Kaia Kater Honours an Overlooked Moment in Black Canadian History with 'The Porter'

"I had no idea about the Black porters who were so instrumental in the labour movement and the Civil Rights Movement"

Photo: Todd Cooper

BY Rachel HoPublished Feb 22, 2022

"I can't believe that I was born here, I grew up here, and I had no idea about the Black porters who were so instrumental in the labour movement and the Civil Rights Movement," Kaia Kater reflects. "And I find that to be a loss. It's a deep loss."

The overlooked piece of Canadian history is the subject of CBC's new series, The Porter, which was inspired by real events and features original songs written by Kater, who was born and raised in Montreal.

The folksinger explains, "Arnold Pinnock [co-creator of The Porter], he came right out and said that he had no idea [either]. So it is very much covered up and I'm really excited that there's a show that presents these characters, not only in a historical timeframe, but in a way that is so full and 3D. They have all of these emotions, all of these layers, and so much depth, that makes them feel real. It's not just a Heritage Minute, you know what I mean?"

When Kater sits down with Exclaim! over video chat to talk about her new gig with The Porter, she has just returned home from a brief trip to Toronto as part of her Slaight Music Residency, which develops the skills of six composers and songwriters, specifically for the film and TV industry. She was six months into the residency when she was hired for The Porter — her first such opportunity after releasing four studio albums, most recently 2018's Grenades.

"[The residency] was a really good primer to understand how to work efficiently, how to meet deadlines — realizing that film, and TV especially, is just a series of deadlines," explains Kater. "I'm really thankful to have the program as this kind of backbone, and figure out where my specific place is within the film and TV industry."

The Porter, a joint production between CBC and BET+ that premiered yesterday (February 21),  follows the lives of two Black train porters, Junior Massey (Aml Ameen) and Zeke Garrett (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) in 1920s Montreal. Both veterans of World War I, Junior and Zeke contend with the long hours, low pay and gruelling conditions as train porters, and when one of their fellow porters dies because of the railway's negligence, both set out to make a better life for themselves. For Junior that means starting a side hustle of running booze across the border, convinced that the system is broken for Black people like himself. Zeke believes he can change the system from within, and attempts to form the first Black railway labour union in North America. 

With her music, Kater aimed to capture the vibrancy of these characters — and, to do so, she needed to understand their motivations and fears. Writing primarily for Lucy (Loren Lott), a maid by day and performer in the evening, Kater spoke with one of the show's directors, R.T. Thorne, at length about the character's aspirations and conflicts. 

"Lucy thinks she's beyond a star. She has all this confidence in herself, and it's the people around her, like her colleagues and her family, who really put up the obstacles in her way," explains Kater. "And so Lucy's story, at least in the songs, is to be able to say the things uninterrupted. Say the things that she feels, have that space, and claim that space for herself. Because she's a dark-skinned woman, she's facing all sorts of barriers — from colourism to racism to sexism. She's just trying to get those off her soul, and just speak."

To create Lucy's lyrical narrative, Kater listened to many Black female artists from the early-20th century, such as, Ma Rainey, Elizabeth Cotten and Sister Rosetta Tharpe — "women who were just badasses, and who were also songwriters or who could really deliver a song." Kater also took inspiration from "allegories for Black experiences that poets, lyricists and musicians would use to express themselves," citing Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" in particular.

And when hearing Kater's lyrics on the show (for example, during an audition scene, Lucy sings, "I've been blessed with a sturdy spine / To withstand the weight of the thoughts in my mind / So when my feet get weary / I won't falter or fall / I refuse to feel small."), those influences come through clearly. 

"[Lucy] is not meek, so the lyrics have to be elegant, they have to be strong, and they have to have a backbone to them," Kater says. "It's getting the characters to see her, because she's so unseen. I wanted to honour her character by not giving her fluff. She's saying, 'This is hell sometimes,' but also, 'I'm dancing, I'm performing for you, and I'm going to sing, because I love to sing.'"

It's this duality that Kater wanted to celebrate in The Porter, highlighting the beauty of Black culture and community, while understanding the painful realities of the characters. "I feel like [The Porter] was created by people who had the goal to present Black Canadian experiences as, of course, overshadowed by the terrors of racism and the terrors of colourism. And yet, also present this other side that I find was lacking in Canadian television, which is this dynamism and this joy," Kater observes. "And I really hope that we can create more room in the Canadian media industry for those stories, because they deserve to be told."

With The Porter under her belt and the Slaight Music Residency soon coming to an end, Kater looks ahead to releasing a new full-length album in 2023. She released the new single "Parallels" in fall 2021. And while, understandably, the last couple years have been difficult, Kater is thankful to the show for its inspiration.

"Many of us have been terribly sad, terribly depressed, terribly anxious, and I'm not immune from that. But also, I hope that we can also see that there is this space in which we've grown," Kater reflects. "I'm more honest now. I'm going into my songwriting wanting to be clear about how I feel and who I am. And The Porter really has been such a buoy for me through this storm. To watch these Black creators forging ahead and deciding to make a show that feels honest, real and complicated. I'm grateful to be a small sliver of this incredible team that is bringing this show to the fore, and giving all of these characters their own specific narrative arcs. Writing for it has been such a privilege."

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