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The country's best undiscovered urban artists converge in Toronto today for a showcase that marks the end of a nationwide talent search and could launch the career of Canada's next big thing.

The Urban Music Association of Canada (UMAC) and Nettwerk Music Group have teamed up to put on Urban X-Posure, an artists' conference and competition, with the winner receiving a cross-country concert tour in the fall and a digital singles deal with Nettwerk.

For UMAC, it's not just about the competition. The organization wants to see Canadian urban music (hip hop, soul, R&B) get the international acclaim they think it deserves.

"It's important to get Canadian urban artists out there. The vehicles are there, but what's lacking is an education on how to navigate the new-music landscape," says Will Strickland, president of UMAC, who sees the conference component of Urban X-Posure as just as important as the competition.

Although Canada has produced great musical talents, one might be hard-pressed to add an urban artist to the list of Canadian stars with an international profile - something UMAC would like to see change.

Artists need be taught how to promote themselves, says Strickland, and will get a chance today. More than 300 people are expected at a panel discussion before the evening show covering topics such as how to apply for music grants, how to expand online in the digital era and how to navigate in a post-major-record-deal world.

"Just making a cute MySpace page and putting a Paypal button on it doesn't guarantee results," Strickland says.

Although this is Urban X-Posure's third year, it's the first time a prize is being offered to the winner. The first two years were more of a celebration of black music and dance, as well as a test of whether Urban X-Posure would succeed - a test Strickland considers the event has now passed. Two of the three finalists in 2007 were MC Isis, who is now one half of the electronic music duo, Thunderheist, that has found moderate success south of the border; and Drake, a.k.a. Aubrey Graham, the former Degrassi: The Next Generation star turned rapper who was recently the subject of a major-label bidding war. (Drake just announced this week that he has signed with Lil Wayne's label, Young Money, and also sealed a distribution deal with Universal Republic.)

"The stats don't lie," says Strickland, pointing out that American actor/singer Jamie Foxx referred to Drake as "rookie of the year" when the Canadian performed at the BET Awards last week.

Finalists such as Daniel Daley, who has, "been doing music forever, playing piano since I was 8, and singing since I came out [of the womb]" know winning could be a big boost.

Now 23, the Scarborough native has released two singles independently and has had radio play in Toronto, but, "In Canada, there's not that many outlets for urban music," says Daley.

"The opportunity that comes with the digital deal and the cross-country tour, people would kill for an opportunity like that."

More than 150 artists from as far away as the Yukon submitted demos to Urban X-Posure. The submissions were then narrowed down to 20 acts who performed for the judges last week. Those unable to attend in person sent in video performances.

Typically, only the top three acts perform at the showcase. But Strickland says the judges were so impressed with the quality of submissions, they invited 10 acts to strut their stuff today.

While UMAC is funding the winning artist's tour, Vancouver-based Nettwerk, seeing an opportunity to expand its base on the eve of the label's 25th anniversary, has gotten involved with the competition this year to distribute the winner's single.

"Nettwerk's always supported every genre of music, and it's never been a forefront urban music label - everyone knows that," says Nettwerk's Lex Llaguno, who is one of the judges.

"We want to take it up a notch and make it a larger event," he says about Urban X-Posure. "We want to make it a Canadian Idol, but in an urban sense."

Urban X-Posure will be held at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St. W, in Toronto today. Doors open at 4 p.m. Admission is $5.

The Urban X-Posure finalists

Ten finalists will hit the stage today for an opportunity that could make their careers. They are:

Frankie Payne A proud Toronto rapper fresh off a performance at NXNE. His single, Reach (For My City), an ode to Toronto, received play on local radio stations last summer.

Solitair The Toronto artist is most well-known for his work with the Black Jays record label and production team, producing for artists such as Jully Black, Kardinal Offishall and Choclair.

Shobha An R&B singer and songwriter hailing from Halifax, Shobha is now based in Toronto where she recently recorded her self-released debut album. Ian Kamau A hip-hop artist who calls Toronto home, Kamau is working his way back into the music scene after taking some time off to get a degree from York University, where he studied fine arts and graphic design.

Young Shaws A Toronto rapper by way of Georgia, Young Shaws has been performing since 2000.

Daniel Daley The Scarborough native and R&B singer has released two singles independently, the most recent of which is receiving airplay on local radio stations.

Rachelle Jeanty The soul singer from Montreal has been working as a backup vocalist for major acts, including Celine Dion, for most of her career. She is currently on tour backing Québécois superstar Robert Charlebois.

Blake Carrington The Toronto-born, Buffalo-raised rapper is following in the footsteps of his father, hip-hop artist DeDot.

Boombox Saints A Vancouver-based group made up of two MCs, a vocalist and a turntablist, the members of Boombox Saints have been performing together since 2000. The group is promoting its self-released debut album.

General A Scarborough MC who released his debut single independently in 2003, General has released four albums off his own label, Born Hungry, and has toured across North America.

C.W.

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