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Grammys 2019: Women in the spotlight, hip hop makes history and tributes galore

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Female artists dominated at the Grammy awards Sunday night, with the spotlight of “music’s biggest night” firmly focused on powerhouse performances by women.   

The Recording Academy — which has been trying to address criticism around the lack of diversity at its annual celebration of music — has made some strides when it comes to nominating more diverse musicians. That was on display Sunday, as the Grammys registered several historic wins for rap artists and saw female acts triumphing with two of the night’s top trophies (album of the year, best new artist), as well as in categories including rap album, country album, R&B album and pop vocal album.

Producers of this year’s Grammy telecast chose to, for the most part, turn the show over to female artists, highlighting the talent of host Alicia Keys and honouring musical icons like Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.

Then there was the noticeable boost in top-nominated female acts (including Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monae, Cardi B, H.E.R., Dua Lipa and Brandi Carlile) performing — and commanding attention with their time onstage.

“I just wanted to say how honoured I am to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year, because I guess this year we really stepped up,” Dua Lipa quipped upon winning best new artist, a clear retort to outgoing academy head Neil Portnow’s infamous comments backstage at last year’s telecast.

That said, the show wasn’t without mishap. Here’s a round-up of some memorable moments from the night.


Musical matchmaking

Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich is simply addicted to star-studded matchups and duets. Sometimes it truly works, as with Camila Cabello’s high-energy opening performance of Havana, featuring J. Balvin, Ricky Martin, Young Thug and Arturo Sandoval.

The star-studded Parton tribute had even BTS bopping. Late in the show, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa offered a seductive performance of Masseduction.

But slamming together musical notables of different genres and generations or simply signing big names to perform yet another tribute doesn’t always pay off (more on J. Lo later).

Obama in the house

To help kick things off, Keys shared her time onstage with some major names, inviting “sisters” Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and — seemingly garnering one of the night’s biggest and longest ovations — Michelle Obama.

“Music has always helped me tell my story,” Obama said. “Whether we like country or rap or rock, music helps us share ourselves. It allows us to hear one another.”

Drake’s real talk

In one of the night’s surprise appearances, Grammy-and-Juno-snubbing hip hop star Drake was actually in the house to accept the Grammy when God’s Plan won the trophy for best rap song.

“If there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and snow, spending their hard-earned money to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you, you already won,” Drake told fellow artists from the stage after his win.

But just when we thought perhaps his beef with award shows had ended, producers bluntly cut off his real-talk speech, sending the show to commercial at what they subsequently called a “natural pause” (with Drake apparently declining the offer to come back and finish his thought).

Well Grammys, that’s likely the last time you’ll see Champagne Papi at your show.

Historic hip hop wins

Cardi B, seen performing Money during the ceremony, is the first solo female winner of the best rap album Grammy. (Matt Sayles/Invision/Associated Press)

And speaking of no-shows, Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) made history with his blistering track This is America winning both song of the year and record of the year.

It’s the first time in Grammy history a rap song has won either category. It was an embarrassing moment for Grammy organizers that such a major winner didn’t feel compelled to attend. (The song also won best rap/sung performance and best music video)

Another historic win came when rapper Cardi B became the first solo female rapper ever to win best rap album (for Invasion of Privacy).

Motown by way of Sin City

Jennifer Lopez performed with Smokey Robinson in a tribute to Motown. The choice was controversial before the show even happened, and even more so after her performance. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

A decision that was maligned by many from the moment it was revealed was the Grammys’ decision to have Jennifer Lopez lead a tribute to Motown. A major complaint was that the tribute to the label that brought the world artists like Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Glady Knight and Stevie Wonder, should come from a black artist.

And then there was the performance question.

Though widely acknowledged for her phenomenal dancing, J.Lo has never been considered an incredibly strong vocalist, so building a multi-song tribute around her (even with the assistance of Motown legend Smokey Robinson, Grammy host Keys and R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo) felt inexplicable to many in the audience.

