Words: Kazeem Kuteyi Photography: Kahlil Hernandez.
I’m going to keep this part shorter than usual. However, I will say this: It was important for us to interview someone who has inspired so many and has had an impact on so many in Toronto. Gavin Sheppard is a connector and a person who has had an impact on so many young lives in Toronto. This is a person who co-founded The Remix Project- a hub that is a safe zone for many young creatives in Toronto, a place where they can perfect their craft outside the formal education system. Many who have passed through the programs at The Remix Project have left with a better sense of direction, contacts and most importantly, a better sense of self. In our conversation below, you’ll get to know Gavin’s background, his views on responsibility and advice for kids who are trying to enter creative careers.
How does it feel to be responsible for having an impact on so many young lives in Toronto?
I think responsible is a very good word. I think there is a measure of pride when you see people do really exciting things – things that you are proud to see them do. But I think “responsible” is also a big word. As a “responsible” person, you have to comport yourself in a certain way. You have to be the person that is going to take the higher road in frustrating situation for example – even if you really want to be the person that says something foul or throws a tantrum. You can’t do that because people are looking to you in a certain way to provide leadership. You are “responsible” for the examples you set. It’s always important to be human and to admit where you’re frustrated, when your sad or pissed off. I think that there is a certain responsibility involved with how you carry yourself when other people look at you as being partially “responsible” for creating such a network. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t just create this cool thing and just think that, “I’m not a role model.” You can choose not to assume that responsibility if you want but that’s a choice. And it doesn’t preclude you from being a role model.
“If you’re going to be a creative professional you have to take your craft like an athlete or anyone else and put it in 10,000 hours to achieve excellence.”
To be this guardian for young people and be a person that facilitates creativity amongst the youth but for a person like me who is from the Nigerian community or I guess for any child of immigrants- you’d almost be considered a villain because creativity and art is not something that is valued. How do you feel about that?
Every parent in the world wants to see better for their child. Most importantly, they want them to see them safe. I find that desire within every parent but especially families that are newcomers to Canada – they often come here to find a “better life” or to try and experience a new life at least and that motivation is gonna play onto their children. I’ve often seen our parent’s put what they have inside them and what their vision they have for their own lives onto their kids. So that combination of “go out there, we did this for you” but also “I really want you to be safe” is going to push parents towards wanting their kids to have more traditional jobs – jobs that an older generation understand as careers. The generation born the 50s, 60s – those people have careers that lasted most of their lives or maybe they had two careers. Our generation is expected to have five careers, not jobs, careers – in totally different industries over the course of our working life. That’s a huge shift. In order to be successful in this reality, we have to be able to think creatively. And so that’s the conversation I try to have with elders.
We had a young woman who applied for the program for graphic design and her parents wanted nothing to do with her being in the program because they saw it as some materialistic, misogynistic popular urban music industry and they were like, “we didn’t come here for this shit”. And we said look, the music is the entry point, the culture is the entry point and what we are talking about are skillsets that can lead to jobs and careers for the 21ST Century. Because like or not in our major urban centres but there are less and less formal jobs in terms of manufacturing and trades and what not – there’s isn’t as much of that because companies have fled to other parts of the world. The creative economy is becoming a much more important part of our GDP as a nation, our well-being and the spill-off of that creative economy. The taxis are making more money, the restaurants, and the hotels because of stuff like music concerts and events – all of this are spillover from cultural capital. There is that generational disconnect in a way and there’s also that parent’s desire to see their kids be safe that I understand but this is the way to the future. The future is always going to be unpredictable.
It seems like today everyone is being creative more than ever before. I was back in Nigeria for work, and I noticed new art galleries popping up, people down there are doing the coolest things. It’s almost like we’re living in a new age where creativity and art is valued more than ever. What do you say to that?
I think that is interesting. I wanna say that it‘s a new generation of creativity and that there is a lot of truth to that because of how democratized our creation has become in the digital sense – meaning you can download fruity loops for free and make dope beats or you can take amazing photos on a smartphone and edit them without ever needing a computer.
And there’s truth to people becoming newly inspired by seeing what others are doing – and often with so little. With that said, I feel like art and culture has always been such a dominant, such an important and vibrant part of the human existence. I think that we can share it differently now – and so it’s coming out in different ways.
I think that people are more empowered to display their art because they have this online venue whereas before you had to try and get into one of maybe six cool art galleries. Now more art galleries are popping up in some areas I agree, for sure, but I think it’s also just a changing of the guard culturally too. I think that because we can display art differently and we can do guerilla pop up galleries and guerilla screenings of things that it just allows more to be displayed. I don’t know if more is being created or if more people are any MORE creative than people a hundred years ago but I know we’re able to display it more than we ever could.
I see my generation’s responsibility (to come back to that word again in another context) as being the living bridge between the analog and the digital generation. The analog generation is our parents that grew up before the digital generation. The kids born in the 90s, 2000 and onward – you are the digital generation, you pretty much grew up with smartphones. You didn’t just grow up with the internet on a dial up computer in the basement, you grew up with technology surrounding you –interconnectedness. This idea of a global village being a very small space even though it’s a big world, that’s just who you are. The digital native thinks more in “group think” because they google answers, they check what’s right and check versus others opinions and contexts. Group think is a big thing now compared to the analog generation and even how you problem solve – all this is shifting.
