A Nova Scotia choir director, an indie rock artist and the lead vocalist of a funk band have come together to write and record a tribute song to Canadian civil rights icon, Viola Desmond.
The song, called Think of Me, was released to the public this week and is a collaboration between Owen O’Sound Lee, the music director of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir, Vanessa “Asia” Symonds, the lead singer of funk and R&B band Asia & NuGruv and local rock ‘n’ roll vocalist Jessie Brown.
“I was thinking about different voices that could collaborate together and do something different,” said Symonds.
The three artists wrote the song in 2015 for the SOCAN Viola Desmond Singer/Songwriter Contest. Symonds reached out to Lee and Brown, who both agreed to the collaboration.
At first, Brown was nervous, saying she wasn’t accustomed to writing with other people, but working with Lee and Symonds changed that.
“I remember how important it was to me that so many people from the music community were able to get together for something so important,” said Brown.
In Symonds’s basement, they came up with the theme “think of me” to remind people that Desmond’s story can act as a guide for future generations.
“The easy thing to do when writing about someone is to just tell their story.… We wanted to dig deeper,” said Lee.
Before writing the song, the trio asked themselves, what would Viola Desmond want to say to others?
“That’s the perspective we wrote the song from, someone looking down on a young person and saying, ‘I understand the struggle you’ve been through.… When you go through that, think of me,'” said Lee.
Although their song did not win the contest, Lee believed it had an important message that needed to be shared.
“It’s a message of resilience,” he said.
The Bridge: Black history needs to be part of the ‘constant conversation’
After the competition ended, Lee decided to revitalize the sound, adding violins, choir background vocals, and guitar to the voices.
The trio sat on the song for over two years, and decided now was the time to release it.
“With all the hype of the ferry and the $10 bill, he [Lee] didn’t want the song to get swallowed up, so we waited,” said Symonds.
Although long-standing community efforts have pushed Viola Desmond’s story to the forefront, many Canadians young and old still are not aware of her actions.
Desmond ran a beauty school and was a mentor to young black women in Nova Scotia.
In 1946, she went to a movie theatre in New Glasgow and defiantly sat in the “whites-only” section. At the time, black people were only permitted to sit in the balcony.
Desmond was jailed and convicted of defrauding the province of a one-penny tax — the difference in tax between a downstairs and upstairs ticket. She was later released and paid a fine.
Lee, a first-generation Canadian originally from Toronto, had not heard Desmond’s story until the SOCAN competition.
“I didn’t realize stuff like this was happening in Nova Scotia, while I was in school learning about Rosa Parks,” said Lee.
Embarrassed by that fact, he said he hopes the song will act as an educational tool for youth across Canada to learn about black history and find their identity.
“It is important to shed light on these stories for other kids who are in this country but may not be feeling of this country,” said Lee.
Although from the province, Brown was not fully aware of Viola Desmond’s impact on Canadian civil rights.
“There was a lot I hadn’t realized, and I was grateful that being a part of a project like this could help me learn so much about our history here,” she said.
Holding back tears, Symonds said Viola Desmond’s legacy strongly affects her to this day.
“It’s a reminder to everybody that you belong and to stand up for what you believe is right,” she said.
Lee feels Desmond’s story can present an even bigger lesson for Canadians.
“We have all these posthumous honourings — that’s great and all — but I think going forward we should do a much better job of facing these things as they are happening.”