Koliah Bourne recently had the opportunity to chat with actor, rapper, poet, and playwright Anthony McLean about his recent documentary Colour Me, finding his voice, and his non-profit iEngage, a bullying awareness education program. Anthony has appeared as a guest speaker on CityTV’s Breakfast Television, Global Toronto’s Morning Show, 680 News, CTV News and CBC’s Here and Now. He is currently writing a book about bullying entitled Before You Send Your Kids To School.
Koliah Bourne: So tell me a bit about iEngage? What is your organization? What is that about? How did that come about?
Anthony McLean: So I guess 10 years ago I was hosting a CBC TV show, a kids show. I was on the air from 2001 to 2005 and it was called The X. It was cool. We would travel across the country to promote the show and go into elementary schools, have fun with kids and give away free stuff, and tell them to watch our show. It was fun and it was cool and I got to travel across Canada which I never would have done. It’s one of those things where often if you’re going to travel when you’re Canadian, you think about getting out of Canada rather than exploring Canada. When I was in front of the kids with a mic in my hand and I’m joking around and I’m rapping with them, it was so fun. I remember saying to my co-host, “Man, if I could do this for a living I would totally do this” because it’s different when you’re in a studio with a camera. So then I was at this one school and a guidance counsellor said to me, “Hey, you have a really great connection with the kids. Our biggest problem is bullying in schools. Do you think you could put together a presentation around bullying? You know the kids would listen to you.” And that kind of planted the seed for me. And so that’s where iEngage came from. I went home and literally wrote down on a piece of paper, “Anti-bullying rap workshop” because one of my things that connects me with kids is when I rap. I started in 2005.
KB: So that’s been going for a while.
AM: Now I’m sort of transitioning; I’m trying to go fully into film.
KB: So touching on film then, talking about Colour Me, you make this film, you’re the star of this film in 2011 which recently re-aired on Doc Side which is where I got to see it. So you’re following six black youth having a discussion about race. Why was it important to do that at that particular time?
AM: Because I guess I had a bit of a personal…I don’t want to say identity crisis, that sounds too severe, but I was really, really struggling with my identity and being myself. I was working in a restaurant, and in this restaurant—this was actually one of the catalysts for the film—so I’m working at this restaurant (I don’t think I’ve told anyone this) I was working in this restaurant and I’m a waiter and what happens is there’s a dish pit in the back of the restaurant and you go back there and you drop off your dirty dishes and there’s a dishwasher there. And every time I’d walk into the dish pit, if it was a white guy was on that day, like a dishwasher, I would talk to him normally so I’d say, “Hey, there’s a full rack of dishes” and send it over to him. But sometimes there was a black guy there and I found myself speaking differently to him. Instead of just being myself and saying, “Hey, there’s a full rack. I’m going to send it to you”, I’d be like “Hey man, rack’s full bro” (laughing). And every time I did it, I’m like “What am I doing?” you know what I’m saying?
KB: Yes, Absolutely.
AM: So it bothered me. “Why am I doing that?” It was just one of those things that nagged at me and that’s one of the things that drove me to look at race and identity and where did this start in me. I realized this started in school when people started saying to me, “You sound white”, and I was like, “What? What does that mean?” I didn’t know anything. I was just a kid running around with my friends and people are telling me I’m not doing black right and so that’s where it started and that made me think, “I wonder if that’s still happening with people today in schools. We should find out.” So that was it.
KB: Yep. I know that journey quite well. I had those discussions and have been told I’m too proper and speak to right; so I totally understand. So in the film, you also talk about- I love your take on this- you talk about this new racist. Explain that.
AM: Yeah, the brand new racist. This was the thing that tripped me up. These people that would say things like “I’m blacker than you” and these people that would say things like “I’m white washed or I’m an oreo”, and all this stuff. What tripped me up is that they had black friends and they didn’t dislike the black race; they were infatuated with black culture. But they saw black culture as hip-hop and BET and they saw black women as ghetto divas and they saw black men as gangsters and so if you’re not a ghetto diva it’s like, “Oh, you’re not black” and if you’re not a gangster, you’re not black. It’s putting the black race in a box saying here’s where you fit and if you’re outside this box then you’re not really black. So racism always puts people in a box and says, “Chinese people are…” and then puts them in a box. I guess I realized that for me I only called it racism if the box was negative and I didn’t realize that the box can be something people admire and are infatuated with, but as soon as you put people in a box that’s racism, that’s why I call it the brand new racist. It’s not that they hate black people; they just limit us. And I think that’s my new thing, that I want to break out of limitations and I want to help my people break out of limitations.
