Raw Voices: Bethel Afework’s journey as a creative and arts entrepreneur in Calgary

When I hosted a show from a one-time opportunity in the summer of 2016, I never imagined it being a popular monthly event …

With the help of some dedicated friends, we hosted 42 showcases, in downtown Calgary, bringing hundreds of people together for a night of spoken word, comedy and music. This show was called Raw Voices. Each event had open mics and feature artists to whom we provided honorariums for the performances. I can go on, and on about the show (and how we halted showcases due to the pandemic), but I want to focus on something else about it. I want to explore the team behind Raw Voices and why it mattered in Calgary’s art scene. 

When the average person thinks of Calgary, they are not usually thinking about arts and culture. For a long time, Calgary’s “arts and culture” was Stampede, also long dominated by corporate, oil and gas rhetoric. As office buildings dedicated to large fossil fuel industries are largely being vacated, city planners are scrambling to revive Calgary’s downtown and culture overall. Many are now realizing the importance of the arts. However, it’s important to ask ourselves who is currently holding positions of power in the art sectors, and why the lack of representation is problematic.   

A quick internet search of the not-for-profit boards and administration teams in the most popular, well-known players of Calgary’s art scene leaves little to be desired: White-dominated boards, with a majority having white males as their executive director/Ppresident. 

You might be asking yourself, why am I bringing this up, and why does representation matter?

This brings me back to Raw Voices. When hosting the show, I had countless attendees tell me how much they enjoyed coming to our shows due to its diversity of people and talents. In addition, how much they gravitated to the show because within other art spaces the curators were usually white. Although all the spaces claimed “inclusivity,” the lack of representation did not make it feel inclusive. I never thought much about how much representation meant in Calgary, until I realized my visibility, as a young Black woman, provided the encouragement for people like me to share their voices, in a space where they felt safe and welcomed.

We were not the only BIPOC Calgarians hosting art events, however, regular programing hosted by a diverse group of people is not the easiest thing to come by in Calgary. I personally believe many people feel discouraged to start artistic initiatives, especially among BIPOC groups, due to lack of representation. I see many creative individuals leave this city. I promised myself the only reason I would stay here is because I want to open an arts centre, The Alcove Centre for the Arts, whose model is the “YMCA for arts.” 

The support I garnered for Raw Voices is something I never imagined. I realized I could pioneer a one-of-a-kind space which will be an inclusive platform to amplify the diverse stories and cultures of Calgarians.

Although I focused on racial representation here, inclusivity and diversity goes way beyond that. Inclusivity is not only welcoming people of all ages, varying abilities, religions, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status. It is also providing people the opportunity to participate, contribute, engage, and be granted the power to create spaces where they feel most welcomed, valued and honoured.