TiKA Breaks Down Barriers in Film and TV with Creative Agency for BIPOC Composers

"I'm not interested in looking to my left and looking to my right and not seeing different people or diversity," says the StereoVisual co-founder

BY Yasmine ShemeshPublished Sep 15, 2021

TiKA was about seven years old when she first watched Polly, Walt Disney's 1989 made-for-TV musical adaptation of Pollyanna. Directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen, the Emmy-nominated film featured an all-Black cast with Keshia Knight Pulliam in the starring role. Along with being an important document of cultural representation — it marked one of the first times TiKA saw herself reflected onscreen — Polly's memorable original score also made a significant impact on the multidisciplinary artist.

"The music from the movie resonated with me so much because a lot of it is deeply rooted in gospel and church sonic sounds — and I was raised in the church," TiKA tells Exclaim! over Zoom. "It had a lot of tones and particularly minor keys, melancholy keys, that sounded very familiar to the church that I was in growing up."

TiKA went on to become a powerhouse in the Canadian music industry as a songwriter (her debut full-length, Anywhere but Here, was released in early 2021 to critical acclaim) and community organizer (she helmed the Known Unknown, a former monthly live series in Toronto that showcased emerging artists and helped launch the careers of Jessie Reyez and Daniel Caesar). But her latest endeavor, decades after watching Polly and absorbing all it stood for, perhaps puts her exactly where she's always meant to be: co-founder of StereoVisual, an exciting new agency and non-profit organization that predominantly represents BIPOC composers who make music for television and film.

TiKA decided to pivot into film composition in 2018 after her grandfather passed away and she found herself needing to book a gig to help cover her rent. It didn't seem right, having to overexert herself onstage amid heartbreaking grief, to keep a roof over her head. Her friend (and now one of StereoVisual's facilitators) Casey MQ encouraged her to apply for the Slaight Music Residency at the Canadian Film Centre; composition would offer more of a reliable income, with viable equity in royalties. She got in. "I believe I was one of the first Black women accepted in that particular program, which is wild to me," TiKA reflects. "I just never wanted to be a struggling artist, especially while I was going through a process that I couldn't really avoid. If someone dies, I want to be able to sit at home in my pajamas and grieve, you know? And what can that look like, in terms of musicality?"

As she received a steady flow of work to score shorts and features, TiKA began thinking about her fellow working artists who were grappling with affordability, especially during the pandemic. TiKA contacted the Screen Composers Guild of Canada with an idea to do a workshop series and connected with StereoVisual co-founder Jo Anne Snell. Together, they quickly realized there was a major gap in the industry, and the idea for workshops soon evolved into a full-on creative agency that would house BIPOC composers and provide them with ongoing opportunities. It was, TiKA remembers with a smile, an "a-ha" moment.

"Ninety-four percent of the film composers globally are predominantly white men," she says. "That's a glaring number." The striking disparity is further shown in statistics listed on StereoVisual's website stating there are currently less than 150 Black film composers worldwide, less than 50 percent are women, and even less are based in Canada. By providing resources, education, tools and accessibility to marginalized communities to enter the film and television industry, StereoVisual helps bridge those gaps by breaking down systemic barriers that exist in music composition.

"White supremacy rears its ugly head in such an insidious way, where it keeps and excludes other voices," TiKA continues. "And then, on top of it, it encourages the appropriation of music. One of the things that I awakened to once I started going to school is that typically if, let's say, a white film composer got a Mexican film or a Moroccan film to do, their ideologies and their approaches to what sounds Moroccan or Mexican is going to be from a lens of not necessarily authenticity, but almost the appropriated stereotype of what they believe Morocco or Mexico to sound like. But if you were to go to someone that's actually from said place, their perspective and their choices, their decisions in terms of instrumentation, might be completely different. And that authenticity deserves a chance and a voice. I didn't know it was so boxed in."

As such, much TiKA's work lays in dismantling the restrictive definition of "composer," which is traditionally exclusionary to sounds outside the realm of classical music. "When I was going to school, they told me in order to be considered a composer, you need to play a stringed instrument. It's very academia-driven. You need to know music theory. And I was like, well, what about folks that don't have the affordability to go to [music] classes? What about the people that make music from [the software] Pro Tools because that's what they could afford? Why are they excluded from the conversation? There's no difference between a composer and a producer, the only difference is access and class. That's it."

That framework looks past the work of important composers like RZA (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Dev Hynes (Queen & Slim), who are, TiKA adds, inspiring and necessary. "I do think that when you straddle the lines between academia and just, like, even being from the hood, there is this ideology that you can only have one. But I am from the hood. And I had the privilege of having a grandmother who was a librarian and cared deeply about me knowing culture, so I straddle these lines of duality. The divisiveness of our people is deeply rooted in white supremacy — divisiveness is a foundation of white supremacy. This is a really important conversation, because I don't think that the conversation is happening, and I think that's part of the problem. And it's not about being exclusionary towards classical sounds, but rather: how can we be more inclusive of other voices and other ways and methods and approaches to making music? Because they're all viable."

StereoVisual will have one season per year, with a curriculum offering 18 students six different back-to-back workshops led by talented facilitators like Zaki Ibrahim, Sandy Duperval and Keita Juma. TiKA is immensely proud of the team members around her, each of whom has individual strengths that bring a wonderful sense of balance to the collective. "I think all of us work on an intention of decolonized flow, so we treat each other with kindness and generosity and patience," she notes.

Ultimately, TiKA's intention is to give StereoVisual's artists an equitable head start. Among her goals is to provide each student with a laptop, a good pair of studio headphones, and all the tools they'll need to work out of their own small home studio — basic things that took her close to a decade to accumulate herself. Students will graduate to work opportunities, as well receive a mentor from the agency's roster for added guidance. Roster artists will have work filtered in from various broadcasting networks. The agency has also partnered with the Canadian Film Centre, which will offer three audition slots to graduates of StereoVisual's program.

To TiKA's surprise, StereoVisual has received a great amount of support from the industry so far. "I thought I was going to get a lot more resistance," she says. "It's quite the contrary. I think I've realized that folks want to help. They just don't know how to help. It's been very community-driven." TiKA is even in talks to replicate the workshop series in Atlanta and Los Angeles — which is amazing, she adds, because this is a global issue, not just a local issue. "We're dismantling systems in an effort to create newer and more progressive systems that we feel are going to help humanity and encourage a deeper, more progressive world."

She continues, "I'm not interested in looking to my left and looking to my right and not seeing different people or diversity. That's also not the world that I live in. That's not the reality of the world that I choose to live in. And I don't think it should be anyone's reality." We must, TiKA asserts, see — and hear — one another.

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