Che Kothari

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One of the original minds behind creative evolution and social change prospects in Toronto’s Manifesto community projects is Che Kothari, noted photographer, social activist, organizer and more recently, tagged as the executive director of the Manifesto festival. This man navigates through life indefinitely dependant on the sentiments of peace, love, respect, unity and fun. These same sentiments play as the foundation of organizing and executing the third annual festival of community and culture. Manifesto is a non-profit grassroots organization working to unite, energize and celebrate Toronto’s vibrant and diverse music and arts community. Sprung out of a simple exchange of knowledge with friends, something special was born, a passion for building dynamic communities. This beautiful exchange rapidly manifested into Canada’s largest festival rooted in hip hop and urbanology. With a set of concrete ideas, the right resources, a torrent of dope volunteers and a vast amount of support from the people, the Manifesto family, in which Che is a key ingredient , brought this project to life, soaring with dance parties, b-boy battles, outdoor concerts, art manifestations, film screenings and plenty more.
We had a chance to converse with Che during his hectic schedule.

“As artists we are some of the best communicators, because we’re all storytellers. I want to help people and myself rediscover that story and understand the injustices that exist in the world and share them.”

Format: How did you become so invested in Toronto? (We know that you’re originally from Guelph)
Che: When I was seventeen years old, I made the decision that either I was going to travel around the world or move to Toronto. I put one application out to Ryerson University for photography and received an entrance scholarship. So I moved out on my own and quickly I fell in love with all of the diversity in Toronto. You really get to know the word ‘culture’ here. Here you got your India town, China town, your Jamaica town. Toronto fed my desire to travel; it’s a great starting point.

Why did you think Toronto needs a Manifesto festival?
Che:There’s so much talent in the city, we continuously need more platforms to showcase the talent that we have. The main reason manifesto came into existence is to shed light on the amazing local talent. We have some of the top artists, our dj’s, our b-boys are world class. We need events like this to bring people together, to network, to fall in love with what this culture is all about. Manifesto is also about localizing things, making it accessible to a young person or to an elder person. My mom’s in the crowd tonight, she’s sitting here watching dance. She knows break dancing culture better than I do. In the 80’s at my first birthday they booked b-boys. Events like these generate revenue, getting local talent paid, build contacts. It’s just a beautiful coming together of the city.

Format: At quite a young age you are doing big, meaningful things for the city of Toronto, what do you hope to be when you grow up?
Don’t ask me that question; the list goes on forever and ever. I want to be a magician, naturopath, chef, father; I always want to be a kid at heart. My mind never allows limitations. I want to be a yogi, get into architecture.

Format: So basically you want to conquer the world?
Che: Haha. I don’t want to conquer the world; I want to work with the world. And the beautiful thing is I don’t have to do it alone, that’s what manifesto is all about, working with so many amazing people to make all these dreams come a reality.

Arts and culture is such a strong platform to gain awareness, I want to get into connecting the dots to all these social movements and environmental movements that are happening, and communicate with these speakers of culture to spread these messages. As artists we are some of the best communicators, because we’re all storytellers. I want to help people and myself rediscover that story and understand the injustices that exist in the world and share them.

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Format: Would you say this festival amplified through simple word of mouth or because of your contacts?
Che: Manifesto is spread on a ground level by word, in my opinion, that’s the strongest form of communication. We’ve got a lot of great media partners. I’m on the street talking to people; we have a dope street team spreading the world.

It is still very grassroots, because we rely on many volunteers for many things, but we’re also at the point where we have full page spreads in magazines, MTV spots, Breakfast Televisions, MuchMusic spots. Now that we have that platform to speak nationally we’re going to create awareness. We chose certain artists to put on the bill, because we are building something, these artists are the ambassadors of that message.

Format: Where would you like to take Manifesto in the future?
Che: It is the future right now. I live in the present, always in the present. What I would like to see is for it to continue to grow. We have these town hall meetings at City Hall, bringing young people together to talk about what they want to be in their own communities. A lot of times the decision making is not held within the people it’s for. Manifesto is about putting decision making back in our own hands, creating things for ourselves. We hope that Manifesto will continue to grow on its own. People will come to this event or hear about it and people will take it upon themselves to nurture it.

My main interest is to share some of the mottos we have with people around the world, and to also travel and visit festivals around the world and learn from them and bring those ideas to Toronto. Right now we have partners around the world, in Columbia we can see a Manifesto happening there, in Jamaica also. Hopefully Manifesto will be a global cultural movement, tapping into other movements that already exist.

Manifesto also does a lot of arts based programming, education through the arts. I would like to see manifesto grow into a sort of university. We are connected to so many artists; working with them on the ground level and having them teach others about why they create art would be dope. Imagine a university where you could be taught by Maestro. Then the actual festival would be all students and their mentors.

Format: How are you able to throw a free outdoor concert adding an impressive bill to the stage?
Che: We do a few events where we charge revenue; we’re just strategic with our budgets. We have some amazing support. Think about where hip hop started and where it is now, hip hop started as a struggle, we recognize, we respect and now it’s our time to give back. We are definitely not a ‘taking’ organization; we are a ‘giving’ organization. In that spirit, we must give to the people and provide free events like this. It’s a free event at Nathan Phillips Square; we got free shuttle buses coming in from outside of Toronto. It’s very important this is accessible to as many people as possible.

