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August 11/2010 -- Wesley Williams, better known as Maestro and formerly Maestro Fresh-Wes, is a Canadian rapper, record producer, and actor. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)
August 11/2010 -- Wesley Williams, better known as Maestro and formerly Maestro Fresh-Wes, is a Canadian rapper, record producer, and actor. (Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)

The Interview

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When we meet, Wes Williams settles into a time-beaten leather armchair - and claps, as if offering me a celebratory welcome, like I'm a guest star in today's instalment of the Maestro show.

"Okay, I'm ready to get started," he says, knees bouncing. Then, a few minutes later: "I'd just like to thank McClelland & Stewart for publishing my book," he tells me, referring to his new self-help memoir, Stick to Your Vision: How to Get Past the Hurdles & Haters to Get Where You Want to Be.

It's 10 a.m. and we're in the lobby of Toronto's swanky Suites at One King West, where Mr. Williams is staying for a few days.

"And I'd also like to thank my co-writer, Tamara Hendricks-Williams," he says, acknowledging his wife.

August 11/2010 -- Wesley Williams, better known as Maestro and formerly Maestro Fresh-Wes, is a Canadian rapper, record producer, and actor.

Mr. Williams, wearing a long-sleeve cotton T-shirt as blindingly white as popping flashbulbs, is still best known as Maestro Fresh-Wes, the godfather of Canadian hip hop, and, most particularly, for his 1989 single Let Your Backbone Slide (the first hip hop single to go gold in Canada) which appeared on his first album, Symphony in Effect.

Mr. Williams, 42, is now also an actor (he was nominated for a Gemini for his 2009 performance in The Line) and a public speaker.

"Yeah, the Toronto District School Board gave me some love!" he says of his inaugural TDSB engagement, at which he shared the stage with Ruben "Hurricane" Carter. About his various careers: "It's just expansion and diversifying and keeping it moving," he says.

"But I never got up on a podium and said, 'I want to be an actor or a motivational speaker,'" he explains, with arms outstretched, as if he were standing behind, well, a podium. "I just do it. Props to Nike, man! Just do it."

In his book, named for his 1998 hit single, Stick to Your Vision, Mr. Williams shares his motivating philosophies, as well as tales of racial, cultural and professional adversity.

He writes about windows of complacency and mediocrity, the importance of humility and perseverance, of risk-taking and expectation-defying and mantra-making, anchoring his beliefs with quotes from Beyoncé, Gandhi, Kanye West and Albert Schweitzer.

Among his first serious struggles were those he experienced as a kid growing up in Scarborough, where he was raised by Guyanese immigrant parents, and often felt, he writes, like "a pepper grain in a salt factory."

"Nobody looked like me in Toronto in the 1970s. I was the only black kid in my first grade class," he recalls.

When he was 6, a little girl who lived next door asked him, "Wes, when are you going to turn white?" Thinking his skin might change, since his height was changing, he directed the question to his dad.

"My dad just said, 'I'm still waiting, boy!'" Mr. Williams says, laughing. He remembers the first time he saw Muhammad Ali. "I said, 'Mommy, can I jump into the screen?' He looked like me. I just wanted to get in there and kick it with him."

Then, at 12, he heard Rapper's Delight by The Sugarhill Gang: "It just took me over, man. That's what I wanted to do," he says. "And when I started putting words together and rhyming, girls liked it. It was nice! But at the same time, there was doubt and an energy of adversity hovering around me. Being a black rapper in Canada at that time was a novelty."

If the cultural landscape had once proved hostile to Mr. Williams's success as a rapper, it turned out to be precisely the success of Backbone that proved challenging.

"There was a lot of pressure coming out of the gate - to duplicate that success was going to be challenging." As it turns out, duplicating that first success has so far proved impossible.

In 1992, Mr. Williams moved to the United States, staying five years before returning to Toronto: "There were a lot of disappointments at that time. I didn't get much label support. The style of hip hop had changed. The whole game had changed."

But Mr. Williams prefers to dwell on silver linings. "Prayer helped. And staying positive. And you have to stick to your vision and be flexible at the same time. I'm here to grow," he says.



"Vision is a forward-moving motivating action," he tells me with slow precision. "If you stay still, your vision dies." (His current vision is to have the principle tenets of Stick to Your Vision implemented in high-school curricula.)



He takes breaks from talking to me to chat with a variety of strangers, as though everybody here were an extra or an audience member. "Hey miss, how you doin'?" he asks a vaguely mystified waitress. To a man across the lobby whose infant daughter has just tossed her bowl of Cheerios onto the floor: "Hey, I know how you feel, man! I have a son," he says, referring to his toddler, Chancellor.



A few minutes later, he's chatting with a couple of strangers: "Hey, What's up! What are you guys up to tomorrow night? Do you have plans?" Then they're exchanging cards, and Mr. Williams has invited them to his book launch. Mr. Williams believes in opportunity-making and networking (see chapters 13 and 14).



"Okay, back to the book!" he announces, like we're just returned from commercial break, "If you position yourself as a pawn, you'll remain a pawn, because everybody's gonna move up that chessboard, man. You gotta do you!" he says.



"My favourite quote is by this dude, Walt Whitman. 'Re-examine all that you have been told in school or in church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your soul.'" He takes a deep breath and shakes his head: "This quote hits me real hard. It's about dismissing people's preconceived notions of you. It's so dope!"

 

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