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Mahlet Tilahun, Jordan Hayles and Vanessa Adams in Episode 4 of Next Stop, streaming on CBC Gem.Courtesy of CBC Gem

The long-standing debate about where you get the best Jamaican patty plays a starring role in the first episode of Next Stop, an anthology comedy series chronicling the lives of Black Torontonians as they go about the daily grind of living in a big city. Fittingly, the episode is called Beef, and features two friends squabbling over the merits of a beef patty from the east-end Warden subway station versus Islington station, in the west end – with much of their exchange taking place at a transit stop in a suburb on the western edge of Toronto.

It’s an argument you might overhear on any given day, while waiting for a bus – a familiar experience for the largely immigrant and racialized communities living in areas far-flung from the city core. You can’t help but smile knowingly at the familiar contours of the conversation, the passionate defence in a Caribbean cadence, peppered with its particular slang.

Clearly, Beef resonated with its intended audience. Its three co-creators, all first time filmmakers, posted Beef, a four-minute short, to Instagram, garnering positive feedback from primarily young, Black viewers. Soon after, the creators found themselves in talks with CBC Gem, the national broadcaster’s streaming service. The first season of four short episodes, including Beef, is now available to watch on the digital platform, with plans for more episodes exploring different pockets of Toronto to come.

For co-creator Jabbari Weekes, the goal was to make something simple but keep it authentically situated within the city – especially in terms of reflecting the Black community. He and co-creator and roommate Tichaona Tapambwa zeroed in on the idea of looking at the perpetual sense of competition between Toronto’s east end and west end through the aforementioned patties.

“Also, as a person of Caribbean descent and Tichaona being of African descent – specifically Zimbabwean –there’s always this kind of diaspora war happening between us. So we were like, let’s make this into a three-four minute short,” says 29-year-old Weekes.

They shot on location on a “negative temperature” day in March, 2018. The credits for the episode note Jordan Hayles and Vanessa Adams playing Good Yutes #1 and #2 and Mother Nature playing “its Cold, Miserable Self.” Yute is Toronto slang with Jamaican origins referring to someone younger.

“It could be familial, it could be love. But it could also be seen as a put down,” says Weekes. Initially it was a placeholder name, but then the team decided to stick with calling all the characters yutes, “kind of like Thing 1 and Thing 2 from Dr. Seuss … We wanted [viewers] to know that we’re in on the joke, and we are part of the same ecosystem here.”

The show is made up of short vignettes of young Black people confronting the challenges of life in Toronto.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Not knowing any better, the crew decided to shoot at an active bus stop. As they tried to get a wide shot of Hayles and Adams arguing, Toronto transit buses would stop in front of the camera and wait for the crew to get on. After a three-minute freeze game of waiting and honking, everyone would continue on.

“If I’m being honest, the feeling afterwards was misery. We were all tired. We realized we will probably all be friends after this because we went through this. But we didn’t want to talk to each for a couple of weeks … It was really that cold and miserable,” he says.

The heartwarming response they got after posting Beef on Instagram pushed Weekes, Tapambwa and their third partner, Phil Witmer, to continue with other ideas they’d already discussed. Tweets, DMs and even emails started pouring in, voicing appreciation for the way Next Stop uses humour and cultural nuances to articulate concerns of young, racialized people today – especially around themes of housing, romance and job searching.

For these viewers, Toronto experiences go deeper than just using slang or portraying rap culture.

“What is your means of survival here? … What are the small petty things that set you off, and the conversations you have, and the energies you put toward them? To kind of keep yourself afloat – but also distract you as well,” says Weekes. “Sometimes it’s fun to have a meaningless conversation about which patty from which side is the best. Because you really don’t want to be thinking about paying $1,800 or more in rent for a bachelor [apartment].”

Reflecting an authentic Toronto voice is particularly important, he adds.

Vanessa Adam stars as Good Yute #2 in the episode Beef. The character name comes from the local slang term 'yute,' meaning a younger person.Courtesy of CBC Gem

As a five-year-old growing up in Scarborough’s Malvern neighbourhood, Weekes dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. His sister’s love for Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, as well as his father’s love for Spike Lee, left a deep impression. However, he had no access to the film industry. Instead, he pursued journalism, starting out as an intern at Vice in 2015, working his way up to an editor at Noisey – Vice’s music and entertainment offshoot – by 2016 before getting laid off in 2019.

During his time at Vice, Weekes was asked to help oversee 6ix Rising, a documentary about Black Torontonians in the arts. Despite his suggestions and concerns about who was being featured, he was ignored by superiors “who confidently spent countless hours ensuring it was the most mediocre project possible,” he says.

There will always be an element of concern dealing with any institution when it comes to content from Black and POC creators, says Weekes, talking about CBC Gem’s acquisition of Next Stop.

“For me it’s the balance of art and, well frankly, attention,” he says. “You want something you’ve crafted to be seen on the largest platform, and that comes with a cost. However, before embarking on this next step, all three of us made a hardline in terms of what we’d accept and what we won’t – and that comes down to authenticity.”

Despite the trepidations, Weekes is looking forward to the possibility of shooting future episodes with a budget not from his own pocket. Most of Next Stop’s first season was shot out of his severance package from Vice, he explains.

“I can’t keep using that because I have to pay rent,” he says.

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