Toronto’s Manifesto Festival of Community & Culture Heads Back To Where It All Started

August 08, 2018

By: Matt Williams

Toronto’s Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture is about to celebrate a solid dozen years of art, music, culture, and community-building from August 9-19 with their 2018 event. The sheer scope of this year’s edition, during which they’re, “heading back to where it all started, in more ways than one,” is a bit staggering. First, there’s the music, which includes performances by Chronixx and Charlotte Day Wilson for free down at City Hall, a Discover Series that runs through multiple venues, and even an actual boat cruise concert (that one was last Friday, so if you wanted to go and are just finding out now, your ship has sailed). Then there’s also an art show featuring in-depth artist talks, a “house party” down at the Drake Hotel, and a Summit that will explore, “how new sounds, new voices and new ideas are changing the overall landscape of music, as well as music business.” Oh yeah—the City Hall event will also host a 3X3 basketball tournament and a dunk contest.

Essentially, Manifesto isn’t just a music festival, but a fully-evolved example of what an arts festival can be, with  a lot of hard work: inclusive, diverse, all-immersive, celebrating multiple different mediums, giving back to and helping grow the community it represents, and continuing important conversations about creativity and industry. We caught up via email with Jesse Ohtake (Discovery Series Programmer) and Erin Lowers (Summit Programming Director) about Manifesto’s roots, how it fosters community-building, and what they want for the future of the festival.

How did Manifesto start?

Jesse Ohtake: Manifesto was founded by a small group of similarly minded individuals who were active in the local Toronto community as event presenters, arts enthusiasts, community-minded individuals, and a few as artists themselves. This small group then connected with a much larger group representing many different sectors and neighbourhoods of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) at Toronto City Hall via our Manifesto Town Hall meetings, which ultimately helped establish the basis for what Manifesto is today. The ideas and basic goals set in those initial meetings helped to establish the core mandate and purpose of Manifesto.

What does the festival offer that other festivals in the region or the country don’t?

JO: Manifesto has always offered a festival that caters to a more specific sector of Toronto’s music scene, a sector that had been ignored and pushed to the side by many of the well-established music festivals that existed in Toronto and in Canada as a whole. With a basis in hip hop, R&B, and global rhythms, Manifesto has grown over the past 12 years with these music genres, as music that was once the underdog, to currently being the highest-selling sector of music in the world. The most unique aspect of Manifesto is that it has always had a very community-minded approach, surrounded by festivals that are often run mainly or solely as business ventures with a focus on artists who can sell the most tickets as opposed to supporting local and helping to build young artists’ careers.

Why is community-building important to Manifesto?

JO: Community has always been our basis from day one, so really any activity we’ve been involved in is tied into the idea of providing for and serving the community that we’ve been built around. This isn’t to say Manifesto has been able to connect with all communities across the GTA, but with small budgets and a small team we’ve been able to accomplish a lot in comparison to larger, established, city-based organizations who exist to serve Toronto’s communities. Manifesto has built a very strong artist network around the festival, a network that has helped improve the infrastructure that exists for the music genres we are a part of. We’ve received criticism over the years that we’re a very downtown-centric organization, but we’ve done extensive collaboration and networking with organizations and groups from across the GTA, as well as outreach to communities across Toronto over the span of our 12 years as Manifesto Festival. The reality is that the amount of energy and resources required to connect with every community across Toronto and the GTA has been far beyond Manifesto’s capacity as an organization. However, we’ve always done our best to connect with as many different regions as possible, and it’s equally important that other Toronto organizations who represent distinct Toronto communities search us out and work on connecting with us to involve their community in the festival and other activities that we’re a part of.

How does Manifesto encourage collaboration?

JO: As mentioned above, the artist network that has been able to thrive through a festival like Manifesto—as well as through other artist development events like OVO Summit, Honey Jam, Northern Power Summit, and Canadian Music Week—has led to increased artist collaboration and creation of new works. Whether this be creation of new music between two artists, artwork being created by a visual artist or designer for a music release, or dancers connecting with music acts for live show presentations, there are so many potential collaborations that are fostered via Manifesto’s diverse programming (art show, dance event, summit, concerts).

