In April of 2021, Ontario legislature appointed orator, performer, artist, and Scarborough native, Randell Adjei, as the first Poet Laureate of Ontario. Growing out of a childhood of adversity, Adjei immersed himself into the world of expressive writing and spoken-word poetry, and was driven to motivate others towards the enlightening liberation of art in all of its forms.
As the founder of the R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere) initiative, Adjei extends the limitless power of poetry, dance, music, and expressive art to Ontario’s youth. His approach to poetry is to break free of learned convention and emphasize the healing benefits of connection and vulnerability, while nurturing a safe space for communities to embrace artistic expression.
In a Zoom call from his home in Toronto, sat in front of an enviable collection of books, Adjei speaks out on accessibility to the arts, the importance of representation for young Black artists, and the courage it takes to create authentic poetry.
by Ella Mazur
by Madeleine Kane
Ontario's Poet Laureate
“Understand that poetry is in everything. It’s in song, it’s in movies,
I think it’s in basketball, personally. It’s everywhere.”
Five Questions with Randell Adjei
What would you say defines your identity as a Torontonian?
A true Torontonian accepts everyone—as they are, for what they are—no matter where they come from.
What is one Canadian book that you think everyone should read?
The Authenticity Principle by Ritu Bhisan and Unlearn: 101 Simple Truths to a Better Life by Humble the Poet
Best cure for a bad day?
Get outside, spend time with nature. Take your shoes off, take your socks off, and get grounded. Be around some water. Buy some really good food and put your phone away.
The one Torontonian author you’re most excited about?
Lilly Singh. She’s very authentic. And she’s from Scarborough!
One thing you'd tell your younger self?
Things are always working out for you. Those hardships are just stepping stones to building a mountain. God loves you, and would never put something that isn’t meant to be on your path.
What does “Poet Laureate” mean to you and how does this title validate young Black artists in their Canadian identity?
What it means to me is it’s really this opportunity to recognize the power of the arts, the power of poetry, to capture moments in time, to document, to recognize the opportunity that we have to use art as a way to cathartically heal.
There’s something really special about this point in time, as there is and has been a lot going on. And just the opportunity to utilize this platform to speak up about what’s happening in the world and what’s happened. To raise awareness, to advocate for, and on behalf of, and to inspire. And I think for young Black artists, there’s something really special about seeing someone that looks like you in positions like this.
Representation is something that I didn’t see much of growing up, and when I did, it wasn’t in a very positive light. This is an opportunity for young people—Black artists, Black youth—to see themselves not in the stereotypes in which we’ve been placed, but in different spaces, and in different opportunities. I hope the next Randell coming up sees this and says, “I can do it, too,” because that’s what someone did for me.
I see it inspiring those that I’ve performed for. I think about the community I came from, in Toronto Housing. Those young people, and the lack of opportunities and spaces that we had and the lack there still is, is exactly why this is important and exactly why I do the work that I do. To let them know, no matter where you start from, this doesn’t have to be your finish line. There’s still so much more ahead. So for those who I speak to, I definitely hope that it is a way to inspire, and remind them of that.
“No matter where you start from, this doesn’t have to be your finish line. There’s still so much more ahead.”
What has poetry revealed to you about storytelling that makes it unique as a genre?
In the education system, our first introduction to poetry is often Shakespeare. There’s so much more to poetry than just Shakespeare. It’s changed a lot. It’s good to have as a reference, but I’m not quite sure if it’s the thing to study, because that’s all I studied when I was coming up in school. To make it more accessible is to help young people recognize that the thoughts they have are poetic. All of us have poetic words and ways in which we express ourselves. Poetry is one of the most accessible art forms. You grab a pen and paper and put your thoughts down. You can do freeform, you can freestyle, you don’t have to have a structure when it comes to poetry. It doesn’t even have to rhyme! A lot of folks don’t recognize that.
Poetry plays such a huge role in many people’s lives. People often come to poetry because there comes a time when you just need to release. You need to speak up about what’s been happening and unearth some of the traumas that folks have gone through, and poetry really allows space to do that.
There’s nothing wrong with form or structure either, it can help bring something different out of the writing process. Poetry is in songs. Poetry is in storytelling, but often with less words. The audience gets to create their own narrative around the lack of words. Poetry is beautiful because of that. There’s something special about letting the few words speak for themselves, and being concise.
“This opportunity, for young people - Black artists, Black youth - to see themselves not in the stereotypes in which we’ve been placed, but in different spaces, and in different opportunities.”
What is the current state of artistic spaces for BIPOC youth in Ontario?
We look at vulnerability in our society as a weakness, when vulnerability takes a huge amount of bravery and courage. It takes a lot of courage to be yourself and shed your skin, shed your mask, and show up as yourself. Poetry allows us to do that when we come to the page because you can’t fake poetry. You can, but even to the writer, it doesn’t feel right. You just have to sit and be with yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, and your perspective. Along with making it accessible, we shed the definition of vulnerability that it is a matter in how we choose to express and how we choose to show up in this world.
It’s also about meeting people where they’re at. Poetry doesn’t always have to have a theme about something serious. If you’re someone that likes to make jokes, then write about something funny. If you like shoes, write about shoes. If you like fashion, write about fashion. Poetry doesn't have to be confined or restricted to any form or theme. It’s important to extrapolate from that and step away from poetry needing to be a particular way.
Understand that poetry is in everything. It’s in song, it’s in movies, I think it’s in basketball, personally. It’s everywhere. Spoken word is really where I gravitate toward, mainly because of hip-hop culture and that I’m an orator. I just love to speak.