Reimagining the Jamaican tradition of “versioning” to elevate young artists' voices on a worldwide platform. In partnership with RBC. Find out more at versionsfellowship.org
by Gabby Sgherri
Darkspark, a not-for-profit organization that enables youth to enact social change using the power of music and the tools of pop culture, was founded by accident. D’Ari Lisle, the co-founder of Darkspark, was touring a lot in the early 2010s when he felt a disconnect in his career. “Every time I checked a career box, had success on stage or the opportunity got bigger, I noticed that my sense of fulfillment wasn’t growing on the same arc,” Lisle tells me. Instead, he and his creative partner and Darkspark’s co-founder, Mel Larkin (also a songwriter and artist), found inspiration in a group of Grade 8 students from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ontario.
Larkin & Lisle were invited to facilitate a project with this group of Indigenous students, challenging them to write songs that reflected on colonialism and laid a vision for the future. On the final day of the project, the students returned the favour by challenging D’Ari and Mel to replicate the project with communities across the country. Darkspark was born.
The DNA of that first Four Directions project is still prevalent in the organization today as they leverage the power of music to benefit society at large and work with youth, who represent not only the future, but present-day changemakers. From working on small community-focused initiatives to a worldwide program with support from RBC Emerging Artists, Darkspark has something special planned for the future.
Now open for applications, the VERSIONS Fellowship is different from Darkspark’s usual formula but is aligned with RBC in supporting emerging artists. Inspired by Lisle’s Jamaican heritage and Darkspark’s belief in the power of music, VERSIONS reimagines the Jamaican musical tradition of “versioning.” “It’s common in Jamaica for many different artists to record their own songs over the same instrumental. Each one has a different tone, style and story,” Lisle says, giving me more insight into the programs’ inspiration. Tapping into Darkspark’s vast network of connections, they’re working with notable producers to create instrumentals, then inviting youth from across Canada and beyond to share their perspectives on race and discrimination over the beats in the tradition of “versioning.” The borderless aspect of the program is what’s new for Darkspark. Pre-pandemic, they would travel with producers, songwriters, and filmmakers to spend a week in different communities working on projects that use pop culture to foster intercultural understanding. VERSIONS increases accessibility to Darkspark’s programming by operating virtually instead of in a physical setting.
Darkspark team interviews Grammy award-winning artist and VERSIONS mentor Sean Paul. Photographer: Vita Cooper
VERSIONS wouldn’t be possible without the support of key partners like RBC Emerging Artists. Lisle says the partnership was a no-brainer because of Darkspark’s natural alignment with RBC. “RBC makes magic happen with sponsorship, and charitable dollars and we do it with programming. We’re aligned in our shared beliefs: investing in the arts and emerging talent, standing in solidarity alongside communities facing oppression, and giving platforms to people who should be listened to.” A meaningful partnership goes beyond the donation of funds, “There will be so many opportunities throughout the VERSIONS journey for facilitating powerful moments between our partners and this outstanding group of BIPOC youth,” says Lisle on working with RBC Emerging Artists to create the best impact for the youth involved.
The VERSIONS program starts with a Fellowship, which supports 30 emerging artists of color, ages 16-24, who are passionate about social justice and plan to pursue a career in the arts. These Fellows will work with Grammy-award-winning artists, thought leaders and academics to deep dive into the historical roots of discrimination, then reflect on their experience through music. Getting first access to the produced instrumentals, the Fellows will launch VERSIONS by sharing the music they created and inviting youth to join in a global Call-To-Action with the support of partners like RBC. While talking to Lisle about the project, what stood out to me most is the profound effect it has on the youth involved. In Lisle’s words “when a group of youth navigates challenging topics together, then reflects on the experience through art, the process catapults these kids from learning to leading.”
Zaki Ibrahim is pictured above participating in the pilot program of VERSIONS. Photographer: Zachary Patton
While participating in a VERSIONS pilot program last fall, Zaki Ibrahim a South-African Canadian artist, mentored youth from across Canada, the US, Uganda, and Sierra Leone. Speaking about her experience she says, “it’s setting up a trajectory [and] providing resources that may not have been there before, basically enriching a process and a way of making music in general.” One of Ibrahim’s mentees, Esther, wrote a poem about the oppression in Sierra Leone’s capital that stuck with her. “It was witnessing something really powerful, the tone in which [Esther] said this poem, I felt like that’s just the beginning. It’s exciting [and] it makes me feel like there’s so much more to come.”
The VERSIONS Youth Fellowship is now open for applications (visit versionsfellowship.org to apply). Throughout the year-long program, viewers will have many opportunities to interact with the content and music created by diverse youth participants. “Young people are great teachers. Pay attention to the stories they tell and the music they create and you will be deeply moved by the power of their messages. These youth offer us so many opportunities for personal and societal growth,” says Lisle on the upcoming project that’s shaping our future leaders.