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Haye, Haye: A Look Inside Toronto's Somali Rap Scene

How "the children of the snow" are finding an identity in rap music, and why are artists like Drake paying attention.

Feb 1 2016, 3:33pm

Top 5 can only meet me during evenings and weekends for interviews because he's still in high school. If you've heard of Top 5, better known as "Shirt Off Shawty," it's likely because of Drake's Instagram shout out to the 17 year old’s video from 2014. On his own Instagram, the Vaughan Road Academy student can be seen shirtless posing next to celebrities. "Drake's my favourite artist, we're gonna make a song soon-time," he says.

In person, Top 5 is charming with an infectious smile and an ability to speak mostly in quotables. On what inspires his music, he casually responds "100 million dollars." Born and raised in Jungle, a neighbourhood in Toronto’s Lawrence Heights, Top 5 is one of few artists conceptualizing a demographic untapped before in Canadian hip-hop and across the diaspora. He's a carefree rapper, but aside from that he's a child to immigrant Somali parents, black, and Muslim. He's a 3 package minority, and like others like him, there's nothing minimal about it.

More than 50 percent of Toronto's residents are foreign-born. Among them Somali Canadians are the largest African immigrant population in the city. With that demographic comes a large demand for a unique musical appetite. A blend of Somali slang and geographical allusions are heating up the city with a new sound.

He didn’t take any of it serious when he started out. "My mom was foaming when she found out," says Top 5 of his parents discovery of their son's rap career. A great deal of Top 5's charm lies in his bold ability to be carefree. Musically, he’s inspired by the tri-state drill movement in the US, and boasts that aside from his production’s influence, no one in the city sounds like him. His voice is deeper and more refined in his latest track, which premiered on OVO Sound Radio. In weather temperatures near zero degrees, Top 5 is jubilantly dancing atop a yellow Lamborghini in his "Shirt Off On Any Block" video—a remix to 2 Milly's “Milly Rock.” His approach: “I just have fun with it.”

Across the city, a tall and lanky Apac is wearing about six gold chains, his hair is in twists and he’s on route to cruise downtown with his childhood friend Seymore and labelmate Huey in a large black SUV. The 18 year old rapper is from Etobicoke's “Ablock” Armel Court neighborhood. He's been rapping for two years, and released his first track “Ferrari” only 9 months ago.

He opens a Snapchat of his friend singing to an unfinished version of "Finesse and Kawal." He then tells the driver to connect his phone to the aux cord and plays the track off his phone. The chorus is reminiscent of Arabic metrical rhymes as Huey's voice crescendos over the opening verse and chorus: “I finesse, kawal, finesse, kawal”—Apac’s whispering adlibs float behind heavy bass and piano instrumentation. Kawal is a verb and its direct translation in Somali means “to make crazy”—as Toronto slang it means to play someone.

While Apac hasn’t received any shout outs from Drake or from OVO Sound, he’s confident of his music and team. His label, All of the Above, consists of himself, Huey, and friend Reemz who’s featured on “Hit or Sum.” "They're my brothers through thick and thin you know," Apac says "once I get put on my whole teams' put on." He’s well aware that that the city’s hip-hop scene is embellishing. "There's a wave and we're just trying to get on top of it."

In a Parkdale coffee shop, Layla Hendryx is carrying a large tote with a tiny 5-week old Pomeranian mixed Chihuahua puppy named Jama Jumpman. Originally from Ottawa, Hendryx moved to Toronto two years ago to live with her father, stepmom, and siblings. Currently living on her own and pursuing music full time, the 20 year old has released three EPs within a little over a year. “I’ve worked really hard,” she says and that she has. Having moved from Canada’s capital to Toronto’s concrete jungle not knowing anyone, Hendryx has managed to pick up some buzz. Her interest in rap peaked sometime in high school. “I remember I tried to say it as a joke to my friends, hey I kind of want to be a rapper, and it was a joke.” Reminiscing on her teen desires to rap, she says her friends lack of support threw her off. “I would have started earlier but I was worried what people were going to think.” The Somali-Canadian rapper persona doesn’t entirely satisfy Hendryx. While she doesn't deny her ethnicity and blended upbringing, she can't help but notice when blogs are referring to her as the Somali-Canadian rapper. "I'll see a guy that’s mixed everything and they won’t say his background."