It’s not surprising that the set, which seemed to channel her Las Vegas residency, earned a significant backlash on social media — especially when a tribute to Aretha Franklin later in the show appeared to get truncated to just one of the Queen of Soul’s songs.

Host with the most

Host Alicia Keys was a major part of the show, putting on her own performances as she carried viewers through the star-studded night. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

When you land a 15-time Grammy-winner as host, you want to make the most of it — and Grammy producers definitely showcased Keys as much as they could.

She shared personal stories, offered upbeat optimism about the music industry and, delivered a terrific two-piano bit that showed that lengthy musical medleys don’t have to be stuffed with cameos to actually be enjoyable.

Coming together on the red carpet

And lest you think major moments only happen onstage, Canadian nominees Young Spirit brought the roar of the red carpet to a momentary halt and drew everyone’s attention with a Cree round dance.

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Clark: Preserve Ottawa’s Kilmorie house as a heritage and cultural hub

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On Thursday, Nov. 14 at 9:30 a.m., the City of Ottawa’s planning committee votes on an application to approve a subdivision for a unique property at 21 Withrow Ave.

Kilmorie, a unique historic property, is situated in the middle of the city, a block off busy Merivale Road. This piece of land is the last remaining evidence of the early settlement of Nepean. It is a landmark for the City View and Nepean community dating back to the 1840s. It is one of the area’s most cherished heritage properties.

Kilmorie house is the second-oldest stone house in Ottawa. The property still contains more than 100 mature trees in a variety of species. To enter this property is a touch of magic in a whirlwind of traffic just a block away.

In 1915, the house was bought by William Wilfred Campbell. Campbell was known as one of Canada’s renowned Confederation Poets. Some famous poems of Campbell’s that were studied in our school days and continue to be enjoyed today are: “Down the Merivale Road,” “Indian Summer” and “The Woods at Kilmorie.” “The Mother,” acclaimed internationally, was read out loud in Parliament. Campbell himself, related to the Royal Family, wrote poetry in these gardens, entertained future prime ministers and coached the young militia preparing to serve in the First World War. He was a fervent Canadian patriot and a renowned artist.

Kilmorie house is the second-oldest stone house in Ottawa. The property still contains more than 100 mature trees in a variety of species.

The City View Community Association and the Kilmorie Heritage Society have been working to save this property as a community hub and an arts and cultural centre. Other educational undertakings could be held in the gardens of heritage flowers and where citizens are welcome to sit to enjoy the surrounding natural beauty.

What does the City of Ottawa think of this idea? It thinks that a subdivision of élite homes that would sell for close to $1 million each, located on a private road, would be better use of this land. And what will happen to the Kilmorie heritage house?  It would be tucked away on a private road, where only this small group of élite homeowners would see it. This house has been a focal point of this area for almost 200 years. Are we just going to let it be hidden forever?

Joan Clark is shown at the estate on Withrow Avenue in 2016. Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia

There are many people who support the preservation of this heritage site. Is the administration of the City of Ottawa acting in a short-sighted manner? Is City Hall more concerned about profit and the taxes to be gleaned from a few more high-priced houses? Has it lost its vision of the future for our young people, who are promoters of green spaces and ecological settings?

Our councillor is currently not active. Who will advocate for us? As citizens of Ottawa, we currently have no representation at City Hall. Councillors have been assigned to help us but do not have the background needed. Our councillor, MP and MPP are all supportive. Many people at City Hall are quietly supportive. We know that they see the merit in what we are trying to accomplish on behalf of our community and our city. Do we really need another subdivision with 14 detached dwellings shoehorned into a unique plot of land that has the potential to be a special setting which values our historic heritage?

Let’s keep Kilmorie in its whole and natural setting.

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Ottawa specialty bakery grows beyond owner’s dreams

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Much like baking, business can be a lot of trial and error before you get it right.

Six years and many sweets later, Jacqui Okum, owner of Strawberry Blonde Bakery, continues to tinker, even though the concept remains much the same.

More than a decade ago, the new vegan had been working in television in Toronto, however, she quickly ran into a problem: when it came to baked goods, she was left to make her own, as vegan-friendly options at that point were few and far between.

