By Rosa Saba
When Cleason Lewis found out about an opportunity to organize the Amplified Coffee House, he jumped at the chance to provide young artists in Ottawa with a space to showcase their talents.
A musician and artist himself, the Grade 11 student wanted to be part of the event-planning process from start to finish.
Youth Ottawa, the Max Keeping-founded advocacy organization that empowers young citizens, had announced plans to host a arts-focused pilot project at Elizabeth Wyn Wood Alternative Secondary in Nepean. That gave Lewis and several of his classmates the opportunity to spend eight weeks brainstorming, planning and bringing to life the first Amplified Youth Coffee House, which will be held at The Origin Arts and Community Centre in Hintonburg on Nov. 25.
This will be the first event put on by the Artistic Mentorship Program, or AMP, a three-year project funded by the Trillium Foundation with the aim of getting Ottawa’s youth involved in the arts community as performers and as organizers.
“It’s something a bit more real, something that can happen a bit more often because it’s legitimate,” said Lewis. “It was my job to help it come alive.”
Jamaal Jackson Rogers — an arts educator, spoken-word performer and Ottawa’s current English-language poet laureate — was hired by Youth Ottawa to bring AMP to life. For the pilot project, he held weekly meetings and workshops to guide the students through the process of producing an arts event, from finding a venue to organizing publicity to coming up with a vision for the lineup.
“We want to offer youth performers and youth artists in the city opportunities to learn about the landscape of the arts culture and arts scene here in Ottawa, finding out where they fit in and getting more opportunities to work or network and brand themselves,” Jackson Rogers said. “We’re looking into opportunities to create work experience for young artists and young creators.”
The eight-week process began in September, and is coming to a close with the upcoming coffee house, though both Lewis and Jackson Rogers said they’re hoping the event will be the first of many. Next, Jackson Rogers will be working with students at schools across Ottawa to put on similar events.
The aim is to create what he calls a “social enterprise” for young artists in Ottawa, providing not just more youth-friendly performance spaces, but also teaching the skills of event planning to young people interested in the arts scene.
For Lewis, it was important that the Amplified Coffee House be more than a regular high school event.
“It’s not a talent show. It’s a performance,” he said. “You don’t have to be a professional, but you have to know what you’re doing. We want to put on a good show.”
He put a lot of work into choosing the seven performers and thinking a lot about the vibe he wanted the event to have.
The event has two headline performers, both of them up-and-coming Ottawa artists.
Inshar Khan, who goes by IKHVN, has been rapping since he was 16. As a student, he and his friends at Ridgemont High School created a production studio that is still in use. He also organized a rap battle league called Spit Hard Entertainment, which was “a way for people who were into a lot of violent-type behaviour to channel that anger in some other way, shape or form.” Khan organized not just battles, but open mic nights for musicians and slam poets.
Now 23, Khan is a founder of North Vagabond, a production company through which he produces his music and music videos. He draws inspiration from movie soundtracks and from Ottawa South, where he grew up.
“We’re grounded to Ottawa. That’s where all the memories are, that’s where all the movements are, so we’re not ever going to reject that,” he said. “I try to keep my lyrics as close to me as possible.”
Headlining alongside IKHVN will be 19-year-old Grace Marr, a soul and R&B singer who has experienced firsthand the obstacles youth performers face in the larger arts scene. Many venues won’t book underage performers; or, if they did, much of her fanbase would be unable to attend.
“Youth Ottawa is opening a lot of doors for young people to be involved in the community,” said Marr. “They make sure that whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be worth it.” She said she appreciates the chance youth performers are getting to be treated like professionals and gain experience in the Ottawa arts community.
“In opening up venues and opportunities that are cool, that provide the atmosphere of going to an event … they’re really on the right track and I hope that Amplified can keep happening,” she said.
This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.