OWN IT 2018


Janice Jo Lee |  janicejolee.ca

photo of Janice Jo Lee performing "Will You Be My Friend" at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts  

I moved to Kitchener-Waterloo for university and stayed. 

My interest in cultural diversity kept me exploring the city and as a result, I found myself among young intellectuals, activists, and entrepreneurs. I had stumbled upon something unique: the work of Janice Jo Lee. 


Janice is a poet, singer/song-writer and theatre artist with a notable voice in Kitchener's thriving, independent art scene. Having lived here for a decade, she understands that to stay in Kitchener as a Canadian-Korean queer female artist is an act of resistance.


Anchoring her commitment to Kitchener's art scene is the unique relationships she maintains with other artists. 


"The scene is small enough that the visual artists know the theatre artists, know the film makers, know the poets," she says. "There is a lot of collaboration rather than competition because we're all trying to bring the public out to see our work. It's like a joint campaign and struggle." 


Upholding this collaborative scene requires more than joint struggle, though. It needs an active audience. 


"People need to know and see how amazing the artists are because we just keep losing them," Janice says.


Young artists are often tempted to move to bigger, diverse cities, where they feel more accurately represented in the cultural landscape. While millennials have experienced social movements around the G20, Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, Kitchener has seen few protests. 


Storytellers like Janice are working to remedy this disconnection from important, representative social movements. Her work captures the struggles experienced in Kitchener-Waterloo. 


Like a trickster poking and prodding her audience, Janice turns friendship into an act of resistance in her one-woman musical comedy titled "Will You Be My Friend?" and produced by Green Light Arts. Through satirical comedy, she reveals her experience of living in Kitchener as a person of colour.  


"A story about a specific person, about patriarchy and feminism is relatable. I make those connections from the macro to the micro. We're supposed to laugh at ourselves and then ask what we can do about that."


Janice's Korean identity is central to her work. Her latest performances include new ancestor songs that feature the jangu, a Korean drum, and deliver a more elevated sound.  


"I've lived in KW for 12 years, completely cut off from my Korean identity and culture, and I've been grieving that. I have been reconnecting with my cultural ancestry and taking that back from a music point of view," she says. "It is an entire process of decolonizing my mind and coming back to myself, my centre. My culture is not a detriment as I have been trained through racism to think."


Janice's challenging, engaging work has been shared with a changing city throughout her decade-long career, but the need for collaboration and partnership between the arts and industry remains constant. 


"I think we're both talking about creativity and innovation," she says. "For some reason, people still don't think the arts is as an essential industry. Arts and culture is what makes a place livable. Work is not enough to make people stay." 


Zabeen Khamisa  |  @zabeenkhamisa

Photography: Nadine Phillips  |  saranad.ca   &  Green Light Arts



Janice sitting in a bus stop in downtown Kitchener



Janice onstage at The Registry Theatre



Janice Jo Lee inside of Fresh Grounds coffee



Janice Jo Lee striking a pose