James Brown’s classic 1969 song Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud could be the theme song for the 14 Quebecers nominated at this weekend’s Canadian National Griot Awards, celebrating and honouring black achievement in Canada.
"Griot [pronounced Gree-oh] is a West African term for those individuals who told the story of his tribe," says CNGA Quebec regional co-ordinator Shirlette Wint. "They usually were part of the royal court and at official events would tell stories about the king’s exploits. This is an oral tradition that’s been going on for generations."
The first annual Griots – originally the Black Achievement Awards when it was first launched in Alberta in 1995 – aims to do the same: canonize the achievements of contemporary African-Canadians.
Of the 14 Quebecers nominated, many are from Montreal, including Shirley Anne Gyles, president of the Coloured Women’s Club (nominated for volunteerism); 18-year-old Akil Allenye (for scholastic achievement), who represented Canada at the World High School Debating Championships in Peru and is now attending Princeton; and Violet Grant States (community service), a piano teacher who taught thousands of children, played Carnegie Hall with the Montreal Women’s Symphony in 1947, and was an organist and choir director at Union United Church.
"It’s important to make visible the accomplishments of black Canadians so that they can become role models," Winte says. "We need to open the imaginations of young blacks because the impression [in the wider community] is that there is little that is positive in the black community."
Winte says, "There are lots of black recognition awards but the Griots are the first national awards that will connect blacks across Canada."
Over 2,000 people will attend the ceremony at Edmonton’s Jubilee Auditorium on October 4. Then the annual awards will travel across Canada. Says Winte, "We could see Montreal host the awards in two years."