Cranium Festival 2024: A bridge to success, a path through resistance

Vuk Cvetanovic Lalovic May 9, 2024

(Vuk Cvetanovic Lalovic/CHUO)


The annual Cranium Festival has become an ever-expanding staple of the Ottawa music scene, and continues this trend with a duo of panels tackling some of the music industry’s biggest questions; how does a young artist best begin their career, and how is hip-hop tied to resistance?

The panels, hosted by a variety of prominent figures in Ontario’s music scene, reaffirm the event’s importance as a cultural hub for BIPOC expression in the National Capital region, presenting a variety of views on the hip-hop community, its influence on mainstream culture, and the role of the artist in the modern media landscape.

Held from May 2nd to 4th, the event has been branded as an event that prioritizes “engaging with BIPOC professionals and beneficiaries when booking artists or contractors and when delivering professional development programming,” as stated on their website

Since their first event in 2019, the event has become a mainstay, attracting crowds with live performances, guest workshops, and vinyl discoveries. Participating artist Nambi, who has returned for a repeat performance at this year’s festival, describes Cranium as an event “by us, for us,” offering an experience that was previously vanishingly rare in the Ottawa region.

The panels were hosted in a small atrium in the National Arts Centre’s lobby, the airy space inviting passersby to stop by and listen. With most events absolutely free, the festival encourages active participation from members of the community of all backgrounds, contributing to a feeling of togetherness. 

This year’s themed panels, with their topics of fighting polarisation and freely spreading information, have only strengthened that particular sensation.

The first panel, ‘Community Engaged Arts: Hip-hop and resistance panel,’ ran from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m on May 4th, presented by Patrick McCormack, an Ottawa-based artist and managing director of the festival since its inception. 

Participants ranged from Jesse Ohtake, founder of well-known Toronto-based concert production company The Academy, singer, poet, comedian, and actor Rose-Ingrid Benjamin, and rising star rapper Mazyn.

Engaging with the complex topic of social resistance, the panel attempted to chart the different approaches that characterise the hip-hop movement’s rise from urban rebellion into world-spanning fame.

The controversial topic was enthusiastically discussed by the panellists, who brought their particular experiences to bear in order to articulate their relationship with the artform.

Indeed, the example of rapper Mazyn, who grew up in Egypt, but said “hip-hop speaks to me more than any other type of music.” 

This was contrasted by Ohtake’s more sober and storied perspective and Benjamin’s grassroots enthusiasm. In spite of these differences, each response revealed a different facet of hip-hop’s place in the current socio-cultural zeitgeist.

The panellists also delved into the minutia of the dichotomy between hip-hop as a culture and hip-hop as a brand, and the balance which must be upheld in order to foster any kind of resistance. 

With clothing so intertwined into the movement, there was emphasis placed on a spirit of scrappy recycling and inventiveness which was at the origin of many of the trend-setting items, a small act of resistance in and of itself. 

Ottawa-born singer and comedian Rose-Ingrid Benjamin says the“making do is non-consumerist,” which was presented as a refutation of the polished sheen of mainstream hip-hop, and demonstrated the continued grassroots nature of the bottom-up movement, an attitude that Benjamin would call “owning your story, which no-one else can do for you.”

The second panel, ‘Navigating Your Career as an Independent Artist,’ from 4 p.m to 5 p.m. was host to a veritable who’s-who of influential musicians in the Ontarian music scene, including the experienced musical consultant and music business teacher David ‘Click’ Cox, stalwart independent rapper Dan-e-o, inventive Afro-Caribbean artist Jessie Simmons, and the eclectic soul singer Nambi, all presented by Juno nominated reggae artist J Morris.

With a variety of approaches to both music and business on display, aspiring artists were able to glean a wide variety of tips and advice in regards to any tentative first steps into the business. Questions of resource gatekeeping, networking advice, and difficulties in were all addressed, with the panellists repeatedly stressing “constant re-learning” as a key factor in enduring and thriving in a rapidly-developing entertainment environment.

According to Nambi, a prominent key to success as an up-and-coming artist is to “hold strong relationships with those you trust,” a sentiment only reaffirmed by Jessie Simmons, who has cultivated a strong media image only by collaboration with a competent and trusted team. 

This of course, doesn’t mean that additional support wouldn’t be appreciated, with discussion of groups such as the Toronto or Ottawa Arts Councils, as well as initiatives like the Unison Fund heartily recommended to any aspiring creatives.

Commenting on the difficulties of growing past the initial artistic slumps, the panellists showed a variety of responses, but insisted on a single idea; success is not easy, and must be done with heart. Give it your all, or do nothing at all. 

For a festival that has enabled and cultivated a variety of voices that, until recently, would have been strongly marginalised, it is a fitting summation.

Following the panel, the CHUO team was able to obtain an interview with musician and long-time follower of the station, Nambi (formerly Rita Carter). She has graciously shared her thoughts on her music, development as an Ottawa-based artist, as well as her involvement in the Cranium festival. Her interview is a revelatory insight into the role the festival plays in assuring a space for emerging acts, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nambi (Scott Doubt Photography).

Vuk: Hello Nambi, and thank you for granting me this interview. So, first of all, for those who don’t know you, maybe a short introduction would be in order?

Nambi: Okay, great, yeah. Um, thank you so much for  inviting me to speak to you. Um, my name is Nambi. I’m formerly known as Rita Carter. 

