to the Philippines for her next army stint. She got sick.

I didn’t think it was much of a big deal,” she says. “I came back to the U.S., and maybe two months later, really weird things started happening. And it took about a year to get diagnosed.”

Doctors told Williams she had rheumatic fever — a disease that can involve chest pain, joint pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Muscle movement can become involuntary.

“I was still trying to stay pretty active, but I was really sick,” she says. “I went from, like, trail-runner, skydiver, super athletic, overnight to [being] on a walker. And I was on that walker for three years.”

As she adjusted to her new circumstances, Williams found herself with time in front of a computer. She put it to use and started Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind. I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.” – Danielle Williams

“When I started out [in skydiving],” she says, “I just wanted to fit in … I didn’t want to talk about [race].”

But what started with Team Blackstar lit a fire. Soon, Williams wanted to find more people of colour in outdoor adventure sports, and find a way to amplify their voices. In 2016, she started @melaninbasecamp on Instagram and launched a blog the next year.

“People like to say that nature’s colourblind,” she says. “I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.”

With Diversify Outdoors, Williams and other athletes and activists formed a coalition to promote diversity and equity in the outdoor space — not just for African-Americans, but for any groups that have been historically underrepresented.

“I can still love this community and talk about ways that we need to improve,” she says. “I can still love this community and want it to be better.


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Story Untold: “You Never Know When Your Chance is There”

Story Untold with Issey Nakajima-Farran

Issey Nakajima-Farran has more than a few stories to tell. Such things tend to happen when one spends a career chasing a soccer ball around the globe. From the time he was three, the 34-year-old winger for Pacific FC has moved to Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Denmark, Australia, Cyprus, Spain, and Malaysia. To hear Nakajima-Farran tell it, he’s ready to make Vancouver Island a longer stay.

“I really want to make this my last stop,” the Calgary-born Japanese-Canadian says. “I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.”

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Born to a Japanese mother and English-Zimbabwean father, Nakajima-Farran moved with his family to Tokyo at the age of three, where he fell in love with soccer watching Verdy Kawasaki and his favourite player, Kazuyoshi “Kazu” Miura.

“I really want to make this my last stop. I fell in love with this island — I’ve been telling everyone that asks me.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“Back then, it was the biggest club in J.League. All the national players were playing at that team,” says Nakajima-Farran.

The first Japanese player to earn the Asian Footballer of the Year award, Kazu became the sport’s biggest star in Japan, winning four consecutive league titles.

“He’s still playing, which is incredible,” says Nakajima-Farran. “The guy’s like fifty-something in J.League. He only plays like fifteen minutes, but he does a couple stepovers, and basically all of Japan just loves it.”

At ten, Nakajima-Farran and his family moved to England. His parents sold the move as an opportunity to develop as a soccer player, and the Calgary native joined Crystal Palace’s youth team.

“The training at Crystal Palace took us an hour and twenty minutes, hour and a half, just to get to training, and [my dad] would be the one driving me three, four times a week,” says Nakajima-Farran.

At 16, he was faced with a choice: stay on at Crystal Palace and drop out of school to train in hopes of making the pro team, or return to Japan to play and further his studies. He left for Tokyo, where the reception from his new coach was frosty.

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’It always got to me, because it was such a racist comment, and they never saw me as a true Japanese,” says Nakajima-Farran. “It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong. It’s always been because of that.”

“He always said to me, ‘Foreigner, go home.’ … It gave me all the motivation I needed to play now … because it was all about me proving him wrong.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

In 2004, he debuted for Albirex Niigata’s Singaporean club and scored 26 goals in 45 appearances. The next year, he earned a spot on Singapore’s Under-23 national team, where he scored twice against Japan. The performances were good enough to land Nakajima-Farran in Denmark for his next stint, where he helped Vejle BK to a championship and promotion to the Superliga.

At 22, Nakajima-Farran made his debut for Team Canada against Hungary.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary,” he laughs.

