The surging Black Lives Matter movement across North America called on Tamara Steele to trade a microphone for a megaphone and an audience of dancers in the street for thousands of marchers protesting anti-Black racism and oppression. The singer and president of the Black Cultural Society is using her voice to bring PEI together in new ways.
We still work an interview time around her rehearsal with ten-piece world music band I and the Village, but performing has “taken a backburner” for Tamara, not only because of pandemic cancellations but also because of the demands on the Black Cultural Society. “Every day, it’s a new request and a new opportunity,” Tamara says. “We do have a network that is growing, but we’re still a volunteer board and it can be overwhelming.”
Giving voice comes naturally to Tamara. She says, “My dad said I came out singing.” Her mother told a different story, but there’s no disputing the musicality she added to her Nova Scotia family. Her music-loving mother; her musician father; her church-organist grandmother who taught Tamara to play the piano. From the time she was young, Tamara would pick up “any spoon or remote” and use it as a microphone, singing along with the radio.
“My dad’s band rehearsed at my house, and I hung around, secretly waiting for them to ask me to sing,” she smiles. The call never came, because her father was not going to drag his underage daughter into bars on school nights. Soon enough, Tamara moved to PEI to attend UPEI and (still underage) was singing in bars on her own recognizance, leading her first band, The Groove Gurus. “That was a great old time, that band,” she remembers with a chuckle.
After university, Tamara wasn’t happy with the degree she had and took some time to work and think about what to do next. She took a job at the erstwhile coffee counter in the Confederation Centre and when a position came open for an administrative assistant in the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, she applied. She took the job thinking she would stay three years—“I thought, three years looks good on a resume,” she says—and thirteen years later she is still there. While music is her medium, being surrounded by visual art certainly inspires. “If you get stressed out about something in your work, you can step out and be in a gorgeous art gallery,” she says.
Creativity and inspiration inform her work as president of the Black Cultural Society. Founding members tried recruiting her when the Society first incorporated in 2016, but it took until early 2019 for Society co-founder Scott Parsons, Tamara, and three other new recruits to get together in the right place at the right time to organize events for Black History Month 2019. “Scott was there but largely had stepped back and let us design the month. It went so well. I think he loved seeing us work,” she recalls.
The team of four that worked on Black History Month 2019 became the board for the Society into 2020, and they topped the previous year’s accomplishments this February with the fullest, most successful Black History Month in PEI history. They were on a roll towards exciting strategic planning for the Society—when George Floyd was murdered and his death by violent racism galvanized a movement to protest anti-Black racism and oppression of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.
Tamara’s voice was called on, for activism. “People are listening right now, and there’s a certain population committed to seeing change,” she says. “Maybe on the other side, (the Black Cultural Society) will see membership and programming development, fun things, supportive things, services, and advocacy…” But, she says, “There were so many people who didn’t know we were here…” Speaking out, organizing, feels more urgent.”
For the remainder of 2020, Tamara wishes for “Strength. Persistence. Perseverance. There is a lot of work to be done, and I hope we get it done.” In the meantime, Tamara says, “I want to be doing the work. I’m where I want to be, with the Society, doing the work.”