Shakura S’Aida brings decades of performance to Black History Month series

It doesn’t take long to realize that Shakura S’Aida is exceedingly humble about being three decades deep into a remarkable singing career; one that — among many other things — has included scoring a best blues album nomination at the Junos serving as a frequent juror at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis Tenn. and occupying a two-month residency at Toronto’s five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“I’m always surprised when people like my music” she says less than a minute into the interview. Later she mentions her amazement that a young singer approached her last week to ask if S’Aida would listen to her CD. “It’s a very strange thing that’s happening” she says.

But such remarks don’t come across as some contrived over-the-top-Canadian thing (to be fair S’Aida was born in New York and raised in Switzerland). Instead they seem like a process of contextualizing a way of consistently honouring those who paved the way for her. It’s not that she’s being self-deprecating; more so it’s just about paying her respect.

That’s why S’Aida’s upcoming stop in town is titled “Blues in G Minor: Four Women.” It’s featuring a joint composition created with the assistance of longtime pianist Lance Anderson that showcases the work of legends Billie Holiday Etta James and Nina Simone. To her it’s an ideal fit for the Then and Now Black History Series taking place on February 14 at Festival Hall.

“Those three women helped me become the fourth woman” explains S’Aida. “They really helped me to develop myself and to find my voice. That’s the whole tie-in for me and for Black History Month: it’s all about finding your voice whether you be black or white or Asian or whatever else. It really is about finding your voice and feeling grounded where you stand.”

It’s more than just heartwarming rhetoric though. Last year S’Aida visited dozens of schools across Canada with her mother Gloria Smed who participated in the civil rights movement and was briefly a member of the Black Panthers. One of the primary goals of the project was to get students engaged with the neglected history of the experiences of the country’s black Canadians.

“The history that most of the kids get is the Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and ‘look at how bad the States were look at how they treated their people’” says S’Aida. “But hold on. There was segregation in Canada. There was slavery in Canada. There was razing of communities in Canada.

“There were people who fought for freedom who fought for equality who achieved greatness in Canada and they also were black. So before you start learning the history outside of your country know the history of your country. That’s the reason we decided to do this.”

S’Aida and Smed will be hosting workshops in Calgary schools again this time focusing on the next steps for students to take in working towards a more equal society. But in addition to helping the kids discover their own convictions S’Aida believes that the sessions can assist participants in a more personal way.

“The kids don’t feel anymore” she says. “They want to feel something and they don’t know how to express themselves. They’ve got all this technology in their hands but they’re not expressing themselves. What if we gave them back those tools by telling them that they belong here by telling them that they have a voice here by telling them that we want to hear their voice? And look how much voices have changed the way the world works.

“Look at my mother who was jailed who had dogs set upon her who was fed dog and cat food who was put on a chain gang” says S’Aida. “Look at how her voice helped to change the world. There’s a black president now because of people like my mother. There’s no segregation in Canada because of people like my mother.”