Since then, the Calgary native has earned 40 caps for Canada, playing against the likes of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. (“I remember James [Rodriguez] was standing in front of me, so I tugged his shirt, and he gave me a look,” Nakajima-Farran laughs.) Along the way, Nakajima-Farran played alongside current Pacific FC teammate Marcel de Jong, as well as co-owners Josh Simpson and Rob Friend.

After Denmark, Nakajima-Farran left for Australia, where he helped Brisbane Roar FC to a record-setting 36-game unbeaten streak and the A-League Championship. He also survived a close call or two with a kangaroo.

“[My parents] took my bedsheets, spray-painted a Canadian flag, and I think they were the only Canadian fans in Hungary.” – Issey Nakajima-Farran

“I didn’t realize how dangerous they were, so I stopped and got out of the car — literally two metres away, trying to take a photo,” says Nakajima-Farran. “This kangaroo was bigger than me … [My teammates] were like, ‘You’re an idiot. These things will slice you open.’”

Later, he played in Cyprus, before brief runs with Toronto FC and Montreal Impact. It was Friend, says Nakajima-Farran, who approached him about the idea of joining Pacific FC after his latest stint in Malaysia.

“Rob reached out to me last year … and I thought it was a great concept of having our own league,” he says. “That’s what we’ve always wanted as Canadian players.”

At 34, Nakajima-Farran is the oldest player on a Canadian Premier League roster, but he’s excited for the season ahead — and for the game he’s still got left in him.

“Any five-percent tip that I can give [younger players], if I can help them just a sliver to be a better player, it’s nice to be appreciated in that tiny way,” he says. “I still feel too good to quit. I love the game too much to say goodbye to it … I want to keep that going for a few more years.


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Story Untold: “As Long As There Is Racism In Canada, I Want This Project to Keep Going”

Story Untold with Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is the Victoria-based photographer behind the Profiling Black Excellence project. Photo credit: Nathan Smith.

Nathan Smith is used to being profiled. A Jamaican-Canadian photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, he figured he’d harness the racism he’s experienced as a person of colour in Canada and put it on full display. So began his latest creative work, Profiling Black Excellence, a photo project exploring the experiences of racial profiling felt by people of colour in Victoria and Vancouver.

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“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me,” says the 27-year-old. “In a lot of cases, whenever you have folks sharing these experiences — people of colour sharing these experiences — very frequently, they’re met with, ‘Well, I’m sure that this was just an isolated incident; it was a one-time thing,’ or ‘Are you really sure that it was about race?’ But as a person of colour, when it is about race, you can tell.”

For Smith, the idea for the photo project came from an incident in late December of 2017, when he was walking home from a night out with friends.

“I’ve had one gentleman refer to me as a ‘thing’ to somebody else right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there. I’ve had people touching my hair without asking, people saying the n-word around me.” – Nathan Smith

“There was a couple in front of me, and they had actually stepped off from the side road and went into my pathway,” he says. “For the entire time that I was behind them, they would continuously turn around and look at me, and then walk faster — to the point where they ended up jaywalking across two main streets in downtown Victoria.”

Unnerved by the incident, he went home and set up his camera for a series of self-portraits — “to kinda just show myself that I’m not a scary person; I’m not anyone to be afraid of,” he says. Smith planned to share the photos on Instagram, but paused for a moment when a thought came: “I wonder how many other people that has happened to.

Smith made a habit of asking other people of colour when he ran into them on the street: had they experienced the same things before? It didn’t take long for an answer. The first time, it was when a fellow young man named Parker stopped to pet his dogs outside.

“His response was, ‘My man, of course.’ And that’s kind of how it started,” says Smith.

A landscape photographer by nature, he began taking portraits of the people he met, selecting quotes from their conversations to share online.

“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people,” he says. “They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.”

For Smith, the portraits provided the perfect medium: a way to tap into his subjects’ humanity and put their stories into the spotlight.

