Scarborough Made And Unafraid Wordsmith - Meet Ontario's First Poet Laureate
“I am not my struggles. I am not my pain. They are just roadblocks that prove how far I came.” A powerful quote said by Randell Adjei, Ontario’s first Poet Laureate.
A Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government, and is typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions.
Adjei was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario. He graduated high school as an Ontario Scholar and valedictorian for his class. He is a spoken word artist, author, and Founder of R.I.S.E. Edutainment (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere), also known as R.I.S.E. He loves art, people and nature.
“The neighbourhood means everything to me, you know, Scarborough, I feel is really this melting pot of talent of diversity. This is community to me, you know, I feel so much community when I'm in Scarborough, but I also think about the perception that folks have of Scarborough. And I'm hoping to change the perception of Scarborough because Scarborough made me who I am. It made me resilient. And I think it also taught me that being the underdog, you can use it to your advantage,” said Adjei.
Scarborough has a reputation for high crime rates, and many city councillors have spoken out about how unfair and untrue the reputation is. Adjei hopes to use art to continue to dismantle the idea of Scarborough of being an unsafe neighbourhood.
“There's no proving in art, you know, your art speaks its own truth. And especially when you create art from a place of truth, it makes it easier for other folks to kind of digest and take in what you're saying. But I also feel like art brings people together. Art allows us to heal together as a community; art reminds us that we're human. I think that's what I really love about art, it just really lets us know that we're human, and we're all experiencing this thing. Similarly, but differently,” said Adjei.
Adjei discovered his gift and love for poetry thanks to the support and inspiration from one of his grade eight teachers who introduced him to writing to express himself through the challenges he was facing. He says that the impact of someone believing in you can be empowering for years to come.
“It goes a long way, when someone believes in you. When you are a young person trying to navigate the world, trying to make sense of the world, as chaotic as it can be and knowing that there's someone that's there, that's not your mom, your dad, your family, but someone just outside who cares about you enough to want to invest in you,” said Adjei. “And I think in addition to that, there's something to be said about being a mentor and giving back. That each one teach one mentality. It goes a long way.”
Now Adjei is a mentor himself in the Toronto and Scarborough community. In 2012, Adjei formed R.I.S.E., to provide youth with inclusive and safe platforms across the GTA to creatively express themselves through the performance arts. It became an important outlet for many who had endured negative situations in their lives, like Adjei.
When he was in his late teens, he was brutally attacked and robbed at night. The experience left him at an extreme low point in his life, but he refused to let his battles defeat and define him.
He says that programs that allow creative expression are much needed, especially for Black men. So it is disappointing when organizations can’t find the support or space they need to host it.
“I feel disheartened. I think it sucks because those are probably programs that could have benefited and supported others. And I think it's disheartening, because we live in a city that has so many resources, a lot of vacant spaces, and there's a lot of money out there. But when you don't have the support to find space, or the support to get the funding to continue, it can make it really challenging. I think, especially in a city like this where there's so much programming needed,” said the Poet Laureate.
As a Poet Laureate, Adjei’s goals include creating more social networking opportunities for poets across Ontario; connecting with various regions across the province to host events, facilitating workshops and perform poetry; link Ontario’s diverse communities by weaving poetic stories; attending meetings or events to advocate for poetry and the spoken word; and working with regional school boards to encourage more creative writing in the classroom.
“I would say it's a full circle moment for me, mainly because it's exactly what happened to me when I was in grade eight, what my teacher did for me, and the opportunity to give it to other young people is a tremendous opportunity. And there's two distinct moments when I think about my poetry career personally. So one of them, being obviously my grade eight teacher,” said Adjei.
“The other being when I was 16 years old and literally watching someone perform on stage, his name was Bruno Mohamad. He was performing at a conference, a Black students conference that I went to called NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers. I was sitting front row, and I said to myself, I'm going to do that one day.”
And Adjei went on to do just that. He has performed across the globe and in support of high-profile figures such as President Barack Obama, Terry Crews, Paul Mooney, Kardinal Offishall, and Toronto Mayor John Tory.
He is a member of the League of Canadian Poets. Adjei also published his first anthology I Am Not My Struggles in 2018 and was a co-author of KNew Me: 10 Men 10 Stories of Perseverance published in 2019.
The popularity of R.I.S.E. led to significant notoriety for Adjei as well, leading to accolades that have included CBC’s Torontonian of the year in 2015, NOW Magazine’s May 2017 Local Hero, and The Black Canadians Awards Best Spoken Word Award winner in 2014. In 2018, R.I.S.E. was also awarded the Mayor’s Youth Award by Toronto Arts Foundation, Toronto’s city-wide charity for the arts.
Being the first Poet Laureate of Ontario, Adjei hopes to also create more opportunities for poets to become more professional and receive paid opportunities. His organization, R.I.S.E. already helps with this as it gives emerging poets the space to perform every Monday at their virtual open mic held on Zoom since the pandemic.
Adjei recently performed his first commissioned piece for CBC’s The National on May 25 for the George Floyd Special, which gathered the attention of many individuals online.
“Last week, I performed my first commissioned piece as Ontario's Poet Laureate for the George Floyd anniversary on @cbcthenational it's beautiful to get good feedback also followed with hateful commentary on twitter. Racism is still alive and real in our country. We all must do our part to advocate for those who are being oppressed, silenced and mistreated,” he wrote on his personal Instagram account. “As individuals we can make waves, together, we can create a tsunami of change.”
Adjei will be Ontario’s Poet Laureate for the next two years. He will continue to spread the message of love and reach intelligent souls everywhere now, and for years to come.