Pressa Has Lived a Hard Life, Now He Wants Peace
"A lot of people depend on me. I’m trying to change the neighbourhood by giving the neighbourhood a lot of hope."
Photo by Norman Wong
Drake named his 2016 tour Boy Meets World, but that title was more apt for someone else on the bill: Pressa. The artist would be introduced to performing live by way of European stages as an opening act for Drake, placed alongside other artists like Baka and Popcaan. It’s certainly not the typical trajectory for a rapper from Toronto but it’s one he’s taken on with fierce confidence. It’s also one that’s required him to maneuver with extreme pushback from the Toronto Police and frequent reminders of his past.
With only a few interviews done, and plenty of articles written about his character, one can say that his narrative has been largely dictated by others. Pressa’s music career is his chance for redemption and he’s very candid about how he’d like to be remembered. “He was the first real rapper outta Canada”, he says. ”The first realest gangsta rapper outta Canada to really do this and make it. I want them to remember me as the best, not only in Canada, but also in the world.”
Born Quinton Armani Gardner to Caribbean parents, Pressa—whose moniker derives from his father’s nickname Prestige— is a third-generation Jane and Finch resident. The neighbourhood has a history of gangs, violence and poverty but is a product of much larger factors at play, mainly that of "ghettoization." Where gentrification pulls people of a higher socio-economic background into spaces that, in turn, push people of a lower socio-economic background out, ghettoization is the force that limits the prospects of the people who have been pushed out or even relegate them to particular areas within the city.
Combining the data from this 2013 map of Toronto’s visible minorities—who seem to be concentrated in areas the city has demarcated as priority—as well as this 2013 Global News interactive map which tracked Toronto’s richest and poorest neighbourhoods, the correlation between ghettoization and gentrification is clear. The map indicates that many Jane and Finch residents are part of the lowest earners in the country, bringing home an income of less than $50,000 a year. This may have a drastic effect on its youth. In an area where 52 per cent of neighbours are families and 71 per cent of residents have children, according to the Next Home neighbourhood profile, that has an impact on their day-to-day lives.
Driftwood, an area within the larger Jane and Finch community, is one riddled with economic strife forcing people to do what they can to make ends meet. Informal economies are created to assist the people who’ve had to navigate spaces or occupations made inaccessible to them. They contend with their realities in ways that are often deemed unconventional and Pressa’s seen that first hand in the past. “Everybody’s strugglin’. Nobody has money over there,” he told Noisey during an interview. “Everybody would have to pick up and make their own hustle in different ways. They could be selling drugs, or they could be cutting hair for money or they could be selling pop or food out of their house, cooking, catering… it’s just different little hustles in the neighbourhood where people would be able to survive.”
However, like any neighbourhood that has a similar history, there’s often an untold side to its story. “In my own words, it’s very loving,” he says, recalling his Driftwood stomping grounds. “There’s a lot of culture there and a lot of people that grew up with each other. There’s a lot of love and a lot of history behind people but then there’s a lot of bad history as well. It’s dangerous out there. Any yute, any kid, it doesn’t matter. It could be a kid going to school or a kid playing basketball, it’s still rough for everybody.”
The 21-year-old has, so far, accumulated a lifetime of experiences. He’s made quite a notorious name for himself, in part because of the his own criminal charges, but also that of his brother’s and father's. After being incarcerated as a youth offender at 15 years old and in addition to death of his best friend when he was 19, he’s used both experiences as an opportunity to focus on rap as a legit career. “When I was in jail, I would write a lot of lyrics, pages of lyrics everyday. But I really went hard when my best friend Kwasi Skene-Peters died,” he says. “When he died, I made a song about him. Me, Kenmar, my friend Robin Banks, FB and GD, we made a song called ‘Wass Gang.’ When that video dropped, everybody knew who Wasi was. He just died in a shootout with the police and shit so we used that publicity and turnt [sic] it to a song and then the whole city was loving the art. So I give a lot of credit to Wasi cause he helped me with my career.” Pressa shares these stories matter of factly, understanding that sharing them are a means to an end for his career. Though it comes with the costs of possibly glorifying his troubled past.
It was through this same record that he was discovered by Drake and subsequently invited to perform on the European leg of his tour. Since then, he’s acquired a taste for being onstage and has learned how to perfect his technique to get his desired response from the audience. Pressa revels in the spotlight. For an artist whose career is in its infancy, he’s taken a liking to performing live shows, and unapologetically gravitates towards the stage and the influence has has over his fans. “I love to connect with fans so when I jump more, they start to jump more, or if I slow down, they’ll slow down or if I put the mic to the crowd, they’ll start yelling more,” he says. It’s like a control thing... the whole energy, going back and forth, and the atmosphere and the situation that we’re all in in that one moment. It’s like a power, you know? You’re controlling the crowd.”
Pressa has now graced many stages, including Toronto’s REBEL with Lil Uzi Vert, but much of the time he's been working on stagecraft has been hampered by ongoing police surveillance. “I did a show in Toronto. I came out with Uzi Vert and Murda Beatz. After the show, the police came and they were looking for me. They wanted to talk to me or something. They were saying, ‘Where’s Pressa? Where’s that Pressa kid?,’ and they couldn’t find me cause I was backstage. They just want[ed] to know if I was there by myself, but I was there with my grandma.”
Spotting police are frequent and almost inescapable occurrences for Pressa during his live shows, something of which made headlines during his time in Europe. He expresses his frustration by saying, “It’s always Toronto Police that call other police divisions whenever I’m in different districts.” As a result, he’s had to be strategic in how he promotes his shows: “I was able to pull off a show in Vancouver but I didn’t promote it. I made my street team promote it, that way the police wouldn’t see it on my Instagram and go shut it down.”
However, Pressa’s efforts aren’t always successful, particularly with his past show this September in Edmonton. He says that after the venue shut down, he was forced to relocate to a banquet hall, performing on a red staircase. But in a turn of events, he later had a surprisingly pleasant encounter with the city’s police. “Everybody was so worried about the show going a different way. They’re so worried about the show like something’s gonna happen. [The police] came and supervised the show and then nothing happened so [the Edmonton police officer] went back and gave Toronto a good word, like, “Yeah, that Pressa kid came to Edmonton. He did a good job, he performed, he left. Nothing happened. It was a good night.”
Pressa’s come a long way from his native of Driftwood and is approaching the business and art of music making like a seasoned veteran. In a recent DJ Vlad interview, he shares how he got his label incorporated and is tactfully working hard towards ensuring Pressa the businessman is as strong as Pressa the artist. “I want to get a [Blue Feather Records] in Vancouver [and] a BFR studio in Toronto,” he says of his own label. “I’m trying to change the neighbourhood by giving the neighbourhood a lot of hope. A lot of people depend on me. A lot of people are on my shoulders so I want to create jobs for others in the neighbourhood. Hopefully I can be the first and then make a change for my loved ones.”
Sharine Taylor is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.