For two years now, I’ve attended the Manifesto Festival of Community & Culture in the fall with great enthusiasm. I always leave invigorated and inspired – a sensation that is often sustained well throughout our cold winters. The artist behind the vision, Che Kothari, held the position of being Manifesto’s Executive Director for the past 7 years and is now the organization’s Chair of the Board of Directors.
Initially though, Che started off as a photographer. He’s photographed intimate portraits of artists such as Common, Ice Cube, Ziggy Marley, Nas and Afrika Bambaataa just to name a few. He also co-founded Hightop Studio in 2001 with friend and business partner Ryan Paterson and has still managed to dedicate much of his time and energy into bringing together and bettering the community of Toronto.
When I approached Che for an interview, he kindly invited me to his home – a first of all the artists I’d interviewed throughout my career – and made me a cup of tea. Never once breaking eye contact, Che not only answered questions for Bad Perm, but also spoke to me directly, planting seeds of ingenuity within my consciousness that left me feeling with a renewed sense of purpose, much like Manifesto does every year. So won’t you please join us in the following conversation?
Bad Perm: The words that come to mind most often when I think of your role in the community is ‘community leader.’ So in a metropolis like Toronto, what does that mean to you?
Che Kothari: That’s a very humbling statement – community leader. Thank you. To me, it starts with self-leadership and starting within by going back to who you are and what your purpose is. Once you start to go within and rigorously investigate yourself, you start to find out what your purpose is… and once you do that, you can meaningfully walk the path towards fulfilling your purpose. That is what my journey has led me to do in Toronto.
Toronto is such a powerful place right now – I love it. The Indigenous word of “Toronto” translates to the ‘meeting place.’ We’re all cosmic energy – approximately 75 trillion vibrating cells, and just imagine – all of these vibrations have been brought together at this time and place. I have no doubt that there is a deeper kind of meaning for this convergence of energies. I realize that I am here for a specific purpose and reason and that there are so many opportunities that exist in this time and space to really positively influence and impact the entire world. If you take a moment to zoom out, like zoom out into the infinity of the omniverse – meditation helps here – you will start to see how special it is that all of these energies are currently present in Toronto.
And within that macro, I believe that each individual has the potential for greatness – and the unleashing of that greatness starts with self – everyone is his or her own leader and can manifest anything. I don’t really call myself a community leader, rather a community instigator. I like to ask questions; I like to provoke things; I like to put things out there that will be both supported and challenged. When I am challenged on something, it forces me to go deeper within to investigate myself; always questioning things and continuing to learn.
When I came to Toronto, I was blessed – coming from Guelph, which is predominately a white community – not that that’s a bad thing – but it just didn’t have the diversity that Toronto carries and that I thrive in. My high school was a homogenous kind of context where everyone was thinking the same and talking the same way – and not many conversations about the uprising. At home, it was different, my mom and dad rooted me in a lot of community, heritage and self-knowledge. My dad would meditate and do yoga every morning and he had a strong commitment to family. In addition to family, he was extremely active in his community life. That to me is a heightened being – someone who not only takes care of themselves and their inner family, but one that realizes that they are a part of the human family and mother-nature and takes on that great responsibility. I learned that from my family and I learned that from my dad especially, because he not only took on his own work – he was a successful businessman who knew his self-worth – but he also took care of his family and then he took care of his community. He started the first temple for the Hindu community in Guelph and also started the big Canada Day celebration in Guelph which brings together 30, 000 to 60, 000 people annually. The most beautiful thing to me is that even though he’s now transitioned out of his physical life, he’s left that temple which thousands of people go to every year. He left the Canada Day celebration. And he left a happy and healthy family. Legacy can be an incredible thing.
What he instigated and helped build in his time has left opportunity for generations to come. That’s the kind of grounding he instilled in me. So when I moved to Toronto, there were so many people that influenced my thought processes in comparison to Guelph where I wasn’t being as stimulated because it was more of a one-kind of mindset. Here, however, there are people from all over the world, coming here with different mindsets, different thoughts, and different ways of articulating themselves.
That was around the time that I fell in love with hip hop. I started to go to all these events and within that, I learned the ability to listen, which I think is one of the most vital character traits of a community leader. I was working as a photographer at that time and I really started to listen to everyone. I was hearing similar stories and I connected with what I was hearing. I began realizing that all of these people with similar stories weren’t properly connected… and I thought ‘how can I act as a vessel and do something to act on what I was hearing?’ As I started to take on that role, and that purpose, things just stated aligning. The title or the role community leader is not something I set out to be given… but since it is being given, I take it with great responsibility and accountability.
It always comes back to how do we activate our strengths to benefit the greater good? There is this great quote that sums it up for me: “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.” Aristotle said that.
BP: That’s amazing, the legacy that you come from. I don’t know if many people know that about you.
CK: I’m so grateful for what I have come from. I just started last year to go deeper into who I am and where I come from when my dad passed. I started to realize that a lot of my core values come from my family. I left my home when I was 17 and I wanted to start something new and fresh outside of my family because I felt a bit of resistance at certain times. Being an artist and doing that type of line of work, I thought my family didn’t fully understand it, especially my father, we battled at times about it. But as I look back, maybe it was me that didn’t fully understand. I respect him more and more now, and the lessons kind of seep in after someone passes. I was always like ‘I want to support the community and the communities I’m a part of as much as possible and I am willing to sacrifice and give all of myself’ and he was like ‘the only way you’ll be able to do that long term is if you support yourself. Once you get your ground solid, you can start to support others and make it last.’ I was always coming from the mindset backwards where I was always supporting everyone and through supporting everyone I’d find a way to support myself within that. Now I’m starting to realize the more that I can become self-sustaining and support and strengthen myself, the more ability I can have to start to open the doors for many others.