National Newswatch

TORONTO — Director Andrew Hamilton says his new concert film "The Onyx Experience" is not only a powerful celebration of Canada's often underappreciated Black rock music scene, but a reclamation of a genre that he was told couldn't be his.

The filmmaker recalls being a passionate fan of rock and metal bands while growing up in Markham, Ont., but found people around him frequently shot down his tastes.

"In every space and every corner I turned, everybody was there waiting to tell me: ‘Hey, that's white music,'" he said.

"I had other Black people telling me, ‘Oh man, why do you listen to that?’ And it made me sad because I was like, we don’t even know what's ours. That’s how wrong the culture has done us."

Hamilton hopes "The Onyx Experience," which debuted on CBC Gem last week, will help stop the dismissal of Black rock listeners by proving that Black Canadian rock talent is alive and thriving.

Shot over two days, the "live concert art film" captures performances by pop-punk star Fefe Dobson, Polaris Prize shortlisted band the OGBMs and Juno-nominated Sate – daughter of acclaimed blues and jazz singer Salome Bey – who play some of their best-known songs in an intimate setting without the presence of an audience.

Between each performance, the camera shifts to a small group of Black creators, and other people of colour, as they work on making the show come together. They talk about their love of rock music and their hope the film could serve as a catalyst for the next generation of Black musicians who see themselves represented.

But without their determination to make the film a reality, there's a good chance "The Onyx Experience" would've never seen the light of day.

Executive producer and former record label talent scout David Cox says he began shopping the film around last year, thinking his idea would be a perfect fit for Canadian media companies who were then making pledges to better support Black Canadian storytellers.

Instead, he found enthusiasm wasn’t just muted, it was practically non-existent among the people signing cheques.

“It kind of upsets me that a lot of companies, when the murder of George Floyd happened, they all had this epiphany: We need to make space for Black voices because they have not been heard," said Cox, who is also Sate's manager.

"I've knocked on a lot of the doors, and not one of them came back (to say), ‘Yeah, let's support this.’”

Although he secured some financial assistance from music industry non-profit Factor and additional funding from a distribution deal with CBC, Cox had to draw on his bank account to meet the film's $125,000 budget. About $40,000 of that money came from his own "passion pocket," he said.

He hopes to recoup some of that investment through a crowdfunding effort underway on Indiegogo.

Cox said he hopes "The Onyx Experience" transcends its role as an entertaining concert film and winds up "inspiring the music industry to do better" with more representation of Black Canadian artists and recognition that Black rock music history and its roots often go underdiscussed.

He pointed to classic rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones as a few of the acts who've credited lesser-known Black musicians as their inspiration.

"Something that Sate always said to me was, 'The first punk artists were Black blues women,'" he added.

"They were the ones that were so bold and rash with their words ... Talking about sex very openly; having that same kind of punk, radical opinion. They birthed it."

In the closing credits, the filmmakers decided to celebrate those who came before them by running a list of "every Black rock artist we could think of," in tribute to their roles as trailblazers. 

The "Special Thanks" toast includes some household names, such as B.B. King and Willow, alongside Black musicians who many probably haven't heard of, including the late Thin Lizzy bassist Phil Lynott and original Faith No More frontman Chuck Mosley.

"This is just the beginning of something bigger," said Cox.

"Because I think we have to take our spotlight. We can't expect people to give it to us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2022.

— Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press
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