Sharing a ride with spoken word artist Wali Shah

Toronto’s Finch West LRT project is set to be completed in 2023 – and it’s already inspiring art.

Jul 9, 2019

Good art can move you.

But some art is all about moving you – as well as a city.

Award-winning spoken word artist Wali Shah came onboard as Toronto’s Finch West light rail transit (LRT) project’s spoken word artist in 2018. Since then, his fans have followed as he’s created poetic prose as a backdrop to the construction work taking place across the 11-kilometre LRT route, from Finch Avenue and Keele Street to Humber College.

Once completed, the Finch West LRT will offer connections to the TTC, GO, MiWay, YRT, and Züm transit services. For Shah, his connection to the project has been a journey of discovery, as he captures the spirit and sense of community that guides the project.

His contributions to the LRT project include working with Metrolinx to create the video for “A Region United“, which has been shown at schools across the Finch West community. A Region United is a poem dedicated to the Finch West community and illustrates how the future LRT will connect everyone in the region when it launches in 2023.

Spoken word poetry has seen a resurgence as an art form, especially among young listeners. It’s a poem. It’s a message. It’s a cry to be heard.

We thought we’d spend some time with Shah to pull inspirational words from an artist known for his deep lyrical style. He gave us his thoughts over the phone while on a trip to Sudbury.

Q. What in your past contributed most to the person you are today?

A. I’ve had a lot (of) great experiences and mentors. A lot of mentors have supported me on my journey. One of my mentors was my teacher in high school, Ms. Riley. Also, being the son of immigrants and going through the immigrant experience, I wanted to make my parents proud and be the best I could be.

Q. What inspires your art?

A. A lot of things inspire my art. Life experience is a big thing for me – the trials and tribulations, or moments of celebration. Social justice or personal issues are also big points of inspiration for me. Anything I can use to connect to life experiences is what inspires my art. An example is seeing all the injustice and inequity in the world. How do I feel about that? How can I express it? This is what makes me think, write and deliver spoken word.

Q. When connecting with disadvantaged youth, what concepts resonate with you most to write about?

A. I think that’s a great question. A lot of kids suffer from mental health issues, come from immigrant families, poor communities or maybe parents are not as supportive towards their children. I talk about being distant from my family, my own mental health issues, being bullied in school, or the fact my family spoke a different language with different accents when they came to Canada. I want to bridge the gap with kids, using my life experiences to show how things can change for the better. This gives me a chance to connect with kids and hear their stories, and also gives them a chance to express themselves and their thoughts.

Q. Finch West is a diverse community. How does spoken word art like ‘A Region United’ give a voice to the community?

A. It’s a creative way to experience something that will happen soon. The kids, especially in high school, will be using this (LRT system) every day. Most kids don’t want to talk about future transit projects, but this is a creative way to learn about this project. ‘A Region United’ gives them a chance to engage and learn in a creative and fun manner about something that will have a major impact on the community in the future.

Q. What’s been the reaction to ‘A Region United’ so far?

A. It’s been amazing. My mom loves the ‘A Region United’ T-shirt very much! The T-shirt has gotten a lot of traction on social media and has engaged people. It’s cool to see Metrolinx is open to this, because this is an unconventional way to market a project. This is much more interesting than a billboard. This is something that can be used for the next four years and beyond. And as a young kid, I would have liked to see the buildings I recognize in my community as well in a video like this.

Q. How critical to a community is effective and quality transit?

A. Communities live and work by transit. It is a necessity. As majority of commuters in this city are regularly using transit, having a strong transit system is vital to allowing members of our community to move around quickly and efficiently, doing more, and having to rely on other forms of transport less. Together we save the environment and money spent on getting around.

Q. What mark do you hope to leave on transit in Finch West with this piece?

A. I’m very excited to continue working with Metrolinx, and I think the Finch West LRT is a wonderful project for a thriving community that can benefit greatly from development projects like this, which locals can get excited about. This is a community that deserves better resources and ease of access and it’s a good feeling to be able to be a part of a project that is able to deliver that.