By Chaka V. Grier
For as long as I can remember, even as a small child, the subway performer – purveyor of the un-requested tunnel performance – mystified, and even saddened me. Standing under bright fluorescent lights, playing original music or cover songs, sometimes surprisingly pleasing, other times dubiously karaoke-ish. Seeing them, I often tried to avoid eye contact, while pondering why anyone would be drawn to performing in a space where 99 percent of us are relentlessly focused on getting from point A to B as quickly as possible?
I sometimes peered, as discreetly as possible of course, into their open guitar cases filled with change. The coins were most often scant, which is when the sadness would emerge. As a freelance writer, I knew that scarcity well; but I was grateful that, like the respectable starving artist I was, it was restrained to the private, virtual walls of my bank account, and not out there for the world to see. Yet throughout all my parent-like head shaking – “Why, seemingly nice subway guitar man, singing a pretty convincing rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘You Got Lucky,’ are you putting yourself through this?” – I noticed musician after musician performing proudly and passionately, despite the indifference of passers-by, and earning only random loose change.
Eventually, as the rise of music-competition reality-TV programs held me enthralled, I made a sudden connection. These shows fling open the doors to the grueling world of auditions, and trying to get noticed, and in some way, subway performers are the pioneers of such brutal public auditions. They’re akin to stand-up comedians, who bravely take to the stage in front of potential hecklers, cutting their teeth on indifference and possible ridicule in order to pursue their passion for laughs. In the case of subway musicians, they’re just as daring, for the love of song.
I soon took my nose out of the air and acknowledged the true greatness of the subway performer. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been witnessing one of the bravest things I ever see as a music journalist: under-appreciated artists, bringing their song and artistry to the coldest, most agitation-inducing, perfunctory spaces in my life. I had taken for granted how a steel drum playing in the winter brightened my mood, while I waited in line for my French vanilla coffee and two chocolate dip donuts. How saxophones, melodic folk guitars, and singing voices were often lovely signals that I was back at my station and heading home, or great distractions while I waited for a late friend.
One day I struck up a conversion with a talented performer at Bloor-Yonge station in Toronto. Turns out he’d been nominated for a JUNO Award and performed throughout Canada. So, this was a thing, a real thing! I was so curious that I Googled subway performing, and learned that musicians audition at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to play in these spaces. Performing in subways isn’t some last resort for those who can’t find any other venues. The musicians are licensed and allotted one of very few slots – 75, to be exact. They’re often roving performers, true bohemian artists, who understand the diversity, tenor, and changing communities in different parts of the city, simply due to performing throughout the 25 stations while licensed. Most do more than performing in the TTC; some teach, or record, or both.
Recently, the TTC program was named Underground Sounds. More stations have been opened to performers, and online auditions are being accepted for the first time. In some spaces, like those at my Finch station (as well as Bloor-Yonge, Spadina, and Main Street), I’ve noticed a striking black vinyl box that extends from the wall onto the floor, accented with music inspired decals. It’s a designated performer’s space, which, in a subtle but effective way, sets musicians apart from the rest of us, telling us that this is their stage. They’ve even created a hashtag, #TTCmusic, to celebrate these unheralded performers, who light up dreary tunnels, and bring vibrancy to our travel time. There’s something deeply generous in spirit about those who bring joy to joyless spaces, and some days barely make a few dollars for doing so. But they do so anyway.
So, this is my shout-out to the subway performers from Finch to Main Street, and everywhere in between. Thank you for your artistic courage. Thank you for making the mundane, sometimes unreliable, occasionally infuriating TTC travel experience more bearable. And thank you #TTCMusic for enriching my days with your soundtracks.