KB: That’s really good. So you also talked about that media was one of the things that really informed black culture for you and it sort of ‘messed you up’. Talk a little bit about that. How did it mess you up?
AM: My Black family lives in Jamaica and Florida and I lived in Aurora with my white family ’cause my mom’s white, my dad’s Black, and so growing up I got called names and stuff like that but I never was told that I wasn’t doing black right or there’s a certain way to behave from this background. And it wasn’t until my friends started listening to hip-hop and being exposed to groups like NWA, movies like Boyz In Da Hood and TV shows like Fresh Prince where they got a glimpse of what being black means and then looked at me; I’m this kid at a private school, my dad’s a doctor and they looked at me like you’re not like that. So I tried to figure out what it meant to be Black, so I studied Black history and I remember in Grade 7 reading Roots and the autobiography of Malcolm X because I really wanted to know what is black. And I remember when people would challenge me and say you’re not really black, I wanted to be able to say, “No, I do know what it means to be black; I know my history.” I remember reading encyclopedias, because back then we didn’t have internet, so I would read anything I could. I was reading about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, like any Black figure. I just wanted to learn about and memorize parts of the I Have a Dream speech; just anything I could get my hands on and I thought now that I have this, I’m ready. The next person that tells me I don’t know what it means I’ll be like, “Yeah I’m ready”. I’ll never forget one day, I’m playing basketball with one of my white friends and his little brother kept laughing at me. I didn’t know why and finally I was like, “Why you laughing?” And he says, “‘Cause you’re so white” and I was ready to give this kid a piece of Black history and let him know. I was ready to show him I knew my stuff. “So what makes you say I’m not black” and he said, “‘Cause you pronounce the ‘G’ on words that end with ‘ing’ and it stopped me in my tracks. It was like, this has got nothing to do with Black history, this has nothing to do with knowing my roots, this has to do with when you listen to Fresh Prince talk he sounds like this and I don’t sound like that. So I started changing the way I speak and I started changing, trying to adapt to what people were seeing in media. You know what’s funny, now I wouldn’t say that media messed me up, I would say that people watching media and watching only a limited expression of Black culture, and then putting that on me, messed me up. And me not being—I’m trying not to blame other people and other things— me not being strong enough to recognize and be able to just say I don’t need to sound like that. It’s about me being strong enough to be an individual.
KB: So there was a great moment in the film where the producer’s asking you, “Are you denying your whiteness?”
AM: I wouldn’t call that a great moment in the film; I’d say it was an awkward moment in the film (laughs).
KB: It was (laughing). I say it’s a great moment just cause it’s such a real moment and it watches you kind of realize, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing?” It was a wow moment. I’m sure there are people that caught that. I caught that—I do that, I’ve done that so it kind of showed you in a bit of a struggle with identity and that sort of thing. Have you settled into that now? Have you settled into yourself?
AM: I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin (laughs). I’m a lot more comfortable than I was. I haven’t arrived but I’ve left. You know what I mean? You know it’s funny ’cause when you were talking about the magazine describing that we’re trying to find what we’re really about and that you started differently I think for me that’s where I’m at too. It’s about finding my voice and it’s been a really cool journey finding my voice. And part of my voice is influenced by hip-hop and so I struggled for a while with so I shouldn’t say “Yo”, but truthfully no, that is part of me. I love hip-hop not because I’m trying to fit in, but I genuinely always loved rap music. I remember being nine years old listening to LL Cool J and writing down all the lyrics and that was before I knew anything about trying to be Black. I just loved music and so finding my voice has been a really cool journey and I think it’s one of the most important things in life is being able to find your voice.
KB: I agree.