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Format: We got to understand it’s not finances we need to emphasis, it’s knowledge and spirit and energy exchange. Who helps fund this event?
Che: It’s no joke we got the Canadian Heritage, federal government on board, for provincial support we got the Government of Ontario, Ontario Arts Council, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Toronto Arts Council. Corporate sponsors like TD Bank, Playstation, Pulp & Fibre. Our media partners are massive. We have support from every outlet, which says a lot about the work we’re doing. People are starting to recognize. For example, I had the opportunity to go to Harvard and speak about Manifesto at an event called hip hop archive, to represent and recognize.

Format: What is the most stressful part of putting on a five day festival?
Che: Honestly, the most stressful part for me is getting the word out to the right people. I want to get the word out to the people who don’t always have the opportunity to experience this. I’m constantly finding ways to make this more accessible. Other than that it’s all love.

Format: Seeing as Manifesto is an annual event, are you hoping to pass on the torch, as the years pass by, to someone as ambitious and passionate about community, culture, art and music as yourself?
Che: One hundred percentage yes! Anyone who wants to run Manifesto come see me. This was never meant to be owned by anyone. The community is to own Manifesto. I was blessed to meet people that helped me expand into what I’m doing, people like Jonathon Ramos, Jamel Shahbaz, Sol Guy, all these people that were my mentors passed on bits of knowledge and wisdom, they’re all now on the Manifesto board of directors. It’s these people that passed on the torch and allowed me to do what I’m doing. I’m ready, whoever wants to run it can run it!

Format: Being a professional photographer, how has this project inspired or interrupted your work flow?
Che: When I first moved to Toronto, I had a camera and video camera with me 24/7, I documented almost my entire life and since I became more of an organizer I definitely put that down for a little bit. It’s usually a laptop in my hand and blackberry. I feel like photography is a way to share stories, the festival itself is now a story and now I’m communicating in a new way. This conversation you and I are having right now is the same act to me as taking a picture and sharing it.

The beautiful thing about this festival is I’m able to enable a platform for emerging photographers and videographers to do their thing. I’m not taking pictures right now but I’m helping others to do that, to create art. For me , everything is art, taking a picture is art, cooking dinner is art, creating a festival is a piece of art. Taking pictures will always be the backbone of what I do. I’m very interested in putting out a photography book next year. Right now I’m very focused on building a strong community of artists so I can just sit back into that.

“I was blessed to meet people that helped me expand into what I’m doing, people like Jonathon Ramos, Jamel Shahbaz, Sol Guy, all these people that were my mentors passed on bits of knowledge and wisdom, they’re all now on the Manifesto board of directors. It’s these people that passed on the torch and allowed me to do what I’m doing. I’m ready, whoever wants to run it can run it!”

Format: Clearly, hip hop culture is the powerful wave circulating throughout the festival, how has hip hop affected you? How prevalent is it in your life?
Che: Krs ONE taught me how to break it down; hip is to know, hop is a movement. So you got a knowledge movement which is hip hop. When I moved to Toronto, I looked at hip hop in a whole new form, I began to read more about it and it really opened up my mind on how I got here. Even when I travel, I can meet people just on the love for hip hop. It got me interested in life and finding knowledge within myself and knowledge of power. I wasn’t a heavy hip hop fan till I moved to Toronto.

art show

Format: How long did it take for this grassroots organization to come up with the concept of Manifesto; from an idea floating around in your head to a full-fledged festival?
Che: You know what’s crazy is that it didn’t take that long. The way Manifesto started was me, my business partner Ryan, Jesse, the original crew were talking about it, while we were busy holding events in the city and we thought we gotta do something big. We called a meeting at City Hall in February, 2007.and from that time to September we pulled off our first festival, which was legendary. That just showed we didn’t create something, it already existed, it’s just about putting the pieces of the puzzle together, if you unify you can make things happen rapidly.

Being a social movements activist, in your opinion what is the correlation between art and activism?
Che: Art is so powerful in creating awareness for the people. If you watch a MC speaking wisdom to 10,000 people, there you go, that creates a force to transform people minds. Part of the Manifesto One City Series is an organization that travelled to Bangalore, India, they photographed the Dalits (the name of India’s most oppressed group) also known as the Untouchables. This organization held a photography exhibition and created awareness. Each photograph told a story about the injustices that are happening in India right now, and they raised funds through photography to give back to the community.

Art and culture is an enabler, enables a conversation or it can be a pulse of a movement. Alongside social movements is an artistic force that is communicating messages to a larger audience. To me art and activism are like brother and sister, they work together.

Format: Beyond the aesthetic appeal of the Manifesto festival, what does this labour of love mean to you?
Che: It means to me a community of people coming together in unison. Everyone involved in Manifesto is there because they love it. To me it’s love. Number two is learning.
I’m trying to find ways to live as a community and going back to the roots of it all, within the city’s system and structure. To live in a community where we share ideas and learn from our elders and young people, where we all take care of each other and we all grow together.

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Deepi Harish

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