So, as that bridge, that’s us- we have a responsibility to both generations. To make sure that the digital generation understands the analog world is more than just a place to get food from and having a roof over your head and that the analog generation doesn’t try to write off the digital and create a cultural war. There’s so many lessons that they hold through their wisdom – their life experiences, that we want passed down that can’t be relayed necessarily through a text online or reading a tweet.
“Failure to me is really important. Do I like failure? No. I want to be victorious all the time but I’m also realistic. I’ve had enough defeats in my life – and I continue to take them – to recognize that I’m not gonna let them define my life.”
What’s your take on social media and it creating an intersection for art and creativity? Do you think there’s a lot of noise going on? And how do you find your voice? I follow a bunch of photographers on Instagram and you know, there’s a lot of sameness going on with the #underground, subway photography and what not. I would wanna hire someone like Nabil Elderkin because he shoots a certain way.
And that’s the answer right? You’re gonna hire Nabil to take a certain type of photo because you know what he does. You just have to be you at all times. That doesn’t give you license to be a jerk – but you have to be rooted in your perspective. You should be open to that perspective evolving and changing and growing because you are. But you still have to be rooted in who you are and not try to be anyone else. You can’t try to be Nabil. You can take things from his style and apply it to you but your perspective is different. Even if you use the same camera, the same lens, same aperture, you’re going to have a slightly different photo because you have different life experiences – which translates to a different way you see and interact with the world. What you think is important versus what someone else does – all of these details influence the final outcome. I think at the end of the day in terms of finding your voice, you just have to really know yourself. And that’s an on-going journey.
How much is failure important to you? I remember you posting on Instagram about your film not making it into Tiff and I was like, ok, if I couldn’t get into that ad agency, I’ll be fine. I’ll try harder.
I think we all know through personal experience that we’re going to fail at things in life. Sometimes at things that really matter to us – and that can be really crushing. I feel like a lot of folks are in environments that aren’t properly supported through failure. If someone fails, I often see people around them say: “it’s all good, fuck it anyways” or “you shouldn’t have wasted your time in the first place”. They don’t celebrate what that individual actually accomplished in the process. They don’t ask “what did you learn from this?” or “how are you going to take this forward?” I was really lucky in that my parents are super supportive. As a child, my mother was often at home when we were growing up would always help me problem solve things. Anytime we were doing a game or whatever –it was like “How do we do this? How do we do that?” And it would always teach me something along the way. I was always encouraged to think creatively and to be brave enough to try things. Even if that meant failing. And I know a lot of my friends growing up didn’t have that and would see things differently. Sometimes people are like, “how come you’re so positive?” and it’s not that I don’t get pissed off about things, of course I’m upset that we lost or something didn’t work out in my favour – but it’s not the end of the world. There’s a lot of pressure to be successful in our society and especially for people who are trying to get into entertainment industries – because they are perceived to be such a youth based industry – the idea these days is that you’re supposed to be successful at like 23 or your starting to push the boundary of being out of the loop especially if you’re trying to be a rapper. That’s insane. The people who are successful at a massive level at that age are literally one in millions… but there are still millions of people that become successful in life. You can’t look at it like I didn’t do what Justin Bieber did. Just because Justin Bieber was on at 14 doesn’t mean you’re a failure at 19. You try things and they don’t work out, you move on to the next thing, you figure what you liked outta that and what you didn’t like and you apply that as you grow. Failure to me is really important. Do I like failure? No. I want to be victorious all the time but I’m also realistic. I’ve had enough defeats in my life – and I continue to take them – to recognize that I’m not gonna let them define my life.
“If I’m safe from hunger, I’m wealthy, if I’m safe from sleeping outdoors, I’m wealthy.”
My perspective in life and how I view the world is rooted in being born in Canada then my parents moving my siblings and myself to Nigeria for some years. I feel that’s really informed what I’m into. Was their any childhood experience or I guess I’m saying how did you arrive at this perspective to help other people?