AM: Actually Koliah, before you called, I really try to be true to myself and like the whole dishwasher thing, I guess there was times in my life where I noticed myself doing things like that but I was like, “Ah whatever. Who cares? Everyone does that”, but the reason it bothered me was because I want to be true. I want to be single in terms of not a duality. Ghandi said something like, “When your thoughts line up with your words and your words line up with your actions, that is like when you have integrity.” I can’t remember the quote but I want that. My thoughts line up with my words and my words line up with my actions and I have singleness. Jesus Christ talked about when your eye is single then your whole body is full of light and so right before you called I was recalling something my brother said to me, and he said this to me in an email, and he just kind of said it but I took it literally like a prophecy. “There can be no compromise on what you want to say. No consideration of the market, or palatability or what will they think. Who are you really?” And right before you called, I repeated that to myself. So finding my voice and being honest, even with things like this is really, really important to me.
KB: Wow! Awesome!
AM: Actually, can I add one more thing?
KB: Sure, go ahead.
AM: Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life says that God designed you; he literally thought of you, he designed you and then he gave you the parents you have so that you would have the genetic encoding hardwired in your DNA so that you can be exactly who can be. So when you try to be anyone else it won’t really work. You won’t really be able to bloom; you won’t really be able to do the great thing you are called to do.
KB: Wow. That’s really good. Let’s talk a little bit about film. You chose film as a way to get this message out there. Now you’re talking about leaning towards film. Why film? Why not another medium?
AM: Yeah, so with my work in schools, bullying is my real focus. What’s great about that is I can go to any school in the world and bullying is an issue so I went to a lot of schools. When I would go to school they would call me back and say, “Listen, our kids love you with the bullying presentation. Do you have anything else that you do?” And I didn’t. I really had to think and say, “What’s going to be my next presentation?” And when I started going through this whole identity thing I said this is what I want to do. This is what I want to say. I can’t just do something like talk about the environment; my heart’s got to be in it. I knew this is what I wanted to talk about, but I also knew I can’t go to a lot of schools and say, “What does it mean to be Black?”
AM: If I’m in Saskatchewan I’d say this is great for Timothy in Grade 6, but what about the 300 other students (laughing). I remember sharing with schools what I was going to do and they would be like, “It’s good, but can you make it about inclusivity? Can you make it about all races?” And I’m like, “Yeah, but I really want to drill down on this one.” And you know, it’s not fair and I get it. At some point I realized that a documentary film could travel farther than I could and I realized that this was a good way to tell this story. That’s why I chose to do this story through film.
KB: Okay. Cool.
AM: Bigger picture about film if I could speak to that?
AM: I think film is our culture’s, film and TV, that’s how we tell our stories. And I heard someone say, “Anyone who tells the best stories shapes the culture.” I want to shape culture.
KB: Just writing that one down…that’s really good. That aligns well with what we believe. We’re out to do the same thing. We’re out to inspire other creatives, young people, old people whoever to inspire and encourage people to get out there and create their world especially the creative ’cause you can use so many ways to be creative and tell a story. There are a lot of really good stories that are missing, I find, in film and television. In film and television it’s one thing to be entertained all the time, but you can use it to tell some really real stories and get some good messages across.
KB: For the up and coming creative, or the new creative, or the one that’s been doing it for a while, do you have any advice for them?
AM: Yeah. That’s a great question. So let me share with you my thought process. Learning your craft is so important and I think that’s a really key thing. Really learn your craft. Really sink your teeth into something and really sink your teeth in it so you’re really great at it. Let me say this, the world is being shaped right now by stories and if you want to shape culture, you need to learn how to tell stories and learn to tell the best stories. And if you can tell a great story then you can transmit values through stories. And in every civilization in the world, people tell stories. In many cultures, it’s the elders in the village who tell stories and that’s how people learn how to be brave. “And there was someone in the woods…”, and that’s how the young people learn to be brave. They’d tell a story about a foolish man or a cowardly man. You know the boy who cried wolf, he was always lying and then no one trusted him anymore. You don’t want to do that. That story is thousands of years old; it still works. I find so often if you try to just preach, you’re not going to have people listening, but if you tell a really powerful story people will hang on your every word and in the story you can write truth and value embedded in the story. It’s one thing to tell someone, “Don’t do drugs. Drugs is a bad thing or a bad idea” or “Cocaine contains carcinogens” and it’s boring and no one wants to listen to it. But if you tell a story about a boy who’s in high school who one day smokes a cigarette because people want him to, and then he drinks because someone wanted him to, then he tries pot, then he’s on shrooms, then he’s on acid, and then one day he’s on crack and now he’s homeless. If you can actually tell that story in a compelling way, people will walk away from that saying, “Whoa, I don’t want to drugs”. That’s the way to transmit culture; that’s the way to transmit value. So if you want to impact the world, learn how to tell stories. And when I say learn, I mean literally study. Study the best storytellers in the world. Watch Pixar films because for me Pixar is telling the best stories. Go online and learn everything you can about storytelling because we need this power in the hands of good people. Because when the powerful stories are being told by the people who are void of goodness, and have a sick mind or leading people in a bad path, then that’s who’s going to shape culture ’cause the best storytellers shape culture. I’d say study story telling.
