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An Insider's Look In: Examining the Real Value of Toronto's Rap Scene

Who are the real gatekeepers of Toronto, and why aren't they supporting urban music?

A few weeks ago I read an article on Noisey that addressed a statement made by Drake in a short promotional documentary that features the Toronto rapper. In the commercial Drake confidently encourages emerging artists to "do it from where you're at!” This statement grabbed my attention, partly because I think it’s an important one, and partly because I am an rapper born and raised in Toronto. Although the statement has some merit to it, it isn’t totally true. Yes, the internet has changed the music industry completely by providing an opportunity for international exposure where at one point there was nothing. Artists like Shi Wisdom, Jazz Cartier and Daniel Caesar (currently some of my favorites from Toronto) have all used the Internet to build their audience locally and internationally. However, Drake’s statement is oversimplified and doesn’t take into account the labyrinth of gatekeepers, relationships, and power dynamics in the music industry as a whole or the lack of accessible music infrastructure in Canada specifically.


As pointed out in the original piece, Aubrey Graham’s success has not yet made Toronto easier for most artists, although his situation has brought plenty of attention to our city—specifically to OVO Sound artists PARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, and Roy Woods. OVO Fest, which just wrapped its sixth year, brings tens of thousands of fans through the gates of the Molson Amphitheatre every year. And what other artist could bring a full Kanye West set to Toronto? Hip-hop as a culture is arguably the most location-specific artform, and Drake’s consistent praise of and work for our city has put Toronto in the minds of pop culture in a way that it simply wasn’t before. His rise has lifted the international profile of Toronto producers Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, T-Minus, and Mike Zombie, who have helped to craft a sound that is now widely understood to be a “Toronto sound.” His support of The Weeknd is also well documented, but Drake and his team should not have to bear the full burden of the entire hip-hop and R&B scene in Toronto. For a new artist, if you’re not going through OVO directly (or indirectly), it is no easier than it was pre-Drake to be heard. So when Drake proclaims that going stateside isn’t necessary anymore, he’s doing artists from Toronto a disservice—even though the sentiment is honorable.

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The fact is that doing it from where you’re at requires that what you’re doing is valued where you’re from, and I believe that this discussion is fundamentally about the ways in which Toronto’s local hip-hop scene is undervalued by private media, public media, and business entities that curate and profit from Toronto’s local music economy. I am an independent artist, born in Toronto and raised in Esplanade, a neighborhood in the heart of the city where I’ve lived for three decades, I pay attention to Jimmy Johnson; I was also around for Concrete Mob. I greet Yasmine Warsame when I see her: all Esplanade. My parents, Claire Prieto and Roger McTair, came to Toronto in 1970 from Trinidad and would become the first black filmmakers in the country; I was raised in the black arts community in Toronto.


I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) that a consistent and coordinated structure is necessary to support art; certain art forms and certain personalities will jolt that structure into action more than others. Art, like any other product that enters a market, requires a strong, clear pathway to reach an audience. It requires a system for promotion, a system for distribution, and a system for some kind of exchange. When Drake speaks of “doing it” he is talking about doing it big, so the phrases "do it the way I did it!" and "do it from where you're at" are actually in conflict with the documented reality of his career; Drake technically did not do it from where he was at. He became a star in America.

The key statement that is made in the original article is a statement about "access." As most artists know directly or indirectly, opportunity has little correlation to access. A door does not necessarily allow you to pass through its threshold; it has to first be unlocked. Toronto has the infrastructure needed for a career in music—more than most other cities in Canada—but it is limited and surrounded by barriers that limit access. Canada has 11 percent of the population of the US, but its landmass is 1.6 percent larger, making us one of the world’s most sparsely populated nations (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, 2013). Ontario—one province in the country, the province that boasts the country's largest city, Toronto—generates 82 percent of Canada’s music industry revenues (OMDC, 2014).


These might seem like a random statistics, but they illustrate one reason why Canadian music companies don’t generate as much income as American companies; There is much less audience spread out over a very large area, which means less profit. This is why having a platinum record means one million records sold in America, but the same designation in Canada is eighty thousand records sold. The total population of the United States is 318.9 million, a much larger and more densely populated potential market with a much more powerful infrastructure due to the purchasing power of the audience. This affects sales, merchandise and touring directly.

I have seen how the hip-hop community and black music in general in Toronto has little sustained, active, support outside of the OVO camp, partially because of very limited investment, but not because the infrastructure doesn’t exist. The infrastructure does exist; it is accessed by the few who fit a particular mold—i.e. are low in what is viewed as “risk.” If you look up the highest selling Canadian artists you will find names like Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Michael Buble, and Shania Twain. If you happen to attend a Canadian music conference you will see a lot of aging, predominantly white rockers who look strikingly like Chad Kroeger. Gatekeepers and tastemakers guard access to infrastructure based on personal taste, perception of value, potential for personal gain (i.e. profit, networks and/or status), and perception of risk in relation to perceived value.


