Two years ago Sonnet L’Abbé couldn’t play the guitar or sing, but the local poet and VIU professor has already achieved her goal of performing at the Port Theatre.
On Nov. 27 the City of Nanaimo released a video of L’Abbé performing her new song, Nazaneen: A Song for Nanaimo, in the empty theatre as part of its Reimagine Nanaimo campaign asking residents for input on what they would like Nanaimo to look like in the future. The city also commissioned an illustration by local graphic designer Sebastian Abboud and a poem by youth poet laureate Valina Zenetti.
“We wanted to invite people who were working in different ways and different disciplines and represented a diverse perspective and I know Sonnet’s work to be really powerful and she’s someone who is known nationally and involved locally and I thought it would be valuable to hear her insight and vision for the future,” said Julie Bevan, city manager of culture and events, who added that she was “moved to tears” the first time she heard L’Abbé’s song.
L’Abbé’s vision is of a more diverse Nanaimo, which is something she sought to build when she chose to move to the city nearly five years ago.
“There are a lot of times when I miss being able to just run into a lot of people like me who share my experiences,” she said. “And that was a part of the decision to come here and move here, was to understand that I would be part of growing that diversity and I would like to see that continue to happen.”
Nazaneen: A Song for Nanaimo is written as a letter to a friend who is thinking about moving to Nanaimo but is questioning if it is welcoming to people of colour. In the song L’Abbé encourages Nazaneen to make the move and praises the local nature, weather and real estate, but cautions that “you cannot get a good jerk chicken to save your life” and “when I went to the Queen’s for the reggae scene all of the dreadlocked Rastas were white.” L’Abbé mentions that she’s been sworn at and had her house egged, but at the same time she’s encouraged by this summer’s Black Lives Matter rally, which she organized, and sings “I found some fam at the Sunday blues jam who know why the black bird sings.”
L’Abbé said Nazaneen is an amalgamation of multiple people, herself included, and that the content of the song is based on actual conversations she’s had. Although the song draws attention to racism and colonialism, L’Abbé describes Nazaneen: A Song for Nanaimo as a love song to the city, noting that “it’s hard to make effective change or make effective critique without love.”
“I just hope people enjoy it,” she said of the song. “I hope it gets a conversation started and it keeps conversations from the summer going and maybe inspires people to also think about their own visions for Nanaimo.”
As for playing the Port Theatre, L’Abbé said she has updated her goal. She now hopes to perform there, but this time with an audience present.
More information about Reimagine Nanaimo can be found here.