“I found myself making stuff at home because I still wanted to eat everything, but I couldn’t really find it,” Okum said in an interview with OttawaMatters.com.

Wanting to make a change from TV and with her new acumen for baking, Okum decided to enroll in a pastry program at George Brown College, one that included a focus on entrepreneurship.

Okum’s husband then got a job at the University of Ottawa, so she moved to the city and began to make offerings to the public, mostly through market stands like the ones at Lansdowne Park.

While her vegan offerings were popular, she began to get feedback about other products customers were looking for, including gluten-free and nut-free products.

The wheels slowly started turning.

After getting a job at Rainbow Natural Foods, Okum met her original business partner who was baking similar things, and the two decided to “go for it.”

At first, Rainbow allowed the two to bake out of its kitchen for a reasonable rate, but within six months the pair had already outgrown it, with orders surpassing space.

In 2013, the two opened their first shop on Grange Avenue in Hintonburg, which would include vegan-friendly, nut-free and gluten-free products to accommodate all dietary needs — something important to Okum.

“Being vegan myself, I knew what it was like to go somewhere and not have anything, or to have one option and it’s a sad looking option, or a piece of fruit,” Okum said.

“I’m still the person who wants the delicious cupcake or whatever it may be, so I really empathize with people who are celiac or maybe have a nut allergy. I took it really seriously.”

The challenge of making everything “just as good” as other offerings also drove Okum and she takes great pride when someone enjoys something from the bakery and doesn’t realize the limited ingredients.

“There’s nothing better. We get customers all the time where say they’re husband and wife and the wife comes in because she doesn’t want to eat gluten and the husband’s like ‘I don’t want it,’” she said. “And then he comes back and says, ‘My wife forced me to try this,’ but now he wants to come back because it’s so good. That’s the whole point of this business, is to make sure things look and taste similar to conventional bake goods.”

The passion and work to build up the offerings at the bakery has taken on a life of its own since the opening of the Grange Avenue location, which moved to Richmond Road as of two weeks ago, to include a coffee and sitting space. The business has now extended to the suburbs as well, with a Kanata location that opened this past June, with possible lunch offerings on the docket for 2020.

Okum said she couldn’t have dreamed that the venture would have been successful as it’s been so far almost seven years on.

“We have 40 employees, which is crazy to me and to think it was just me and business partner six years ago. It’s been a huge learning curve.”

When it comes to running a business, Okum offered to those looking to go down the same path to keep their minds open and to be flexible.

“What you think might happen isn’t what actually is going to happen but don’t be rigid,” she said, noting the original thought was that the bakery would mostly for wholesale use.

“Be kind to yourself, you’re going to make mistakes,” she said.

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How Ottawa’s Nordic Lab is creating new opportunities for Northern art

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For creators living in under-served Northern communities, geographic isolation and a lack of resources present a barrier to success. But the Nordic Lab — a new initiative at the SAW Gallery in downtown Ottawa — is hoping to empower these artists by offering them a mainstage platform to showcase their craft.

The newly expanded space in downtown Ottawa now hosts artists in residence, showcases Nordic art and provides educational programs geared toward Inuit youth — all the while promoting cultural exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, Norway and other circumpolar nations.

The SAW Gallery’s curator, Jason St-Laurent, says the Nordic Lab is both a program and a set of physical spaces, though the public will have to wait until the spring of 2020 to view it. St-Laurent says the physical spaces will consist of “screen printing spaces and an artist residency space, which we’re naming after Annie Pootoogook,” the legendary Inuk artist who passed away in 2016.

“We’re all about being the social lubricant of the art world,” says St-Laurent. “We’re not your grandmother’s art institution.”

Tam-Ca Vo-Van stands in her bright, document-arrayed office during our interview. (Joshua Soucie)

Tam-Ca Vo-Van, the SAW Gallery’s director, says the Nordic Lab has been a long time in the making: “We have collaborated often with different Nordic embassies on special presentations. Things just came together, and our curator, Jason St-Laurent, thought of putting in place this Nordic Lab, which would bring together artists from Nordic countries and the North of Canada, and also from Ottawa, in a sort of triangular zone of collaboration.”