I mean there’s many. Philosophically it’s just who my people are. My mother is one of the most welcoming and warm people in the world. She gives so much just by her presence in a room. Also my dad – he says all these little lessons and sayings that he uses to teach me that I find myself imparting to other people now. “Sleep is a weapon, wield it with purpose” – stuff like that. One of the ones I never paid attention too was “never a borrower, nor a lender be.” – and in truth, he’s a big softie in that regards, helping so many people along his way. Things I just took for granted growing up –helping out was just something you do. You know, someone on the hockey team has a single mom, she might not be able to take him to the game, we go pick him up even if it’s in the opposite end of town, drop the guy off, help with some gear, some hockey stuff or whatever but I never took it as helping out, it’s just what you do. He’s the homie. My neighbourhood was an interesting one growing up, I talk about it in other mediums a lot but basically the bottom of my street is millionaires, the top of my street is housing and every walk of life is between – every race, religion, creed, there’s a mosque, a Korean Presbyterian church, a Jehovah’s witness temple, a catholic church, an indian Shakti temple – all are in four blocks of each other. I always hung out at the top of the street, that’s where the basketball courts were, I hung out with the b-boys and ball players and my best friends just had a different reality than I did at home. We shared a reality outside of the home; many of our experiences were shared. But we had different supports. And you know, that had a big effect on me because I was the youngest guy and always had ideas. I was selling mixtapes in grade 9. Myself and four other guys started a clothing line in grade 11. I was also around people selling drugs, people getting involved in violent situations, corruption, scams, everything. My friends never let me get into it. I had my own values –it’s not like I was pressing the line like crazy. I told this story to someone a while ago, I can distinctly remember coming upstairs at like 16 in my buddies house and there’s crack on the table with a scale and he’s like “go downstairs and get me a drink” and right there I knew that he’s cheesed that I walked in the room. So I go downstairs, make the drinks, come back up and everything is off the table. And then it’s “Yo, Gav, where’s the party tonight?” I went to French immersion which was outside the neighbourhood and I would leave everyday and come back and that was another part of it and I felt that I had this extra privilege there too in a way because it was like a good school. I was counting the other day, 7 out of 10 of my buddies didn’t graduate high school. I used to be pissed back in the day, feel resentful because I was like, wait you guys don’t think I’m down, c’mon, I’m rolling when there was work to be done and they’re like “shut up, what party are we going to”. As I got older I realized what they did for me. So for me, it started with people’s little brothers, the slightly younger kids than me and then as we were trying to do music we were trying to get on ourselves, it wasn’t about let’s make the world a better place. We started this program and as a place for us to hang out, it just evolved as we became aware more of ourselves and our environment, and the kind of things we felt were injustices and that further politicized us through life. And also, just really starting to realize and understand white privilege and have my privilege presented to me in several uncompromising way. I’ve had many brilliant people confront me on different levels over the years, I’ve had to learn and realize where my responsibility is – and importantly, where it isn’t.
In some instances where I wanted to be a voice, it was not my place to be so. So in recognizing that reality, how can I best serve as a platform – but also a platform that isn’t profiting from that voice but rather creating wealth for everyone involved because you don’t want to be a vulture in that way too. But then I really want to be involved in urban culture because I feel that is my identity, musically, visually – my mother is a painter, my dad is a journalist and I grew up listening to rap music all my life. This is who I am, it’s just that I have to recognize I’m not certain things – and then how can I contribute as an ally as opposed to necessarily being the champion.
Everyone’s got their shit right?
Haha, yeah. I’m curious, what’s your definition of wealth?
It’s feeling safe, loved, inspired and creative on all levels. If I’m safe from hunger, I’m wealthy, if I’m safe from sleeping outdoors, I’m wealthy. That’s what it boils down to. I’ve met a lot of rich people and like yeah, you can buy things that can help alleviate sadness right away – but that’s also a quick path into addiction. You can fall down that dark rabbit hole and get depressed very quickly. What you need is what you need and everyone has a different definition. For me, if I never have to worry about food, I’m wealthy. If I never have to worry about paying for the hydro bill and all that shit, I’m wealthy. If I can just concentrate on being the best self, the best me and not have any other fears, that’s wealth. Whether that means a hundred thousand dollars a year, twenty thousands dollars a year (maybe in a different country) or a hundred million dollars a year – if these things are taken care of, I’m wealthy. I’m the 1 percent in this world.
Was there any back up plan to all of this?
There’s never really been a plan. I mean there’s always been a vision and there is strategy in terms of wanting to accomplish that vision and laying things out. But yeah, there’s no back up plan but there’s just other things you do to get by while you’re working on your vision.
What’s your take on the school system today?
I believe in education. I believe that the school system is trying to make changes in a way. I think things change very quickly, again with this digital generation and technology – it’s very difficult to keep up with things because by the time you do a study, and it gets out, things are already changing again. Do I think that the formal education system can be stronger? Yes. I also recognize that there are individuals that are already working and doing an incredible job and bringing insights to the table that I haven’t begun to think about. I have to have to faith that that’s gonna work out while I do what I do.
What would you say to anybody that’s trying to enter a creative career?
I would say that the idea of 10,000 hours still applies to you. I would say that creativity of course can come from a lightening flash of inspiration sometimes or it comes from a song you hear and it inspires you take a photograph, or draw something and it’s all these moments in life that inspires you to be creative. But if you’re going to be a creative professional you have to take your craft like an athlete or anyone else and put it in 10,000 hours to achieve excellence. You have to work incredibly hard at your craft, you have to know everything about your camera, you have to know about lighting and how that will affect natural lighting, times of day and when it’s best to shoot. You have to research if you want to be a creative professional unless you just want to be a creative hobbyist. And that’s great and cool, do that as a hobby. If you ever want to be a professional, don’t ever think that your creativity is going to win over your work ethic because there are so many amazing creative people out there and it’s literally about who shows up, who executes and who does the next job. That’s how it goes.