A Conversation With ... Duane D.O. Gibson

When Black people come together for worship, it is “a celebration of our culture, our history, of who we are, of how we got over, how we survived the madness, the claustrophobic madness of hundreds of years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow and then anti-Black racism that we saw manifest itself at the Capitol.” Louis Gates – The Black Church

"So much of the way we've interpreted the Bible and so much of the way we've embraced it has been about the struggle. In the Old Testament, a lot of the doctrine that we hold onto is that that idea of the Exodus, going to the Promised Land, Moses leading his people to freedom and 'Let my people go' – these were the mantras that were part of the freedom movement, both freedom from slavery and freedom from Jim Crow." - John Legend.

Canadian hip-hop artist, author, Guinness World Record Holder (the longest freestyle rap) and motivational speaker Duane ‘D.O’ Gibson is launching his Black Canadian 365 project to celebrate Black History Month. Black Canadian 365 will document his life as a Black Canadian via freestyle rap, long form blog posts and images.

Duane, a fifth-generation Black Canadian from Saskatchewan who is Toronto based, has been delivering powerful, motivational presentations to schools centering around Black Canadian History for nearly twenty years via his Stay Driven motivational tours. An international hip-hop artist in his own right, as well as a successful record label executive and a socially active community ambassador, Duane has sold tens of thousands of albums, hit #1 on U.S. College Hip-Hop Radio charts and travelled the world performing for sold out crowds, he is currently putting the finishing touches on a new studio album out later this year.

Additionally, Duane is Co-Founder of the Northern Power Summit and the February session will be called Black 365 to highlight black excellence in Canada and abroad. The series will continue to provide education and tools, as well as access to individuals to help Canadian artists and industry professionals develop their careers. Confirmed, but yet to be announced speakers include:

Keynote speaker, Michael "Mike" Wansley, (aka. Wanz) is an African American singer, songwriter and rapper who was featured on the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' hit single Thrift Shop, receiving two Grammy Awards for "Best Rap Performance" and "Best Rap Song". Wanz also hosted a Ted Talk conference event talking about his career in the music industry.

I caught up with the upbeat motivational artist a few days back and his story and the positivity he exudes is most genuine and inspiring.

Duane Gibson: I’m booking up all of these virtual school assemblies for February and because of the climate I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s been a bit overwhelming so this morning I just finished booking February and now into March and still getting emails. It feels pretty good. I miss doing school shows. I think it will be cool to reconnect with kids. This is a really tough time for everybody.

Bill King: You must get a lot of feedback by young people on how this has impacted them and separated from their friends?

D.G: I’m a parent as well and get emails from teachers saying it’s hit that critical point where kids are either tuning out or spending too much time playing video games and when talking on the video games, they don’t know who they are talking to; the inappropriate words they are using, the bad habits they are picking up, the lack of structure and routine. I think those are all tough things for kids. At the same time there is a lot of resilience and see that in my own kids. They are adapting to it and getting through it. It’s the winter, the shutdowns, a tough time.

B.K: I had to take the subway the other day and it was packed with people. I paused, looked around and thought to myself how much I miss people.

D.G: I completely resonate with that. I grew up in smaller towns. My dad’s from the east coast. When I see people in my own neighbourhood of Woodbridge and Vaughan I’m the kind of “hey, how ya doing guy” and not having the ability to do that and an uncertainty of when it’s going to change. I think that’s the cool part of booking these presentations; I don’t really know how it’s going to go. Each school is acting differently. Some schools I can’t reach because they are down. There is something fun about working on the fly and going with the flow. That’s what musicianship has kind of taught me. When doing those dirty club shows when things weren’t going right back when starting out and being so frustrated but now, I’m kind of glad I was able to adapt to them. I’m going to have to adapt now.

B.K: The Black Canadian 365 project. How is this laid out?

D.G: What I do is switch between rapping and speaking even in a virtual format. I start with an acapella rap especially with virtual I want to make sure everything is clear. I have music in the background yet unsure how it will affect people’s speakers. I intro myself to the kids. I say D.O stands for Defy the Odds and how I had to overcome challenges and when I wanted to become a rapper, there weren’t any rappers in Canada. And now there is somebody like Drake someone who is black Canadian history, but I grew up under Maestro. I tell them of the lineage of great black Canadian musicians like Oscar Peterson, I have his book on my shelf right now. I do call and response raps with kids. I go into the story of Viola Desmond. I also talk about Josiah Henson. I keep the focus on black Canadian history because for so long it was focused on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

B.K: How far back will you go?

D.G: I’ll go back to Josiah Henson because that’s part of slavery. His story is about escaping and coming to Canada, but his story is also about giving back. Helping others come back. It’s not just that he reached freedom here but he went back to bring more blacks to freedom. So much of what is about black Canadian history is thinking beyond yourself and bigger than yourself and sacrificing for others.

B.K: This was the Underground Railroad. Two migrations – that from the Caribbean much of which occurred from the ‘50s on and those coming up from the Southern states in America.

D.G: It is so interesting to see how the diaspora has been. My dad’s family is from Cape Breton. My dad’s grandfather’s side came up from St. Vincent in the Caribbean in the late 1800s. On my great-grandmother’s side, she’s a Maxwell who was here for generations and to the point, Rudyard Kipling who wrote the Jungle Book wrote something about my great-great-great-grandfather in his book back in the day. It wasn’t from Halifax or Africville side, but me coming from Cape Breton it was interesting because Halifax wasn’t a place I spent a lot of time as a kid, but New Glasgow was. New Glasgow is where Viola Desmond had the famous situation at the movie theatre.

She goes to the theatre and tries to sit down, and they pick her up and throw her outside, and she chooses not to leave. It’s such a powerful story to me on a few levels because I’ve been telling the story at schools for about fifteen years. For kids who don’t really know what racism is, I think it really impacts them because my lead-up to the story is to say “how many like going to the movies?” When you all go to the movies you get popcorn, you get pop and kids are like yeah, yeah, this is great. I ask them, “you like getting a good seat, don’t you? Have you ever sat down and someone tells you to move?” No. “Have you ever had someone pick you up and make your move?” No. I deliver this message to kids as young as kindergarten. For kids to see something that simple to relate to as going to the movies become controversial and face racism I think really connects with them.

B.K: How extensive was the black community in Cape Breton?

D.G: It was quite unique. In Sydney-Whitney Pier there was a steel plant that got people from so many regions of the world; Italians, Ukrainians, Polish and I think even if this isn’t an official stat the most churches per capita in the area.   My great-grandfather Robert Gibson was a founder of one of the churches there; the African Orthodox Church. It had such a mix of cultures and what I think is notable about the area is it was separated more by class than race. There were certain areas you were told not to go into in the community, yet blacks got along with more people from these situations than other areas. It was a sizeable black population and some great people coming from there. Isaac Phills from Whitney-Pier is the first black person to receive the Order of Canada. When I read his story and reread again in a way there’s nothing significant he did – not the first this or first that, yet he fought in World War 1 the Construction #2 Battalion, a black battalion, a major thing, but he wasn’t the only one. He worked in the steel plant for years, but there were a lot of black men working in the steel plant, but he raised his family, his kids and valued education and many of his five kids went on to university and carved a path for themselves.

On the weekend I talked to his son who is 92, and he told me stories about his dad and what it was like. I think that’s pretty cool. One of the things I talk about in black history and the website I’m designing is, “What is your connection to black history?” I think that’s important when you are black to have certain connections and the same when you aren’t. What makes you connect with these feelings or a story in history? When I was a kid I loved Jackie Robinson because I loved baseball. That story connected with me. It’s about making history present-day for yourself. 

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