I was born and raised here in Ottawa. My parents immigrated from Uganda, from East Africa, in the late 70s. And I’ve been making music for a couple decades now and um, yeah, I’m super happy to be here for the Cranium conference and showcase.


Vuk: So as I’ve heard, the Cranium Festival is kind of a crowning, well, not a crowning achievement per se, but definitely another notch in your belt. You’ve been to Blues Fest, you’ve done Soul City, you’ve done tours both in East Africa and in the UK.

It’s, all told, quite the storied career. So how much has that, um, has the diversity of that career influenced the development of your sound? 

Nambi: Yeah, I think that just growing in my career has influenced the development of my sound. I mean, I write from a very personal place, based on past experiences, or what people close to me are going through.

I also write a lot about world issues. So having all of those milestone moments and great avenues to present my art has definitely helped my career a lot. I especially appreciate the Cranium Festival’s background; it’s been providing a place for emerging talents, especially BIPOC artists, to express themselves and find a platform for like minded people.


Vuk: As I recall, this is the second or third time you’ve performed here?

Nambi: This is the second time that I’ve performed for Cranium, but this is my fourth time at the NAC. I definitely want to echo your previous statement. In regards to Cranium, we didn’t have that when I was coming up in the industry in Ottawa. 

It was really just, you know, tiny little cafe shops where there would be ,like, open mics or spoken word poetry and stuff like that.

But for BIPOC artists, it wasn’t really common that you would see us in the NAC or in any space like it, for that matter. So yeah, it’s a big change, especially in the last few years. 


Vuk: Do you think there’s been an uptick in accessibility, and by extension, spaces for people of all sorts to develop their musical style, and do you think Cranium’s been a big contributor to the development of a more open culture?

Nambi:  Yeah, I definitely think it’s changed a lot in the last few years. I wonder if it has to do with, uh, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement which really hit it’s stride back in 2020.

What with it putting more awareness on the fact that representation is really, really important for next generations. Cranium, is almost like the brand FUBU, like, for us, by us, it’s built by people of colour, for people of colour, which is definitely a good way to go forwards.


Vuk: Yeah, this is especially important in the wake of intense polarisation in terms of who exactly tells a person or a community’s story.

In any case, what do you think about the mix of panels and live performances, and especially the subjects they cover?

Nambi: I think that it’s all so necessary. Um, all the panels today that I’ve had the chance to listen to have been subjects that we don’t get to really learn about, unless we maybe go to school for this or have people in our corner that can help and educate us on this these subjects. Or researching it yourself, of course, but having panels like today have been very, very beneficial. There are the one on one meetings as well, where you can feel a little more comfortable to ask questions one on one with, you know, music industry people that know more about the subject than you do. 


Definitely, especially with the specialisation that a lot of the artists here at Cranium benefit from. And it’s all outlined in a non profit way is something that’s very accessible for a whole, for a whole branch of people who might not be able to access it otherwise.


Vuk: How do you think the festival itself will develop in the next few years? Do you maybe have any, any ideas for things you’d like to contribute yourself? 

Nambi: Um, yeah, I’ve been actually very lucky in my career to work with Ottawa Blues Fest for two seasons, so I learned kind of the back end of how that festival runs.

So I would definitely love to contribute.
Some of the expertise that I’ve learned when it comes to administration as well as programming and grant writing as well.

Uh, but they seem to have that pretty much covered. But I can see the festival growing to be even bigger or even something that can be taken to other small cities around Ottawa that maybe don’t necessarily get the opportunity to come here.

That’s why it was created in Ottawa; because we always had to go to Montreal or Toronto for these types of conferences.

So maybe now it could be spread to more smaller cities because there’s lots of artists everywhere.
You know, some of the best artists come out of the smallest cities and towns. 


Vuk: Yeah, especially in the wake of, I guess, the mass democratisation of the creative process with different types of applications.
So maybe, continuing on from that, would you maybe have something to say to those, to those young creatives? 

Nambi: Yeah, to all the young creatives, I would just say to continue believing in yourself even when you feel like you’re the only one who does.

Belief and doing it with 100 percent your heart is what is going to keep you sustained even in the dark times.  That’s the most important thing.
Everything else will come after, but you’ve got to make sure you have your own mental health, okay?
You CAN believe in yourself and believe in the craft that you create. 


Vuk: It’s an invaluable message to share.
With your release of your album: All of We, the end of the trilogy coming this year,
what kind of sound do you expect people to hear from it, and what do you think your next projects will be like in the wake of it?

Nambi: Yeah, it’s been a long time coming, this album.It’s been over a decade in creation.
A lot of, like, time growing my family and having children and taking steps away.
But, um, finally, really, really excited for people to hear. 

Acoustic soul, folk,  it’s kind of like an R& B street folk kind of sound, so I like to say that my main influences, Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill, and India Arie kind of mixed them together.
So, it’s that kind of natural, acoustic sounding, um, soul, funk, reggae.
I have an eclectic taste, so that’s what my music represents.

And then after that, I’m looking to dive a lot more into the R& B side of myself. 


Vuk: Yeah, thanks for, thanks for describing it.
And all in all, as we’re running out of time, I have to thank you again for participating in the interview.
I wish you good luck, both for your album and the continued Cranium Festival.

Nambi: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Additional details pertaining to the Cranium Festival can be found on the event’s site.