Darkspark and the Obamas
Local couple running arts not-for-profit make a connection with the Obama Foundation
County resident D’ari Lisle was one of only 500 carefully chosen invitees to attend the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit held in Chicago a few weeks ago. The goal of the summit was to bring together the best and brightest to help conceptualize and build the Obama Foundation from the ground up. How Lisle got to such a lofty table can be linked back to a “spark” from a music project at Sophiasburgh Central School in May of 2017.
D’ari Lisle and his wife, Melissa Larkin, are musicians and co-founders of a not-for-profit company called Darkspark. Darkspark is a transformative arts organization that engages youth by supporting them to create, arrange, record and produce music that promotes cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. Darkspark facilitates this by bringing a mobile recording studio to schools and being present for weeks at a time to make sure the projects are finished. It’s an intimate process, especially when you are focusing on Indigenous youth and their struggles.
The Four Directions initiative is one of Darkspark’s many projects. This project was started by Darkspark to enable cross-cultural dialogues around Canada’s colonial history through song. The Four Directions project last May in Sophiasburgh was the first one to happen in a non-Indigenous school, and the engagement from the students was more than Lisle and Larkin could have hoped. The work and passion of the Grade 7 and 8 students at Sophiasburgh Central School inspired the creation of Canada’s first permanent Downie-Wenjack Legacy Room which is located in the back room of Miss Lily’s in Picton.
“We pushed the kids on leaving a legacy, and they did just that,” said Lisle.
It was around that time that the Downie-Wenjack Fund took an interest in what Darkspark was doing. They connected Darkspark to the Canada 150 C3 Expedition and its parent foundation Students On Ice (SOI).
Through SOI, they were invited to join a two-week expedition to the Arctic along with 200 youth, artists, scientists, politicians and Indigenous leaders with the goal of recording songs with youth on board. On board this expedition they met Bruce and Vicki Heyman. Bruce Heyman is the former US Ambassador to Canada for the Obama Administration; Vicki is heavily involved in philanthropy. Bruce and Vicki helped sponsor two inner city Chicago youth to participate in the Arctic expedition. Latarick Foreman and Cassie Rivera both come from marginalized communities in Chicago plagued by gun violence. On board, they both made a special connection with Melissa and D’Ari and decided to write songs with them. D’Ari and Mel built a mobile recording studio on board the ship and wrote, recorded and produced songs with Cassie, Latarick and many other youth. Their songs became a powerful reminder of the unifying power of music, and became the soundtrack to the expedition.
After the expedition, D’Ari noticed that Barack Obama was coming to Toronto to give a speech on global citizenship in September. Still in close contact with Cassie, Latarick and Bruce and Vicki Heyman, D’Ari got an idea that would extend the impact of the expedition for these kids. He reached out to the Heymans with a crazy idea: to fly the Chicago students to Toronto to see Obama’s speech, and treat them to a night in a Toronto recording studio to complete some songs they were unable to finish on board the ship. The Heymans supported the idea right away, and immediately plans were put in place to bring the students to Toronto for two nights. Cassie, Latarick, Mel and D’Ari were all in attendance when Obama gave his speech in Toronto. Afterwards, they were whisked into a private room, where they were given the amazing opportunity to meet Barack Obama. Thanks to the Heymans, President Obama had been briefed on the two students from Chicago and the work they had created with Darkspark on the ship.
“It sounds crazy, but I have always had a feeling that I would meet President Obama. What I did not anticipate was that he would know who we were. He knew all about our narrative and what we were up to,”said Lisle.
A couple of weeks later, Lisle deleted an email that made him stop. “It’s really weird to get Obama spam,” Lisle thought to himself. When he checked his deleted box, he realized it was a personal email from the Obama Foundation thanking them for the involvement with the kids from Chicago, and asking how they can help with Darkspark. The email was also an invitation for Lisle to attend the Obama Foundations inaugural summit to be held in Chicago a few weeks later.
D’Ari attended the summit from October 31 to November 1. There, he networked with some of the most influential people in America, and was inspired at every turn. During one breakout session, President Obama himself sat in Lisle’s group and listened as it was D’Ari’s turn to tell his story. Lisle spoke of his journey of being a musician, moving to Prince Edward County nine years ago, of having a child, adopting a teenager and beginning his work with youth through creating music.
After such an incredible journey, Lisle and Darkspark now have a mountain of resources and some huge names in their Rolodex. Hopefully, that will mean more of their projects coming to our schools in the future. As for the Chicago kids, Latarick and Cassie are riding high off their adventures and meeting the former president. Maybe we will hear some music released from them soon—and maybe not. For students involved in Darkspark’s projects, the ultimate goal is not to become superstars, but for youth to recognize the power of their voices and create change in their communities and lives. In this case, their songs did just that.