In Canada, gates are opened wider and more often for particular genres of music like rock and pop. There is a great disparity in investment, and Drake’s success has proven the enormous lost potential of hip-hop and black music in the Canadian music industry in a dramatically embarrassing way. Canada is structurally a rock and pop country. The foundation of its music infrastructure is based in rock music specifically, and the will to restructure or develop for other “urban” genres is simply not there in any consistent or systematic way. Investment is no accident: I would argue that rock and pop have been consistently invested in and became more popular because they are genres that are more economically or culturally valued by the industry decision-makers, programmers, and tastemakers with the most power. But popularity is encouraged and invested in; it doesn’t simply happen.

What I’ve experienced to be deemed valuable by industry decision-makers is what’s allowed to gain a foothold via specific mechanisms (print, radio, television, online) that fuel attention and develop audiences. By exposing audiences to these valuable artists via these platforms, industry decision-makers are investing in the independent music economy, which in turn feeds the commercial music economy. A handful of individuals decide what is seen and heard by that audience and whether or not an artist can reach a larger audience. So when Tony “Master T” Young, an enormously supportive television presenter and programmer who championed local hip-hop, reggae, soca and R&B, left Much Music around the same time that the station was pushing to commercialize, a gate was slammed shut on Canadian artists. Black music and black art, like black people, are undervalued in Canada, and here we are back to the question of value.


Value is real or perceived worth; it is beyond cost; it is worth as well as potential. The decisions of where to invest and where not to invest are strategic, swelling with meaning, and not benign. Artists are “chosen” or “passed” on like stocks on the NASDAQ. Cultural curators who belong primarily to one culture are harvesting and curating a cultural space that is increasingly multicultural and multi-genre. But the influence of these cultures and genres is largely superficial, although their stories fit into the multicultural rhetoric of Canada. For instance, hip-hop in Toronto may be “diverse,” but it is disproportionately controlled and curated by non-blacks. Cultural curators build cultural capital by using the power and privilege that they receive from their own socio-political position to amass this cultural capital and often intentionally hoard or neglect to share their power, privilege and/or profit with the communities they appropriate from. Some of them, like many of us, are aware of the processes of marginalization that keep people away from decision-making but remain mostly silent on the subject. Assumptions about advertising revenue, a small, mostly homogeneous business class, and some willful blindness on the part of seemingly progressive cultural curators exacerbate this unfortunate situation. All of this may be seen as an example of institutional racism that values a particular Canadian experience over all other Canadian cultural experiences. There is a hierarchy of power, a hierarchy of privilege, and a hierarchy of opportunity and access. If Canada’s independent rock community experienced the same limited investment and marginalization in its infancy I’m not sure that we would have a thriving indie and alternative rock culture either. This is about value.


Value judgments can be seen at Canada’s major music awards event, The Juno Awards (well, some of it can be seen because there are categories, like Rap Recording of the Year, that are still not televised even after The Rascalz protested the issue back in 1998.) Value judgments were made when after Toronto’s first black owned and operated commercial radio station, Flow 93.5 FM, was sold to CTVglobemedia (now Bell Media). All the “specialty shows” were canceled, removing some of the most prominent presenters and programmers in the black community. It is important to note that several of these specialty shows (Soca Therapy, The Riddim Track, and O.T.A. Live!) were highly rated programs in their respective time slots and target (18-35) demos (based on BBM/Numeris metrics), routinely outperforming the majority of their competitors—arguably a historic achievement for black music programming. After the sale CHUM Radio (now renamed Bell Media), president Chris Gordon was quoted as saying “what’s urban?” and “what’s hip hop?” by the Toronto Star essentially attempting to invalidate and dismiss the value and influence of these cultural expressions and absorb them into “dance,” a vague and cultureless category with no specific identity. This is an unfortunate attitude for those in power, who seem to only superficially support black music in Canada when they are shamed into it.

Photo courtesy of Derek Hui

Black music in Canada is marginalized in the Canadian music infrastructure (and economy)—unless you don’t seem to pose a threat to the current status quo. You can tell who is considered a threat in Canada by the color of the artist, as well as by the color of the audience. The black artists who have been able to break through domestically in Canada are the artists who make white audiences and white executives comfortable. That means that they either have white skin, or a large white and (often largely apolitical) fan base.

In order to navigate the world of music it is important to know what “infrastructure” means. My ultimate hope is for that young kid sitting in his house and planning a career in music to be more aware of the reality of the music business. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, describes the process of liberation as beginning with “critical awareness” of a “limited situation.” This is a process of education—the only way that a community can self-determine, become self-sustaining and build platforms and economies for future generations on their own terms. Power is the ability to make your own decisions.

In the music business, with its many moving parts, power includes retaining the lion’s share of intellectual property or partnering with, instead of working for, a company. Or better still, building your own platforms and your own company. In addition to building infrastructure it is also important to recognize that as Torontonians and as Canadians we have a right to access all the same opportunities as other artists in the country regardless of the personal taste of the cultural curators. I learned this from being an artist, from making plenty of mistakes, from small successes, from total failures, and from trying. Drake is very right in saying that “rap has always been about storytelling,” but it is important however if we are going to rep Toronto, to tell the whole story, to tell our own story, and to raise awareness about the reality of the structures we are in.

Ian Kamau is an artist, writer, and curator from Esplanade in downtown Toronto. Follow him on Twitter

*Special Thanks to Ty Harper for his assistance and contributions to this article