KB: Wow, I’m so enlightened. That’s so good.
AM: I hope that wasn’t too long.
KB: No, that was good. Interestingly enough we just had a small meeting with a bunch of creatives and it’s amazing how many people are really hungry to get their creativity going and people who even feel they’ve lost a bit of creativity; they’re not being that supported. And they’re like, “We’re so on board”. And so many of them are writers in the group. I’m just thinking, this alone would be so inspiring to them and to help them keep writing and keep going. One guy actually said, “I really want to write stories that aren’t for my grandmother. What about a sci-fi that will get our young people and that would really speak our language and get my attention instead of my mother. We’re like, “Yeah, someone’s thinking.”
AM: I love that. You know what’s cool, Jesus Christ never spoke to a crowd without a parable.
KB: That’s very true.
AM: He used stories. Because it just works. It sticks in people’s mind and it’s how we’re created. I just learned that babies have the instinct to speak and crave to speak because they want to tell their story. So literally the baby wants to tell the mom, “I have this horrible feeling in my stomach, and then I cried and you came and gave me the bottle and now it’s empty and I feel good.” They’re trying to tell their story.
KB: I’m thinking about this in light of my two year-old. His vocabulary has been picking up in the past couple of weeks and before that he would get so frustrated trying to express himself. He’d be crying and hitting his brother and I’m like look at you now. He doesn’t have to hit, he’s fully able to express himself all in a few weeks. I fully concur. He was just trying to tell us a story.
AM: That’s awesome.
KB: I hope we can find other ways to work together because I love what you’re doing. I look forward to seeing whatever you put out.
AM: Wow, thank you. I’m going to send you one quick video of Ira Glass talking about creatives and advice for creatives and the other thing I would add. The only way to get from being okay at something to being great at something is doing a whole lot of work. Most of that work is going to be mediocre. There’s no way to get to great without going through good and mediocre. So make as much content as you possibly can. And just keep cranking stuff out. You can’t expect yourself to put out stuff at first that’s going to be that great.
KB: You know that reminds me I have one more question for you. The connection between creatives and social issues. For you being an actor, being a rapper, being a spoken word artist, you’ve been able to use creativity to get a social message out. How do you feel about that? How important is that connection?
AM: You know, I feel that part of my calling is to address social issues and things that burn in my heart and to share that with the world through these platforms like film, like music. The challenging thing for me will be how to do it and make it entertaining. Because there comes a point where you can lose the entertainment value; it can become boring quickly or it can speak to someone who is an academic, or who enjoys watching TED Talks, like me. I enjoy watching TED Talks; that’s inspiring and enlightening but for most people, people just want to sit and watch a movie. So the challenge for me will be how can I now make something entertaining that people are just going to get entertained, but then in the middle of the entertainment they’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s where I’m going wrong in my life right now.” I can see it, that character that keeps pushing others away from them because they’ve been hurt. I want to be able to be entertaining and tackle powerful issues. I think Key & Peele are a great example of that. Some of their stuff is just fun, but then some of the stuff is like, “Wait a minute, hold on. That’s a powerful social commentary and that’s a great way to address that.” I think the most powerful and effective way to address social issues is through creative media.
KB: Well said. Wow, again that’s good. It was great talking to you.
AM: Thank you so much.