Community Classroom

Community Vision: Poet Sings Song about being Black in Nanaimo

Sonnet L’Abbé sits on a stool on the Port Theatre's stage in front of a multi-coloured pink, blue and purple lighted background.
Author: Rachel Stern, VIU Communications Officer

VIU Creative Writing and Journalism Professor Sonnet L’Abbé’s song commissioned for REIMAGINE Nanaimo campaign.

Sonnet L’Abbé envisions a diverse and inclusive future for Nanaimo.

She shared that hope through a song called “Nazaneen: A Song for Nanaimo,” which is a fictitious penned letter to a friend called Nazaneen, a Black woman considering moving to Nanaimo with her sons. The song was one of three works commissioned by the City of Nanaimo’s Culture & Events team for the REIMAGINE Nanaimo campaign. The campaign invited people to add their voice to the conversation about what kind of city they’d like Nanaimo to be in 20 years and beyond.

“I tried to write a song that would help my town see itself through the eyes of one of its own Black residents,” says L’Abbé. “When I was considering moving to Nanaimo to work at VIU, I didn’t have a contact to ask about the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) community. But I did know people in Vancouver who had grown up here, and they warned me I might find it … challenging. So if we’re looking to Nanaimo’s future, I wanted us all to imagine a future where more Black families move here, and think about how much we actually welcome that.”

L’Abbé was also motivated to write the song because of events in the summer of 2020, including the murder of George Floyd and anti-Black racism.

“This past summer after George Floyd was murdered, my personal need for community, and a whole bunch of people’s need for community, skyrocketed,” says L’Abbé. “I was confronted with how few people I was in touch with here in Nanaimo, how few Black people, how few professionals of colour, I could talk to in these moments.”

This also motivated L’Abbé to co-organize a Black Lives Matter march in Nanaimo last June.

“It was my own response to mine and other people’s sense of not being connected. The local Black population is small, and the urgency of the moment didn’t seem to be quite felt by Nanaimo – as I was feeling it, anyway,” says L’Abbé. “Coming together in the summer was really important to me because it showed visibility and it asserted that Black Lives Matter. It asserted that our experiences are important, that our voices are important, and there were calls for sustained attention to Black lives and valuing Black lives and experiences.”

She said the Black Lives Matter march was also an opportunity for people in Nanaimo who share those values to come together, which was “heartening” to see.

“All those experiences this summer gave me a lot to think about in terms of what I’d like to see for Nanaimo’s future and inviting more people, more diversity into town seems very straightforward,” she says.

L’Abbé, an award-winning poet, says she chose to create a song instead of a poem to reach more people and because she is venturing into the art form. She says it is a different challenge for her. She thinks of her art as an avenue for starting conversations or making space. The response to the song has been almost unanimously positive, adds L’Abbé.

“The fact that the City of Nanaimo supported this message and put it out there says a lot about Nanaimo’s potential direction. That makes me feel good,” she says. “I’m happy to contribute my voice and a number of people have watched the video, which has been phenomenal.”

L’Abbé was interviewed and her song was featured on CBC’s All Points West and the Nanaimo News Bulletin.


An aerial view of buildings at the VIU Nanaimo campus with a cropping of trees in the foreground.

VIU Graphic Design Professor Sebastian Abboud’s illustration “Looking Forward” was also commissioned as part of the REIMAGINE Nanaimo campaign. Read about his work in the Illustrator Shares Hope for Better Future blog on Community Classroom.


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