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🔊 Being social at a Black-led open mic

An open mic attendee shares her poetry at Mauya's "Sun-kissed Stories" open mic series.
An open mic attendee during her performance. Photo credit: Michelle Rwabutar
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Sandra Hannebohm
Sandra Hannebohm Halifax, NS
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The leader of Mauya The Abstract Tribe, a fine arts community spreading healing through artistic therapy, orchestrates more than just an open mic–she creates a sanctuary for emerging Black creatives.

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Sasha Paul is the leader of Mauya The Abstract Tribe, a fine arts community spreading healing through artistic therapy. She orchestrates more than just an open mic; she creates a sanctuary for emerging Black creatives. I attended one of these events, where Sasha's transformative gift for holding space unfolded before my eyes. It's not your typical open mic—it's a haven where shy individuals blossom into performers, and where the camaraderie goes beyond applause. Sasha's mission is clear: providing a low-pressure platform for melanated creatives to freely express themselves. From collective deep breaths to poignant performances, the atmosphere transcends the ordinary.

"Sun-kissed stories" open mic

Sasha Paul (right) is pictured with a participant at one of Mauya's "Paint and Sip" events, from the Mauya website gallery.

When Mauya invited me to come to open mic, I hesitated. Not that I don’t like live performances, but I would also be recording my one-on-one conversations with some of the performers and guests as a collaboration project with her company.

Awkwardly standing in the corner, smiling at people while desperately hoping someone will talk to me doesn’t sound like much fun. But for the most part that’s not what happened!

Sasha Paul's gift for holding space is unprecedented for an open mic.

Usually, open mics are casual public events where emerging creatives can test their chops. At best, it's an intimate setting where even the shyest people can work up the courage to perform in front of others for the first time. At worst it's Amateur Night at the Apollo, minus the vaudeville hook. Some of you might remember the now famous video of Lauryn Hill getting booed at the age of 13, despite her GOAT (Greatest of All Time) status today.

When she first arrived in Halifax, Sasha didn’t see a lot of places catering to melanated creatives with a low-pressure way to hone their talents. That’s why she started Mauya The Abstract Tribe in the first place: to help us out of our shell so we can express our creativity freely.

I got there early. The first few people to trickle in pulled out their phones and sat alone, or talked among their friends, until Sasha got on the mic. Once the patio was full of people, she spoke: ‘I can feel that we’re all a little tense right now, so I invite you to take a deep collective breath together.” Breathe in… now breathe out… breathe in… out.”

Participants at one of Mauya's "paint and sip" events, from the Mauya website gallery.

Every minute from that point on, when I looked around I saw more and more people talking to each other, and not awkwardly, but enthusiastically.

One performer told me she was grateful to have somewhere to try something new in front of a supportive crowd, especially a majority non-white crowd. When a person does something brave, potentially embarrassing themselves in front of strangers, knowing those strangers already share your experiences can make all the difference. If only amateur night could always be this supportive, it may have saved Lauryn Hill a few tears.

Along with musical performances, spoken word poetry covered a lot of common experiences shared by folks of colour: processing our ancestral history, coping with the myth of race, and dealing with the pressures of daily life as a melanated person in a society that seldom hears our voices.

We were encouraged to snap our fingers if the mood struck, even during the performance. It's less disruptive than clapping, because you can still here the person talking.

Adam Khamis is shown smiling with a flower pot in his hands.

Adam Khamis was the first poetry performance. He spoke of the pressure to overachieve, and the exhaustion that results. That constant fear that forces us to keep up, while at the same time being pulled down by limiting expectations and misjudgements from others about who we are as people. Even family members play into this lie, born from white supremacy, that says we need to work twice as hard as everyone else.

This capitalist force–and I can't overstate enough that it was born out of the systematic application of white supremacy through history–becomes internalized. The lessons we were taught can easily become our own thoughts, until we become our own abuser. And no one stops us, because it works out so well for them! The torture you inflict on yourself is nothing but "Black excellence" on the outside.

Fingers snapped in agreement. "We need an hour to debrief on that!" Sasha said, to laughter.

After the planned performances she opened the floor, encouraging anyone to take the stage if they felt inspired.

"Just think," she added, "of all the ways there are to tell your story, because we are always telling stories, even to ourselves."

Oh, and my one-on-one interviews went great. I talked with Adam Khamis about making friends with other men, and Kavitha Raveendaran talked about working under the Indian caste system.

Follow Mauya The Abstract Tribe

To find more creative Black-led events in Halifax, follow @mauya_theabstract on Instagram.

Correction: In the audio version of this article I say Lauryn Hill was "booed offstage" but she did finish her performance on stage.