Dae Shields has always been comfortable around music. As she was growing up in Brampton, Ontario, her Jamaican-born granddad often played the guitar and piano.
“He used to teach me,” Shields tells Pancouver over Zoom. “Then it kind of grew from there. I played saxophone for a few years—tenor sax—and then I got into the bass. That’s when I really started taking music more seriously.”
After joining her first band, Shields began freestyling with friends. It mostly involved coming up with spoken-word verses.
“It’s very rhythmic, the way that rap is,” Shields says. “But this is poetry.”
After a while, she decided that she should write down the words. And she developed a stage persona, ebonEmpress, who shares her message of unity and acceptance. Moreover, ebonEmpress raises awareness of injustice faced by people of African descent.
On Friday (March 3), ebonEmpress will be backed by a band when she performs at Black Space Jam at the Biltmore Hotel. Presented by Pi Provocateurs, the lineup includes several other Black performers: spoken-word poet Shayna Jones, DJ Bazenga, multidisciplinary artist Brotha Jason (a.k.a. Jason Bempong), stand-up comic Mufaro Mbudzi, and KOR (a.k.a. Osmoses x, Kor Kase, and Buni Kor).
In addition to a night of Black artistry, attendees can also learn about Black-owned businesses in the region at a Black Market.
“It’s not just another show,” Shields emphasizes. “It’s not just another performance [where] you go there, you walk away, and you forget about it a month from now.”
Rather, she describes Black Space Jam as part of a broader effort to develop a “consistent community”.
“We’re trying to build something that has longevity,” she states. “We’re trying to support the community in a sustainable way.”
Shields co-founds Afro Van Connect
Shields moved to Metro Vancouver about six years ago. She acknowledges that after arriving, she soon realized that it was tough for young Black artists to reach their potential here. That’s because there weren’t spaces for them to develop their skills.
“There was no access for that at that time,” Shields says. “So, we decided instead of trying to get access to these spaces, we would create our own spaces.”
That was the origin of Afro Van Connect Society. She’s executive producer of the non-profit group, which she co-founded with Kor Kase. Its Black Spaces Initiative engages in community building in several ways, including through the Black Spaces Symposium. This unites artists, activists, professionals, and educators of African ancestry to strengthen connections and honour Black heritage.
The society’s Black Space Media program focuses on “creating inspirational and positive stories that portray dignified images of African Descent youth”.
“We believe when youth of African Descent are given access to diverse platforms to tell their stories it enhances their visibility and builds their self-worth within the community,” the Afro Van Connect website states.
In the future, Afro Van Connect would like to have a stage at various festivals for Black Space Jams to amplify the work of young Black artists.
“There is so much talent in our community,” Shields says. “They are so gifted—and they’re not getting the access and support that is needed in order for them to grow and bloom into the amazing humans that they are.”
There is also a Fare Farms initiative devoted to food justice, sovereignty, and sustainable land practices. And “Creative Wealth” offers capacity building, diverse funding, and expansive networks for entrepreneurs and creatives in the community.
Black community is not a monolith
There’s a reason why Afro Van Connect uses term “African Descent community”. Shields emphasizes that the Black community is “not a monolith”. People of African ancestry have many national identities and speak different languages. Some are born in Canada, whereas others come from the United States, Britain, Caribbean countries, South America, and Africa.
However, they also share common experiences. That includes a higher incidence of racism and micro-aggressions. This is something that Shields, as ebonEmpress, highlights in her music.
“It happens on a regular basis, even now, in 2023,” she says.
People who are not Black might hear about high-profile acts of racism through the media. But the day-to-day incidents—like being followed by a security guard in a store or being disoriented by an offhand racist comment or question or an odd stare—rarely attract the same level of attention.
“It happens in different ways for different people,” Shields says.
For example, she states that it can be “very disheartening” to go to a store because you need toothpaste, only to come under surveillance because you’re Black. She notes that it requires emotional energy to recalibrate after something like that occurs.
“This music, for me, has been very healing in that way—processing those things and being able to write it down and centre myself and share my stories in shared spaces of healing,” Shields reveals. “It has definitely allowed me to release a lot of those things.”
Through her work, Shields has become a role model for Black youths. But she also acknowledges that she is “imperfect”. In fact, she recently wrote a song, called “The Imperfect”, which she plans to release as a single at the end of this year.
“I struggled with wanting to be there for my community and supporting my community—and people viewing me as this shining beacon of somebody who is so perfect,” she says. “At the end of the day, I still have things that I’m working on.”
Then Shields reiterates that she’s imperfect before noting that nobody needs to achieve perfection in order to support others.
“You can still work on yourself but still be really invested in what it means to build the community up,” she declares.
Pi Provocateurs, which is part of Pi Theatre, will present Black Space Jam at 8 p.m. on Friday (March 3) at the Biltmore Cabaret.
A growing Black community
In the 2021 census, there were more than 40,000 people who self-identified as “Black” in Metro Vancouver. That was up 29 percent from the 2016 census. Below, you can see the Black population in various communities in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, and the Sea to Sky Corridor in 2021.
New Westminster: 2,695
Pitt Meadows–Maple Ridge: 1,610
Langley Township: 1,450
Port Coquitlam: 1,235
City of Langley: 605
City of North Vancouver: 550
District of North Vancouver: 475
Port Moody: 395
Electoral Area A (University Endowment Lands): 200
West Vancouver: 185
Squamish First Nation: 135
Bowen Island: 30
Tsawwassen First Nation: 20
Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.