Words and music helped Jonathan Emile through the worst time in his life.
The singer, songwriter and spoken-word artist with a hankering for the sound of the 1960s soul singers, debuts the second Songs of Freedom tour of Montreal-area schools.
The 15-stop tour, which includes five schools in the West Island, begins at Dawson College on Friday.
Emile was diagnosed with a severe form of bone cancer when he was 18 years old. His chances of survival were slim. He went through one year of chemotherapy treatments, followed by radiation.
The treatments drained him physically and emotionally. He turned to music and writing for solace.
“Cancer has a way of breaking you down,” the 26-year-old said. “I had barely started living and there was a chance my life would be cut way too short.”
Battling the disease helped Emile focus on what was really important: the health of the spirit and the love of family and friends.
“I spent most of my time writing down my thoughts and listening to music,” he said.
“There is no doubt the experience shaped who I am, what’s in my heart.”
The Songs of Freedom tour is organized by Akilah Newton to mark Black History Month.
Newton is the director of Overture with the Arts, a non-profit organization that offers low-cost arts programs to teenagers in the West Island.
During the show, Emile traces the history of black music in North America and the socio-political influence it has had throughout the years.
“I tell the students that music can be harnessed as an instrument for social change,” Emile said. “Music is the original social media. It has conveyed messages throughout history.”
Newton, who grew up in the West Island and now lives in Dorval, met Emile through her brother, actor Omari Newton. She is now Emile’s Canadian booking agent.
“Jonathan is such a charismatic speaker,” Newton said. “Students really relate to him.”
Newton, who graduated with a degree in arts management from the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts in 2006, is currently working on two Overture with the Arts projects. An anti-bullying project called Speak will tour schools in the fall, and a free after-school program for high school students offering classes including improv theatre, dance and visual arts will begin operating out of Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds in September.
Emile is making his presence known south of the border, targeting Las Vegas, where he recently opened for Nelly, New York and San Francisco.
“My music is soul music,” Emile said.
“To me, music should be therapeutic and uplifting.”
His EP The Love/Fighter Document is available at Amazon.com and iTunes.com and he is currently working on a reggae LP that will be released next fall.
West Island schools on the Songs for Freedom tour are:
John Rennie High School in Pointe-Claire, Feb. 11.
Lakeside Academy in Lachine, Feb. 25.
Westwood Senior High in Hudson, Feb. 26.
John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Feb. 27.
Riverdale High School in Pierrefonds, Feb. 28.
For information about Jonathan Emile, visit www.jonathanemile.com
For information about Overture with the Arts, visit www.overturewiththearts.org