“You and your religion don’t belong here.”
That sentiment was expressed by fellow Canadians, albeit a small group, in a letter delivered to an Edmonton mosque just this week.
At the same time, two North Shore friends and artists, Jessica Heaven and Gavia Lertzman-Lepofsky, are fighting against the tide of racism through song and storytelling.
Their humanitarian project, Heartbeat, was reactionary in nature, taking shape after the university students attended a vigil for the Quebec City mosque shooting victims two years ago.
“That really moved all of us,” says Heaven.
In the midst of fear and ignorance, the young women needed a stronger force. They picked music as a vehicle to spread messages of peace, love and inclusivity.
Their goal is to have harmony rise above the hate.
The event is called Heartbeat, acknowledging a commonality we all share. Highlands United Church is the setting.
On March 9, musicians of different backgrounds will come together and create harmony that will echo across Edgemont Village.
An Egyptian guitarist, a tabla player, a fingerstyle guitar virtuoso and a Nlaka’pamux Nation spoken word artist are among the artists collaborating for Heartbeat.
When Heaven, a singer, and Lertzman-Lepofsky, a violin player, looked beyond their musical circle they found cultural riches.
The friends scoured YouTube and the internet looking for a diverse range of artists to showcase their talents for Heartbeat.
Then they cold called the artists, which took courage and trust.
What Heaven and Lertzman-Lepofsky lacked in event experience, they made up for with enthusiasm. The artists felt that energy and lent their talents for the cause.
Ahead of last year’s inaugural Heartbeat event, some of the artists and organizers shared meals and practised music together to set the harmonious tone.
One such musician was a Syrian refugee who played the violin with the national orchestra before fleeing during the civil war. Heaven was delighted to hear him perform, along with learning some Arabic from her new friend.
Rika Siewert is one standout from this year’s Heartbeat lineup. The recording artist and songwriter is a rising gospel singer.
“She’s so soulful,” describes Heaven. “There’s this one YouTube clip … and she’s playing one of her originals, and it was just a moving piece. And we were like, ‘Yeah we want that soul, we want that strength.’”
Amarjeet Singh is another artist who moved Heaven.
“He is such an amazing tabla player but he’s also got a sense of humour. He’s so fun to work with,” she says of Singh, who was appointed a cultural ambassador by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for his tabla teachings.
Heaven is going all out with her Heartbeat contributions: she will be composing a graphic notation piece for a large ensemble, singing in front of a small ensemble, and also doing some poetic narrative.
Each of her pieces asks a question. Anger, what do I do with you? Love, where do I find you?
The latter question speaks to finding trust with others in the face of fearmongering.
“Heartbeat is about celebrating our differences and our humanity, and discarding the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” explains Heaven.
Heaven understood the evils of discrimination from a young age.
It was the 1990s and Apartheid was plastered all over the news. Those atrocities in South Africa saddened a young Heaven who asked her parents why they were hurting each other.
“And they said, ‘Because of the colour of their skin.’”
Watching from inside her living room in North Vancouver, Heaven was incredulous at this hate in the world.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” she says.
As she rose through elementary and high school and dove back into history, Heaven became increasingly upset when she learned about the Holocaust, the desecration of First Nations culture, and slavery, among other injustices.
She began to fear history repeating itself.
Many of the Heartbeat performers are in their 20s, and some are still in high school – a generation coming up that can affect change.
Heartbeat will immerse these high school students in a world beyond their community.
“And in doing so change how they think about people,” says Heaven.
The event’s theme this year is “conversations,” which will be shared inside Highlands church along with food made by community groups.
“It will really help to get the conversations going between different people – that’s the whole idea behind the event,” says Heaven.
Lertzman-Lepofsky says she had the privilege to play violin in communities around the world from rural Mexico, to schools in French Polynesia, to hamlets in the mountains of Greece and Cuba.
“Playing the violin provides an instant point of connection, as people gather around to hear me play or to play music with me,” says Lertzman-Lepofsky.
“Despite having no common language, we can have conversations more powerful than with words alone.”
An important element of Heartbeat, for Lertzman-Lepofsky, is featuring youth and emerging artists. Seven budding artists have been placed in ensembles with more established musicians to provide mentorship opportunities.
The organizers of Heartbeat received a $1,000 grant from the 2018 Juno Let’s Hear It BC Experience Music Program, which afforded Heaven and Lertzman-Lepofsky the opportunity to put on the event.
In celebrating diversity, Heartbeat creates a counterpoint to those that seek divisiveness, says Lertzman-Lepofsky.
Tickets and more information about the event is available at heartbeat2019march9.eventbrite.ca.