More than a year after MPPs first considered a bill to create the position of poet laureate for Ontario in memory of Gord Downie, spoken word artist and activist Randell Adjei was unanimously elected by members of the legislature to become the first person to fill the post.
“I’m someone who speaks from a place of authenticity,” Adjei told Global News on Thursday when asked to describe his art.
“Something I believe in is that vulnerability is something that is seen as a weakness in our society. I think it’s the complete opposite. To bare your soul, to be authentic with other folks and share your truth with other people, it takes courage, it takes a lot of bravery to do so and I think I’m really just looking to inspire to really show others that you can do this, you can really make this happen.”
Global News caught up with Adjei outside the Scarborough Civic Centre a day after he was named to post. Proud to have been born in Ghana, he reflected on his upbringing in Scarborough and his work founding R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere) Edutainment, an organization that seeks to provide a safe and inclusive for young and emerging artists.
“Being raised in Scarborough was probably one of the … best decisions that my parents made. It taught me a lot about resilience, taught me a lot about being the underdog, about being forgotten,” Adjei said, countering the negative connotations some have about the community that makes up the east side of Toronto.
“A lot of times we’re pushed under the rug. You think about people like The Weeknd, Shamier Anderson, Stephan James, that have come out of Scarborough … I think Scarborough has taught me about being resilient. Understand that you may be the underdog, but use that to propel you forward. You know, don’t see that as a crutch. I think if anything, it can be a trampoline for us.”
It is that resilience, he said, that is the key theme of his body of work. Adjei explained how poetry served as an important outlet for trauma he went through and how it can be an introspective way of looking at one’s self while reflecting on the trauma they may have experienced.
“For me, a lot of the childhood trauma that I went through publicly was my vehicle to release that. It was a cathartic opportunity for me to let go of the pain that I was holding onto and it was a Grade 8 teacher that said, ‘You know, tell me your story,'” he said.
“(The teacher) give me a pen to write my story and gave me a paper to listen when no one else would listen to me. And I think the paper when you write poetry, the paper listens because it won’t judge you for what you have to say or what you’ve been through … and the pen will help you tell the story.”
Adjei also shared a message for anyone who is facing, or has faced, difficulty while looking back on his work to date.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you live in the world, how much money you have, the colour of your skin, your sexual orientation, at the end of the day we’re all going to experience adversity and adversity does not discriminate,” he said.
“So what do you do with adversity when it does come? Because it’s inevitable, you’re going to face it, and so my poems are really to encourage others to be reminded that you’re not by yourself. We’re going through this together and at the same time how can you take the adversity and find the seeds of opportunity and the challenges that you’re going through? How can you be an alchemist, essentially? How can you turn these rocky moments into golden lessons?”
When asked about his appointment on Wednesday, Adjei described it as exciting and one that challenges a stigma some may have that artists won’t make money or ultimately won’t find success.
“I think to really be able to see the fruits of your labour come to light, to plant a seed and water it over time, to push through adversity when you’re told that what you believe what your vision is, will not happen. I think there’s something really special about being given your flowers while you’re still alive,” he said.
“I’m hoping that other artists can see that there’s an opportunity that they can pull and push through whatever challenges that they’re going through and that they can see themselves, you know, take what I’ve done to a whole other level.”
Although he is physically limited in where he can go, Adjei said once COVID-19 restrictions lift he would like to travel across the province, citing places like Sudbury and Manitoulin Island, in an effort to “spread a message of hope and joy” as well as engage with other artists.
“What it looks like for now is galvanizing poets across Ontario and just highlighting and profiling poets and artists across the province,” he said, adding he wants to make virtual connections with artists and municipal poet laureates.
He also said since the role is a new one in the province, Adjei said he will work with members of the legislature to shape the post. He has been formally tasked with writing poetry, promoting art and literacy, raising the profile of poets in the province and finding ways to celebrate Ontario.
But building on his work with youth, he said he hopes to be able to infuse more introspective arts into the province’s curriculum.
Ted Arnott, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, released a statement congratulating Adjei on his appointment.
“As Ontario’s first-ever poet laureate, we know he will make an extraordinary contribution to the province’s literary arts,” he wrote.