"So as a pre-destined product of my environment/I take off these
labels/and throw off my towel/no more violence/put down these
guns and get empowered by the higher power." Excerpt from Open
Your Eyes by the M.A.D. Poet.
Negative images about Jane and Finch, reinforced by this month's
gang raid by Toronto police, may endure, but the M.A.D. Poet
(a.k.a. Melissa Dean) hopes her powerful spoken-word video – and
voice – and all the other "hidden talent" in the area can help
filter out those frustratingly pervasive impressions.
Her video, Open Your Eyes, was shot just last week and posted on
the Jane-Finch.com website the same day police were conducting
pre-dawn raids in the area, arresting dozens of young men and
women purported to be members and associates of the Driftwood
It was fortuitous timing and depressing for the engaging young
artist who grew up living in the Palisades apartment complex, at
the corner of Jane and Finch, and recently finished a course in
entertainment business management.
Writing poetry since she was 15, Dean is featured on Open Your
Eyes delivering a positive message of hope and empowerment using
clever phrases and inventive rhymes spoken, almost sung, in an
impassioned, raw style.
Justin Percival Wright, her manager and childhood friend, has
watched Dean, now 21, develop as an artist and describes her
method as "spoken lyrics."
"Everything that she's saying is relevant" and in contrast to
many urban music videos rife with sexism and stereotypes, "which
we're tired of. She's in her own genre basically," Wright said.
"What she does is very different ... the things she's saying are
positive – it's what youth need to be hearing nowadays. The
empowerment of people in general, not just black people, or
Asian people or white people."
Paul Nguyen, co-founder of Jane-Finch.com, shot the video in the
computer room of his house against a white screen. The feedback
has been positive. "Some people have emailed me and said, `Oh,
that's real stuff,' because they're kind of tired of gangster
rappers," he said. "When I heard it, I thought it didn't
specifically mention Jane and Finch but I thought it totally
related to Jane and Finch."
For her part, Dean initially turned down a request to be
interviewed by the Star. She's not a fan of the media
("negativity sells"), particularly because of the portrayal of
Toronto's so-called at-risk communities. She changed her mind,
however, believing that more positive role models need to be in
the spotlight. "I'm an example of how a good product can come
from a negative environment," she said last week. In Open Your
Eyes, Dean wears a backwards baseball cap, and a Toronto,
Canada, sweatshirt and comes across, well, angry. It seems the
M.A.D. Poet is a persona. (They are also her initials.)
"I'm always laughing and happy until it's time to get down to
business and my poetry," she says. As a teenager she read her
poems to family members and first took to the stage in church,
where the congregation was "really receptive and appreciated
what I had to say."
"I realized my poetry speaks better for me." She was inspired to
write and perform after hearing Toronto poet Dwayne Morgan at
her high school. He was also a counsellor at a camp she
attended, "leading the youth and trying to make a difference in
Dean has performed south of the border – including at a casino
in Las Vegas – but hopes to do more here at home. The video, she
says, may be "on a local website, but I'm talking about
everybody. I want this place to be the best it can be."