“We were involved, for about two years, in major renovations — an expansion of our space,” says Vo-Van, referring to the tripling of the gallery’s space to its current 15,000 square foot home in Arts Court. “We didn’t have our programming spaces for about two years, so we relaunched our facilities at the end of July, but the Nordic Lab wasn’t ready at that time, so we delayed the opening.”

The director describes the Nordic Lab as a research and production space that SAW is making available to its visiting artists. The program is also an educational space that the gallery hopes will invite artists-in-residence to get involved with the local community through initiatives such as community art projects or workshops.

The gallery’s curator and director allowed us to get a shot of the Nordic Lab’s contemporary artist-in-residence studio space while it is still under construction. (Joshua Soucie)

“At the moment, we’re working on a collaboration with an Inuit children’s centre as well as the City of Ottawa, more specifically the Community Arts and Social Engagement program, to put together workshops [for various age groups] that are coming up in November,” says Vo-Van. “With the Nordic Lab, we really wanted to involve the local Inuit community. The Nordic Lab initiative has an artistic mandate but also an educational one. We want to involve youth in artmaking. We really want to contribute to the well-being of the community in which we live, and we really believe the transfer of traditional knowledge is beneficial, especially for youth that are marginalized.”

For its Nordic Lab, the SAW Gallery will be installing semi-automated screen printing presses, which St-Laurent describes as “octopus presses” because their many arms make it simple to accomplish large-scale editions of projects, such as the simultaneous production of T-shirts, bags or prints: “Normally, when you’re hand-making it, it can take forever, but with this semi-automated press, you can do 500 no problem.”

“We’re launching a project called the SAW Art and Protest Initiative,” says St-Laurent, explaining that the project will help elevate the visual impact of political actions or protests by pairing organized social movements with artists to devise visual campaigns through merchandise that will be funded and produced by the SAW Gallery. “SAW, in its beginnings in ’73, was a bunch of activists, feminists and queers coming together to create something where people can see themselves reflected all across the gallery. We kind of wanted to go back to our activist roots, and normally, we can’t apply for funding for political anything, so now we’re using the profits from the bar to invest in our projects.”

SAW Gallery curator Jason St-Laurent. (Joshua Soucie)

The bar to which St-Laurent is referring is known as Club SAW, where gallery-goers are invited to grab a drink to sip on as they view the pieces laid out throughout the gallery. 

Despite the delay in the launch of the Nordic Lab’s physical spaces, the program is well underway. In the fall of 2018, they welcomed their first artist-in-residence, Sobey Art Award-shortlisted artist Joi T. Arcand. Club SAW therefore features a neon sign that was commissioned by the gallery over the course of Arcand’s residency. 

During her residency, Arcand took on a hybrid role with the gallery, becoming the Nordic Lab’s first program director. Arcand says she looks forward to seeing some of the international partnerships she has helped foster come to life as she moves on to her next residency at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Joi Arcand’s neon signs hang on the wall of Club SAW. (Joshua Soucie)

On November 7, SAW will be hosting an afterparty in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada for the launch of the Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel exhibition, which will be showcasing the works of over 70 Indigenous artists from around the world. At their afterparty, the Nordic Lab’s second artist-in-residence, Norwegian Sámi artist Elle Márjá Eira, will be performing Joiks, which the artist describes as Europe’s oldest singing tradition.

“Joik is still a living art, and I always say that Joik is my heart language,” says Márjá Eira. “I will perform a Joik, a piece from the Norwegian feature film The 12th Man,directed by Harald Zwart. I composed that piece together with film music composer Christophe Beck. […] I hope that the audience is able to capture my feelings and stories, and that they somehow come into my world. My universe is completely different from yours.”

With its emphasis on community building and spotlight on Northern art, the Nordic Lab’s programming is sure to give its event participants chills.

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