“The main thing I was trying to do was just relay that the people in the project are real people, and they’re regular people. They have feelings, they have emotions, and they just want to live.” – Nathan Smith

“It’s very hard to distance yourself from it when you’re looking at them,” he says.

Eventually, Smith started approaching galleries in Victoria about putting together an exhibition. The first few didn’t respond, but before long, he met Alison Trembath at the Fortune Gallery.

“I said, ‘What about February for Black History Month?’ And she was like, ‘You know what? I love it. Let’s do it.’ So we booked it right then and there,” Smith recalls.

The gallery exhibition has come to a close, but Smith is determined to keep the project going online — and perhaps pursue another gallery space in the next year:

“As long as there is racism in Canada, I want this project to keep going.”


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Story Untold: “Climbing Is in Such a Different Place Now”

Story Untold with Shelma Jun

Shelma Jun is changing the sport of climbing. Photo by Irene Yee.

Shelma Jun is, by most metrics, an unlikely face for the sport of climbing. A late arrival to the scene — she didn’t begin until her mid-twenties — she lives in New York City, about as far-removed a place from Yosemite and Joshua Tree as they come. Which is kind of the point. A Korean-American born in Seoul, the Brooklyn-based climber is leading the way as an advocate for changing the way we view the outdoors: making sure, among other things, women and people of colour are given a greater voice.

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The creator of Flash Foxy — an online platform to “celebrate women climbing with women” — Jun co-founded the Women’s Climbing Festival in 2016 and was listed by Outside magazine as one of the 40 women who have made the biggest impact in the outdoor industry.

A remarkable feat, given climbing was a backup plan.

A longtime Californian, Jun’s family arrived in Fullerton when she was five. A middle child, she grew up involved in competitive swimming and water polo.

“My family was always really into the outdoors, and if you’ve ever seen photos of Korea, it’s an incredibly lush, mountainous region … so that was kind of already seeded into my childhood,” she says.

As she grew older, she learned surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding — the latter of which led to her switch into climbing. At UCLA, she arranged her class schedules to run Tuesday through Thursday so she could make trips to Mammoth Mountain.

“The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.” – Shelma Jun

“The very first day of snowboarding season, I broke my arm in half … and I was told not to do anything where I could fall onto my shoulder for at least two years,” Jun says. “A girlfriend of mine invited me to go to the climbing gym. She was like, ‘Hey, if you want to do top-rope at the climbing gym, if you do fall, you only fall one or two inches of rope stretch.’”

When Jun made the move to New York in 2011, she decided to get into the sport.

“It seemed like a perfect time to explore something,” she says. “The climbing community in New York City is incredibly specialI think you get a diversity that you might not find in other places.”

In time, Jun made a group of women climbing friends and began planning weekend trips to The Gunks (short for Shawangunk Ridge), or afternoon sessions at Brooklyn Boulders. She started documenting the trips on Instagram, and the attention grew. Flash Foxy was born.

“Women kept writing us and asking if I knew ways for them to meet other women … wanting to connect, wanting to get out, wanting to learn a new way of climbing … and I kind of looked around and tried to see if there was anything I could direct them to, and there wasn’t really anything like that at that time,” she says.

“I think we can change [the sport] to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.” – Shelma Jun

Two years after creating Flash Foxy, Jun planned the first Women’s Climbing Festival in Bishop, California.

“I thought it was going to be maybe 20 or 30 of us hanging out in the desert, and we got a huge response from it,” she says. “And it became really clear that it was going to be something much larger than I had anticipated.”

The event sold out. The following year, tickets sold out in less than a minute — a response that speaks to what Jun continues to advocate for.

“The demographic of climbing is changing rapidly, and I don’t think we as women, or as people of colour, or as queer folks… if we want to be climbers but don’t feel like that identity that exists now fits us, that we have to just make it fit,” she says. “I think we can change that to be a better reflection of all of us that now exist in climbing.


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