Defining Home with the Legend of Sing Hey

Look around you. Look at the buildings, the shops and the schools. Look at all the things that make up the Kitchener Waterloo area, all the things that make up your community. Do you think this is where you belong? Are you happy here?

If your answer is no, would you believe me if I said you weren’t alone? A disillusionment with your home isn’t unique. We’re always striving for something better, or trying to push the envelope to see if we can find more peace, or more happiness, or a better sense of belonging.

“It’s a pretty classical idea,” said Janice Jo Lee, creator of the documentary-musical The Legend of Sing Hey. “Leaving home to gain perspective on home.”

Lee’s home is the same as mine: Kitchener. Since I moved here, I’ve dreamed of leaving. I tally the years to keep myself from giving up entirely — ‘only two more years until I can move away’ is the current score. Of course, there are people and things that I love which have enough influence to incline me to stay. But Lee did what I’ve never been brave enough to do: she left.

“Living here is a struggle. Living here as a queer woman of colour is a struggle. Because KW is a conservative place, as much as we think we’re so innovative with our technology and our universities,” Lee said.

“We’re not as progressive as we might fantasize. For artists, we don’t have infrastructure.”

Herself, her sister and co-creator of The Legend of Sing Hey Rebeccah Redden, got into a car and drove across Canada, trying to find something better. Trying to find a place where they belong.

While on their travels, they met other poets and activists searching for the same thing they were. A place where they can exist without question, as an artist, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and as a person of colour.

“What is interesting about the narrative part of the film is that we discover,” Lee said.

“While interviewing other artists or activists across the cities, what we learned is that we have the same set of struggles. Racism in Kitchener is very similar to racism in Ottawa or Halifax.”

The Legend of Sing Hey follows Lee as she explores community and this idea of ancestral purpose — how we learn from our past and how they can help us today. The titular character, Sing Hey, acts as a bridge between Lee and her ancestors. Slowly, the two are interwoven while one, Lee, interviews artists in various cities and Sing Hey provides song.

“The Legend of Sing Hey is a mythology I created through the songs I was writing. Because I felt that through the quiet and the time and space I was allowing myself secret melodies that have been stored up in my blood memory were emerging,” Lee explained.

“Because I was giving them space and giving them silence. The closing song in the film talks about that: the quiet bird only sings when she can hear herself”.

In the film, Lee sits with six different artists: Alysha Brilla, El Jones, Jamaal Jackson, Andre Fenton, Kai Cheng Thom and Katherine Lee. Each one fights for something different in their own town, yet at the same time, each artist wants the same thing.

“What I learned is if everyone just holds it down in their own communities, if everyone just does the work, I can trust that other artists and other activists are doing the work where they live,” Lee said.

“That gave me hope, that if I just keep doing what I’m doing while I’m here, we can build these movements together. It was about seeing the existence of this web or network of people doing the work across the board and that was really encouraging, really inspiring.”

I asked Lee what the most important thing she learned was, while making the film.

“I really remember what Jamaal Jackson said to me in Ottawa, and it really encouraged me. He said: I believe in Ottawa, I believe we have the right ingredients here [to make a change], and I’m so I’m tired of being angry I just want to do shit.”

But I think the most important thing I learned from Lee is: home isn’t something you stumble upon, but something you create through blood, sweat and tears. It’s your community, your family, your friends. Just as difficult as it is to create, it’s a difficult thing to destroy.

The Legend of Sing Hey is set to premier February 10, at the Princess Twin Cinema in Waterloo.