By Jessie Stones
Struggling to find the beats through the fuzzy radio reception, a teenaged Joanne Gairy, aka Jemeni, stood over the receiver in her parents’ living room holding a knife and fork to the antenna.
“I’d stand there until my arms fell asleep,” she says.
Growing up black in a white St. Catharines neighbourhood, Jemeni found an echo of her experiences on a station broadcasting over an hour down the QEW from downtown Toronto.
Every week she turned into Fantastic Voyage, a hip-hop radio show hosted by Ron Nelson.
Now 25, Jemeni has become an important part of Toronto’s hip-hop scene, spinning beats on her own CKLN show. She has also published poetry and will soon be seen on CBC’s Drop the Beat.
Six years ago, at 19, Jemeni enrolled in Ryerson’s radio and television arts program and decided she wanted to work on Nelson’s new show, The Power Move, which has become the longest-running campus hip-hop radio show in Canada.
Jemeni left messages on Nelson’s answering machine asking if she could volunteer her time.
“I felt I wanted to give something back after all I’d gotten out of the show,” she says, taking a break from the stir-fry on the stove to sit down and chat at her kitchen table.
Nelson didn’t return her calls and Jemeni got angry. “I called him and left his message on his machine saying I had no time for people who didn’t appreciate me,” she says. “And he called back.”
Nelson invited her to co-host his show. “He liked my attitude,” she says. “How I wasn’t just going to sit back and let people walk on me.”
At 20, Jemeni became CKLN’s music director, the youngest in the station’s history.
“I like to play female positive hip-hop,” the dreadlocked Jemeni says, jumping to attend to a pot on the stove. “Create a good vibe.”
After leaving RTA in 1996, Jemeni spent a year in her homeland of Grenada working with Grenada Save the Children, the largest non-governmental organization on the island. She also organized the country’s first nation-wide poetry contest for children.
Her experiences with the children compelled her to writer her own poetry. She remembers a man in the audience of one of her show objecting to a poem about child abuse. “He said, ‘Can’t we just hear something happy?’” she recalls. “But I said to him, ‘If you, a grown man, can’t listen to it, how do you think a nine-year old feels when she’s dealing with it on a day-to-day basis?’”
Jemeni was recently commissioned by the Canada Race Relations Foundations to write a piece and perform it on her own nationally televised commercial for an antiracism campaign.
Her new pursuit is creating a CD of her poetry, with help from house producer Nick Holder. “A friend of mine was like, ‘He’s like the Puff Daddy of house,” Jemeni says with a laugh. “So that should be fun.”
She recently left her day job at a movie distribution company to focus more on her poetry with her sights set on publishing a book. Her poems have appeared in several anthologies, including Fireweed’s Revolution, Girl Style. She is also going to appear in Drop the Beat with current Power Move host Michie Mee. She show is about Toronto’s hip-hop culture as seen through the eyes of the staff of people who work on a campus radio show similar to Power Move.
“Everyone at CKLN auditioned for Drop the Beat except me,” she says. “ Just when I was kicking myself for not auditioning, [producer] Adrienne Mitchell called me to ask me to do a guest spot as myself.” THe producers had apparently seen one of her poetry readings, and were interested in having her appear on the show.
What connects her work in different media is her striving to be a role model for young people. “I like it when young girls come up to me and I can give inspiration to them,” she says. Looking at her poetry from Grenada spread out on the kitchen table, Jemeni smiles at the thought of the direction her life has taken since she first stood by the radio, trying to pick up CKLN from St. Catharines.