In Black Expressions in BC, Tonye Aganaba talks housing insecurity, prison abolition and breaking up with oil and gas

Tonye Aganaba says that they are not good at Zoom.

In the wake of COVID-19, instead of switching everything online, they opted to (mostly) switch off.

But during the course of their hour-long performance, occurring via zoom on October 22, you wouldn’t think they had even the slightest problem with video performance. They charmed and delighted while bringing some much-needed warmth and witty political commentary to an audience of around fifty.

Aganaba’s performance was the second in a four-part series called Black Artistic Expressions in BC, a four-part virtual series that “bears witness to what it means to be Black in BC.”

This particular concert was moderated by educator and musician Ndidi Cascade, who seemed to be a long-time friend judging from their mutual admiration and affectionate banter.

Aganaba’s music and sweet melodic vocals were captivating even through a screen. It made me wonder just how enjoyable they must be in person. However, their music was far from the most interesting part of the performance.

Talking about their song “Villain,” written about being in a bad relationship, Aganaba got the audience laughing when they suddenly remarked that the real bad relationship we were all in was with oil and gas.

“We need to break up with oil and gas!” they exclaimed.

The next song on the setlist, “Make This House a Home,” might sound purely romantic at first glance, but coupled with Aganaba’s memories of years of intense housing insecurity, dedicated to their husband, the song rings even sadder and sweeter for it.

“Love and support is not a substitute for housing but makes it easier to get housing,” they said wryly.

Aganaba started a band at the age of 17, with a friend who was supposed to teach them the guitar, much to the chagrin of their father. Apart from this brief attempt at gaining a musical education, they are largely self-taught and are really in the game for the love of it.

“I’m not making music to become famous ... you don’t have to do it to become famous, it’s my therapy because it makes me calm,” said Aganaba, who according to Cascade is an “anti-capitalist artist.”

Aganaba, who spent the summer participating in Black Lives Matter protests, wanted to go beyond online awareness-raising and get materially involved. They started reading up on prison abolition and eventually joined a small group that works together in Vancouver.

“It’s one thing to post on the net, ‘Defund the Police!’ but it’s another thing entirely to do the work of dreaming a new work, a new alternative.”

This isn’t the first time that Aganaba has tried to create a new alternative.

Over the summer, Aganaba also participated in the UBC Democracy Lab precisely to be able to understand the nitty-gritty details and procedures of local government and advocacy. And they’re still not done.

“I want to study policy and political science because I have to. This is the time. There’s never been a better time ... I have a 15 year old and ... I feel like if I don’t learn these things then I can’t say that I’ve done everything I could have, and everything in my power,” they said of their plans to apply to study further at UBC in the coming years.

Prompted by Cascade, their final words to the audience and to the future Black artists who are part of the Black Artistic Expressions program were sincere and powerful.

“We have been given an invitation to understand who we are and where we are and why we are here ... I shouldn’t be here so this is the opportunity to figure out why I should be here.”

“Black artists have to reckon with that so that we [can] move forward.”