She has an alluring adlib; “Oh Cocaina”—as well as a femme essence over trap beats that her male counterparts obviously lack. She sings, her voice soaring in her choruses. Lyrically she strays into many places: friendship, relationships, family, and being up next. “A lot of the times I would talk through someone else’s experience. I have a bunch of friends, I live through them in a way.”

Layla's cultural approach is more subtle though. In "7 Days," off her latest project, Out of Time, she raps about being dazed under the influence, later in the track a voicemail from her mother asking of her whereabouts plays. It’s a relatable experience to just about anyone, but it hits closer to home knowing her background. Hendryx is a Somali girl rapping about things most girls like her would normally conceal. “After a while I realized that if you’re doing good or bad, they’re going to talk about you regardless. I might as well live my life.”

There is a generational gap between traditional Somalis and their children. According to elders, Somalis of the diaspora are torn between their western world and the world their parents envisioned for them after fleeing sunny war-torn Somalia. The youthful movement is an act of triumph, depending on how you look at it. While the Rob Ford scandal was the tipping point for the Somali-Canadian image in the media, these artists are in charge of how they are being viewed through their music in a constructive way.

When it comes to language, it can be a slippery slope though. You can’t borrow a language you don’t speak without the risk of losing your authenticity. Drake sings “This is a Blessing, Masha’allah, Wallahi,” in his version of “Sweeterman,” nodding to the Ramriddlz original, while at the same time is benefiting by reaching a niche audience that can relate to the Arabic words. It’s clear that Drake is watching and sees the city’s potential of embracing its diverse scenes. The key similarities between these artists are that they are a part of a larger demographic reflective Toronto’s blended cultural identity. New voices like Rexdale’s Nav, whose of South-Asian descent and song “Take Me Simple” aired on OVO Sound radio is an example of this. The anticipated Views from the 6 is expected to feature city references and vibes that’ll put the city on the map as a recognizable cultural hub among hip-hop hotbeds like New York or Atlanta.

Rather than antagonizing Aubrey’s superstar take on local talent, it should be noted that OVO is putting artists on, filling a void, and ultimately redeeming the urban culture the city lost since its #1 radio source for hip-hop, Flow 93.5, was bought out by CHUM media in 2010. Rap crews like Prime Boys and 878 Dreamteam are shaping the downtown hip-hop movement. Among them is Somali-Canadian and Regent Park native Mo-G, whose basketball reference “Switch it up with the left like Ginobili,” was later borrowed by The Boy himself in “Jumpman.” It’s no different than dropping an Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan or “CP3 pass” line. In “Hotline Bling” Drake refines dance moves originally seen in the Prime Boys’ “I Heard” music video. Drake gently borrows, and by doing so he propels those artists to a broader audience. As far as Somali slang goes, it’s difficult to reproduce it without coming off as biting from young artists.

“You claim your sound when you put your music out there,” says Robin Banks of Toronto’s Driftwood area who started the Somali-english rap wave. Beyond being the one that coined the term TT that Drake posted to Instagram, Banks is making a name for himself outside his local backing, booking shows in Minnesota and Ohio. He’s gone from performing the elegiac tunes of hood rap, to pop-laced tracks like “Babba Freestyle” or the dancehall-inspired “Mixed with Jamaican.” All the while, dropping Somali words and adlibs nonchalantly into his songs. It’s normal for fellow UpTop member Pressa, of a Caribbean background, to shorten Wallahi and say “Wallah I love my gang,” like in “Deadmihana.” We’re used to seeing Caribbean influences in Toronto hip-hop, but not so much from an East African perspective. And in regards to representing a physical scene, "nobody has it harder than Jane and Finch," says Banks "when you come from a neighbourhood where you don't have a lot, you have to find a way to get it."

Ebyan Abdigir is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.