Contra, Jae Sterling brings underground notes to Arts Commons program for emerging artists

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The idea may seem counterintuitive at first glance.

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Take two of Calgary’s most respected underground figures and ask them to help prepare marginalized artists for mainstream audiences. Perhaps this is a slight simplification of the Arts Commons Incubator, an interdisciplinary professional development program that drew 20 artists from Calgary for its 2021-2022 season. But it is clear that the organization has recruited its “Incubator Fellows”, Contra and Jae Sterling, with the idea of ​​inserting an underground influence into its program, which is now in its fourth year. It will lead to a series of cabarets, starting November 20 with Two Doors: Dispatches from the In-Between.

Contra are half of the hip-hop duo, alongside sister Eboshi, from Cartel Madras, a group that started out in Calgary but have been making international waves since signing with iconic Seattle indie label Sub Pop ago. a few years. Jae Sterling also does hip-hop and is a visual artist who painted a mural in Chinatown in 2020 to reflect the Black Lives Matter movement. The two were co-founders of the THOTNATION / SANSFUCCS collective, which began as a way to unite Calgary’s hip-hop community in 2018, but has since grown to include artists of all stripes.

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They are therefore used to working with emerging artists, and that is what the program was designed for.

“How do you attract this kind of emerging artist to downtown? Said Contra. “How do we get them into a respected institution in the arts that many artists here who are from our origins and perhaps even in our disciplines do not always have the opportunity to enter?” The program was created with this in mind. We were brought in, I think, because we are artists who really evolve in the underground, especially for three years, oscillating between cinema and visual arts and music. It’s just a lot of interesting counter-culture in Calgary that we’re bringing onto the art scene.

Contra and Sterling did not choose the artists. They all applied to be part of the program. It is up to them to organize a cabaret around the twenty or so artists admitted to the program.

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“It’s almost like we’re using ourselves like a bat signal to draw certain artists into the program,” Contra explains.

Three artists will participate in Two Doors: Dispatches from the In-Between, including oral artist, poet and storyteller Wakefield Brewster, Nigeria-born Neo-Noir singer-songwriter Uyemi, and Lisa and John, composed of ‘a tap dancer and choreographer Lisa La Touche and jazz drummer Jon McCaslin.

Two Doors is the first of several performance opportunities that program participants will have until 2022. The cabaret will have two performances on November 20. Brewster, Uyemi and Lisa and John will perform individually and collaborate as well.

“With the Calgary backdrop, it’s very easy to remain an emerging artist for a very long time,” says Sterling. “Yes, while a lot of these (performers) are experienced, and everyone who applied was very experienced, but really didn’t have the opportunity to be seen in a certain light. I take things very literally. This first cabaret will be called Two Doors, speaking of stepping into that liminal space that we’ve been in Calgary as a whole for quite some time now, even before the pandemic. We have this talent that is bubbling. We see the potential in a crazy way. But what is going on with it? Are artists continuing to grow? Are we seeing huge success? Are we finally starting to become a city of art because there are so many artists here? “

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“We want, not only these three artists, but anyone who applies to the incubator’s program, whether it is a step towards a better place for their career, a more definitive space for their artistic vision,” adds- he does. From this perspective, it will naturally attract artists from marginalized communities because they are the most watched.

Brewster, La Touche and Uyemi are all black artists from Calgary. They are all at the top of their game. But Contra says she hopes the program will help build community and network among these artists.

“They’re great at what they do, but typically wouldn’t end up in a space where they work together,” she says. “It’s another thing we want to do, it’s to have artists who are very good at what they do, emerge, come from BIPOC but might not have an ecosystem to interact with each other. with others as artists. Someone who is a rapper very rarely finds himself in an ecosystem with someone who is a jazz dancer. A soul singer may not always end up with a professional drummer. Sometimes artistic spaces emerge naturally and artists find themselves working together, but this has been more difficult during COVID. We have been left to fend for ourselves on the Internet. So I also see this program as a way to bring together a group of artists again.

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