‘All the dreadlocked rastas were white’: B.C. poet sings about being Black in Nanaimo

A poet and creative writing instructor from Vancouver Island University has chronicled her experience of being Black in Nanaimo in a song, as part of a project called Re-Imagine Nanaimo. 

Sonnet L’abbe was asked how she would like to see the city of Nanaimo in 20 years and, as part of her response, she said she’d like it to include more people who look like her. 

“When Nanaimo asked what my vision would be for the next 20 years, I just want to encourage more people of colour and more Black people to come. Join me,” L’abbe said to host Kathryn Marlow on CBC’s All Points West

L’abbe has performed her song Nazaneen as part of the city’s ongoing Re-Imagine Nanaimo project, which envisions what the city will look like in 2040. 

While the project is looking at sustainability, transit and housing, L’abbe said she wanted to open up the conversation to include the texture of the community.

“It felt like an opportunity to keep conversations about Black lives front and centre and to remind people about the Black community on the island while also just expressing my love for Nanaimo,” she said. 

Listen to Nazaneen:

L’abbe, who describes herself as a mixed race Black person of colour, moved to the mid-island city from Toronto a few years ago. Nazaneen addresses a fictitious Black woman who is considering making a similar move. 

While the song gushes over the affordability of Nanaimo’s real estate and cedar-lined trails, it also notes there is no “good jerk chicken” and that “when I went to the Queens/for the reggae scene/all the dreadlocked rastas were white.”

“I think they’re hearing the humour. I think they’re hearing the love, and I think they’re also hearing the opportunity, or to hear a part of a conversation that they might not have heard before,” said L’abbe.

L’abbe says observing that smaller towns don’t have the same diversity as larger cities isn’t “striking,” but her own experiences of Nanaimo have been largely welcoming.

“The openness of people and peoples’ willingness to talk, and my own exposure to, I don’t know, the Chicago Blues, has been warm and surprising and it has changed me a lot, too,” she said. 

“It has been so welcoming here.”

Listen to the interview with Sonnet L’abbe on CBC’s All Points West:

All Points West14:08Sonnet L’abbe shares the story of Nazaneen: A Song For Nanaimo

The song Nazaneen: A Song For Nanaimo was written by Sonnet L’abbe, a poet and creative writing instructor at Vancouver Island University. The song chronicles what it is like to be Black in Nanaimo. It’s part of the ongoing Re-Imagine Nanaimo project, which aims to create a vision for the next twenty years in the city. Kathryn Marlow reached Sonnet L’abbe to get the story behind the song. 14:08

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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