As he gets ready to turn up the volume on the We Day celebrations – and puts the finishing touches on an inspirational talk touching on hip hop, heroes and the hope bred by community – Toronto-born rapper and music producer Kardinal Offishal tells us that being a Free The Children ambassador ranks right up there with winning four Junos, three Much Music Video Awards, two SOCANs and a place on the Billboard top 100 charts. "Mentorship is really big for me," says the artist known as Kardinal. "It's big shoes to fill but I do it with pride because the power to change the future lies with the kids."
When you were 12, you met Nelson Mandela after hearing him speak to youth in Toronto. How did that encounter impact you?
At that point in time, Mandela was a legend, someone you read about in history books. To see him live, and speaking in person, had a positive effect on me. He showed me the meaning of possibility.
How did that experience shape you as a We Day ambassador?
When you are a We Day ambassador you become very influential with youth and I think that is a very important piece of power to hold. A lot of times people associate power with tyrants and dictators. But I think that power can be a very positive thing if you can influence a generation and make a difference.
You went on a humanitarian mission to the Horn of Africa in 2011, a trip that you say changed your life. What about that experience will you share with others in your role as a youth leader?
That was my first trip to Africa, and for me it was very important. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of destitution, a lot of people in need. And yet these poor people were a success story. They had survived the drought and were still pushing. I also saw people who had fled civil unrest and were creating new lives for themselves. What I want to share from that experience is the ability to succeed even when things are at their worst.
Social activism is a key component of what you do. How do you balance activism with your career as a music artist and performer?
Growing up listening to Public Enemy, Paris, Ice Cube and other rappers, I heard social activism was a key component of the music I liked. It kind of went along with the culture, you know what I mean? For me, social activism is carrying on the tradition. It's got to be an active part of what I do because that is what hip hop is about. Hip hop originally was a subculture. It never was mainstream. A lot of it had to do with rebellion, so for me it's a natural progression, a natural kind of legacy for somebody from my era to want to practise.
Why is youth empowerment a cause that resonates with you?
When I was younger there were people who spoke to me, people who mentored me, and if I hadn't been exposed to that my life probably would have turned out way different. I don't want to make it sound like a cliché but it is like giving back. I know the benefits I received from mentorship so I would love for others to be able to have those same benefits in their lives. I definitely would sleep better knowing that the work I shared helped impact somebody's life in a positive way.