Remember when we all started baking bread? 

The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have spurred everything from a renaissance for sourdough and long put-off home renovation projects to people learning a new skill and some unique at-home art projects.

We've seen many online friends showing off a new skill or project as we doom-scroll through social media. While the intentions are good, the effects can be negative. Instead of picking up something new or revisiting something loved, many of us have lost inspiration for our art or hobby during the pandemic.

So how do you find that spark when you're feeling smothered? Our social media manager and resident hip-hop star Anthony Ramsay knows this feeling. Before the pandemic, he was working on music for a follow-up to his 2017 album, Waves. The change to work-from-home and the pandemic's effects on his friends and family took a toll on his writing process. Over the last few months, he has rediscovered the love of music he developed as a child.

Ramsay was surrounded by music and musicians from birth. “I grew up in a family household where everyone was encouraged to participate in creating music, it was celebrated in our household.” One of his grandfathers was a saxophonist, he has a Juno Award-winning uncle and his father was a celebrated DJ in Jamaica.

Seeing his family pursue their musical ambitions inspired Ramsay to dream about tours and music videos, even though few Canadian artists seemed to be able to break out. “Growing up in this community, I felt the challenge of trying to be an artist that could potentially go global because I saw how it was for Canadian artists, especially from Kitchener-Waterloo,” said Ramsay. “You don't really see many artists blow up from this community.”

Ramsay quickly learned the new tools of the trade – everything from music production software such as Apple's GarageBand to social media tools to help connect with audiences worldwide.

“Luckily, I was growing up in the era of the internet – YouTube, MySpace, Twitter – and a lot of artists were using that tool to reach a global audience,” Ramsay said. “I just figured out and learned how to use that to my advantage and reach a different audience to reach outside of my community.”

The feedback from fans inspired him to keep going and create new music, and it brought a lot of peace of mind and calmness. 

The benefits Ramsay found in creating music weren’t just for himself. Ramsay said he would often receive comments from younger people who found inspiration in someone local being able to make and share music. “I’ve always loved to create something really different and showing my community, this is what you can do – you can do almost anything.”

Making and sharing music is a lifestyle unto itself, with positive and negative aspects. Technology has enabled more artists to connect with new audiences and bypass legacy industry gatekeepers. It’s also keeping young eyes glued to screens more than is healthy for the body and mind.

Anthony Ramsay walks in front of a Stephanie Scott mural depicting plants

Anthony Ramsay walks in front of a Stephanie Scott mural in Downtown Kitchener. (Communitech photo: Alex Kinsella)

“Even I had to take a break from music for a while just to grow and learn. It became a lifestyle, where I was so deep within it that it almost became the hurt,” Ramsay said. “It felt like I was almost trapped around it.”

That impact was made worse five years ago when Ramsay’s father was murdered in Jamaica. “It really had a heavy impact on me. I had a lot of creative friends that I’ve connected with around the world and I felt like not a lot of them were really there for me. It felt strange.”

We rely on our friendships to support us in times like that. But the friendships we make online are rarely as deep, as reliable, as true as the friendships we make in real life. The disconnect made Ramsay take a step back to rethink the relationships that he put his energy into.

“I almost became a little bit angry with the results of my content online because you have...not the imposter syndrome, but you have the pressure of trying to keep up with all these other artists around the world and all these numbers and these metrics,” Ramsay said. “Then you start to judge your own creativity and it serves to spiral out to something else.”

This new awareness led Ramsay to remember why he started making music in the first place.

“I think that’s really important to know why you wanted to express yourself, why you chose these tools to express yourself. Because somewhere down the line, a lot of artists might get engulfed in the journey and they get lost. So I had to take a step back to relearn and appreciate all the things that made me love creating in the first place.”

The constant feedback from those online friends had caused Ramsay to feel anxious when getting ready to release new music. Not just due to possible negative feedback, but with more and more people wanting to connect with him to get something out of him.

“I was worried that there were going to be a lot of people wanting to be my friend all of a sudden, which I really was afraid of because I just don’t have time for fake relationships. People trying to leverage things from me and absorb my creativity.”

Ramsay has learned to take care of his creative energy now that he understands himself as an introvert better. Listening to his music or seeing him perform, you’d never know he thinks of himself as one.

“I always considered myself an introvert, but when I was creating and performing, it was like a switch. But that was more like a controlled extrovert style. On that stage, it’s like an orchestrated madness.”

Towards the end of last year, Ramsay was able to find that spark again by getting back to the basics of exploring different sounds and influences. Instead of thinking about an album as a whole, Ramsay is working on one song at a time.

“My creative process is a lot different now. I just have a bunch of different songs and all different sounds,” he said. “When I was younger, I grew up thinking an album had to be this cohesive body where it sounded like a story. But my whole creativity has shifted the same way as the culture has.” 

That culture shift is both driven by new platforms and the pandemic’s changes to the ways we break up our days while working from home. Ramsay pointed to shorter form, bite-sized content including TikToks as an influence. “I'm trying to not block myself by creating a body of work. I’m just letting what comes to me happen.”

Freed from the pressure to create an album, Ramsay has found his voice again with the new single titled MAD TV. He released the track and accompanying music video in January to local and international fans. “That pressure comes in and we overthink things. When it comes to a song like MAD TV, that was just me really disconnected with myself and acknowledging my situation – and a lot of other people’s situations. It let me create an expression for this moment right now.”

Ramsay has made some deep connections with other musicians outside Canada and has seen similar realizations. “When I was 16, I was networking with kids in California and exchanging songs and beats through Dropbox and it's fun to see these same people now, 10 years later, and how they’ve grown as well,” he said. “It seems like they also have gone through similar situations where they’ve matured. It’s not being like a child celebrity or child star, but it’s growing up on the internet and exposing sides of yourself to the public.”

Ramsay’s story has parallels to tech founders and the need to set boundaries. “The number 1 thing I would recommend to the younger generation when networking and building these relationships is going into these situations and knowing what you’re wanting to give up and knowing where you draw the line,” said Ramsay. “Just stay focused and don’t get too distracted in all the hype because hype tends to get to a lot of people.”

Respecting people and their time is essential too. In tech, in music, in theatre, in art, we all work to support each other’s ambitions. Ramsay said we need to remember to pay respect to people for that time and support. “Not going overboard with it or anything like that, just respond to those sticky notes and keep connections alive and friendly. When you notice people are going through things, just be there for them as well.”

Keeping real-life relationships and friendships healthy takes more than just a retweet or a double-tap on Instagram. “I learned to not really care about those other things, because those things are temporary. I’m really in it just to make people feel and build genuine relationships.”

# # #

While you’re adding these tracks to a mixtape, I see and hear that.. the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation is hosting the third conversation in their Anti-Racism Series: The Intersectionality between Affordable Housing and Race on Thursday, Feb. 25 from 1-2 p.m. Midtown Radio, the KW Community Foundation and Arts Build Ontario present KW Stays Home, an online concert featuring music from I, The Mountain, JP Sunga, Joni Nehrita, Paige Warner, and Mandippal on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Live @ 44 Gaukel presents Jaguar Sun + Ahmri Vandeborne on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. This event pairs a live musical performance with visual artwork from a different local designer each month. The visual set created for the show is unique to the artist’s interpretation of the band’s music, making for a truly joint showcase of music and art.