Norm Kelly Is Taking a Lot from Black Culture—and Giving Very Little Back

Kelly says his Twitter will “never” be political.

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Feb 1 2017, 9:43pm

Inexplicably popular Twitter celebrity @norm—also known as Toronto City Councillor Norm Kelly—has been calling himself the 6 Dad ever since the summer of 2015. It started with Drake's beef with Meek Mill—a multi-week feud over allegations of ghostwriting and cowardice thrown at Drake by Mill, the vitriol of which caused Kelly to tweet his first online diss.

"You're no longer welcome in Toronto, @Meek Mill," the councillor—little more than an online anomaly at that point—tweeted at the Philadelphia-based rapper. Later, when Mill criticized Kelly (a white politician in his mid-70s ) for telling a black man where he could and couldn't go, @norm responded in the only way he knows how: by not apologizing.

"Aye American @MeekMill. Didn't say don't come. Just puzzled why you'd diss a Canadian hero a week before coming to his city."

Since that time, @norm has been the centre of intense online debate both inside and outside Toronto's hip-hop community. Why was this random, white politician—formerly the deputy mayor who took over for Rob Ford after the late mayor admitted to smoking crack on video—transforming his online identity into a series of pop culture clap-backs and memes? And, if he cared about black people's music and their vernacular so much, why wasn't he posting with as much passion and prose when Toronto police killed one of them?

Some have also pointed out that Kelly's voting history is extremely questionable. The 6 Dad was one of eight council members to vote against Toronto becoming a sanctuary city in 2014—a motion which allowed individuals to access city services (excluding health care and education) without ID. Kelly has, since his election to the Ward 40 seat in the 1990s, been one of council's more right-wing members: in the past, he has voted against multicultural initiatives, and openly denied climate change (while chairing the city's parks and environment committee).

The narrative of Kelly as a culture vulture isn't new: in February 2016, Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier went on record with NOW Magazine denouncing the councillor as an opportunist trying to profit off black music.

"Whether he writes his tweets or not, I think he's just trying to cash in on black culture. He needs to do his job and stay out of rap. He needs to get back to work," Cartier said. "He is a politician. He will never be hip-hop. Where are his tweets and RTs when it comes to real issues in this city - poverty, racism, youth unemployment, Black Lives Matter?"

Cartier, who declined to speak further on this issue when asked by VICE—noting that he had said his piece already—is not alone in his criticism of Kelly. This past weekend, Kelly—during the height of the chaos that broke out across American airports after foreigners were detained and deported under President Trump's travel ban—tweeted out a link for a shirt reading "I'm Moving To Canada," for sale on his own merchandise website.

Although Kelly claims that the proceeds of all of his merchandise sales go to charity (he could not provide exact numbers upon VICE's request, but urged us to call the list of organizations themselves), many users on Twitter still came at him for trivializing the severity of the American immigration crisis, and for using the instance to heighten his own popularity.

During a phone interview with VICE, the councillor defended himself against accusations of being opportunistic, arguing that Cartier and other critics "should have done [their] homework" before coming at his career as a politician. He also said that there is a difference between what he does in real life, and how he presents himself on Twitter.

"These are the guys that Drake describes as 'haters.' Their critical remarks were not new to me," Kelly told VICE when asked about criticisms of his dismissive style of online politicking.

"One of the reasons I think that the account has become so successful is that my tweets are so unconventional. It's funny because, on Instagram, the comments are almost all positive. The Twitterverse tends to attract the social justice warrior types," he said.

Drake and Norm pose back to back at a September 2015 Ryerson University concert. Photo by author.

When asked about issues such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and police carding, he said that he supports BLM's right to protest and thinks that carding should face "abolition or serious reform." Still, when questioned whether he regrets not making a bigger effort to actually affect these issues through his social media, Kelly says that his Twitter has never and will never be used for political effect.

"I have three rules for Twitter:First, it will not be a personal-public diary. Secondly, it will not be an extension of my political beliefs. The final one is, if I'm going to stress anything political, it will be City of Toronto-related," he said.

Kelly, throughout the interview, consistently described having a "deep relationship" with Toronto's black community, and a record that could speak for it. He cited helping to open some community centres around the city, helping to keep Afrofest from losing its permit last year, and working with the Raptors/Drake's community-focused initiatives as examples.

Dewitt Lee, who ran for mayor during both of the last mayoral elections and as a Liberal candidate for the 2016 Scarborough Rouge-River provincial seat (eventually won by PC candidate Raymond Cho), says that his relationship with Kelly has been complex. While cordial and professional, Lee says that Kelly's continued appropriation of hip-hop culture while ignoring issues the black community faces has "reached a boiling point."

"Look, there's no hip-hop council—no one can say, 'Stop doing this,' but it's getting a bit ridiculous," Lee told VICE.

"I've heard a lot of politicians claim they've served the black community, but a lot of those interactions are one-offs. You have to ask: who's still benefiting years down the road? Most of the time, it's a flash-in-the-pan—small gestures that are a show of good face but don't actually fix anything. The black community doesn't need superficial support, we need long-lasting support to help with deep-seeded issues," he added.  

Lee also explained that he's worried about the grey zone that Kelly might be occupying by both holding political office and building an online brand that could one day be used to turn a profit. Lee cited the case of Tiffany Ford—who Lee describes as a good friend—in which Ford was accused of using her name and position as a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee to push sales for her private water bottle company.

"Is this not a grey area? I think there has to be a conversation about this, because if [the people] aren't capitalizing off [his Twitter account], you gotta ask who is."

Perhaps the argument is, like Kelly says, that he is not a policy politician, but a figure of change bridging the cultural gap between old and young. After all, if he isn't going to support black people by being their champion in their political arena, then maybe he can use his platform like a megaphone for aspiring black artists. Lee told VICE he hopes Kelly sees this going forward.

"If he doesn't have a Scarborough artist under his wing, that'd be an absolute shame."

Which is why it's surprising that, when asked if he could name five Toronto rappers, Kelly could not do so.

"Well, right now, I would stick with the two successors: Drake, obviously. I've also been very appreciative of The Weeknd, being a fellow Scarborough boy and all…Y'know, I get a lot of messages and I listen to so many YouTube rap songs, I couldn't pull their names immediately for you," he conceded, completely forgetting to mention Cartier, who was brought up numerous times earlier in the interview.

"Oh, you can put down Dutch! He's a Toronto rapper. Also, 416 TN$. So, that's four."

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.

Lede illustration by Jane Kim.

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