  • Manifesto House 11 2017. Photo By: Yannick Anton

  • Manifesto House 11 2017. Photo By: Yannick Anton

  • Manifesto House 11 2017. Photo By: Yannick Anton

Can you tell me a success story about one of the young artists the festival has worked with?

JO: I would say one of our team’s favorite success stories tied in with Manifesto would be Shad. Shad has had a great team throughout his career, and with Manifesto we were able to work with Shad in a manner that he received great exposure and opportunity via Manifesto, but at the same time his team was always flexible and willing to work with Manifesto in a way that was realistic and flexible. This relationship has continued as Shad’s status in the Canadian music industry has risen, and he now sits on the Board of Directors for Manifesto.

What’s your fondest memory of the festival?

JO: That’s a tough one, as there have been so many. I would say having 9th Wonder embrace Manifesto as his favorite event he’d been involved in Toronto, and down to jumping onstage to introduce Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek) was a pretty special moment, especially as it was early in the festival’s lifetime, only in year three. To get a co-sign and encouragement from one of the most respected producers in hip hop was pretty special in only our third year.

What do you consider its greatest achievement?

JO: Honestly, I think the ability of the organization to have existed now for 12 years is likely the greatest achievement. In the non-profit world, as well as being in the arts sector, funding is always a very precarious situation, and involves combining a whole series of grants and fundraising to provide enough funds for Manifesto to operate on an annual basis. The reason that Manifesto’s programming changes from year to year is largely due to funding, as staffing and capacity dictate the activities and programming that Manifesto can offer, so there have been different phases that the organization has seen as a result of overall staffing and workload capacity.

What are the biggest obstacles to success in the so-called “urban” arts sector?

Erin Lowers: The word “urban” alone puts so many restrictions as to how the arts sector perceives BIPOC communities—sometimes these arts aren’t taken as seriously, sometimes they’re not as financially attractive, and sometimes the word simply makes people overlook the incredible artists and art in these communities. For us, understanding how to shed light on the art being made, as well as the stories of the artists creating it, allows us to rewrite these narratives into something that’s positive and successful.

What are the ‘on-the-ground’ effects you’ve witnessed come out of the festival’s work?

EL: In the work that we do, simply offering the opportunities and spaces for creatives to be highlighted changes how our community perceives their worth. There are so many amazing festivals and events in Toronto, but they’re not always inclusive or easy to navigate. With Manifesto, being accessible is one of our most important goals, which includes being able to step onto that stage, showcase your art or speak in front of a crowd. We’re often the first experience creatives have before launching their career further, but they leave Manifesto Festival with the confidence and support of our community.

What are the things you’re most excited for with this year’s edition?

EL: This year marks our 12th festival year, and after a brief hiatus we’re going back to our original formatting and programming—but bigger and better. There are so many facets in this year’s festival that it’s difficult to choose one. The first half of our festival is dedicated to showcasing new artists from the city, while the second half brings back our Dance, Summit and Visual Arts programming—all of which have incredible creatives taking the lead on them. But for most people, it may just be bringing back our free all-day programming at Nathan Phillips Square, which will be headlined by Chronixx and Charlotte Day Wilson. So much to be excited for!

How does being at the festival make you feel?

EL: Putting in the work to make the festival happen can be exhausting—we have a small team that makes magic happen with the help of our amazing volunteers, but the moment we dive into it and see so many different Toronto communities come together, it’s such a relief. Knowing that we’ve created a safe and inclusive space for everyone to attend, regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender, etc., and to enjoy our arts and music communities is the best feeling in the world.

What do you want for the future of Manifesto?

EL: We want to continue growing and nurturing the arts and music sectors not just at home, but with our sister teams in New York and Jamaica as well. In the grand scale of festivals in the world, we’re still small—but we definitely have the heart, and have a massive impact within the communities we work with.

Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture Vol. 12 is scheduled to take place August 9-19. For additional information visit: www.mnfsto.com.

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer living on Canada's beautiful East Coast. He was born and raised a flatlander. He's on Twitter @MattGeeWilliams.

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