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The Globe and Mail

The Toronto rappers who really started from the bottom

Hip-hop promoter Knia Singh appears in Michelle Latimer’s documentary Alias, about Toronto’s street rap scene.

Director Michelle Latimer talks about Alias, her documentary on the street-rap scene in Toronto. The film is screened as part of Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, which runs until May 5 at various theatres around the city.

Not being from Toronto originally, what attracted you to the idea of making a film about the street-rap scene here?
I grew up in Northern Ontario. My mother is First Nation. My father is not. So, I've always had a foot in two canoes. The one thing I noticed about my Aboriginal friends was that we all loved rap music. It was iconic. When I moved to Toronto to become a filmmaker, I came across the story about Toronto rap star Alias Donmillion, who was arrested for shooting his gun in the air during Caribana, and was coming out of jail. I got in touch with him and got to know him, and over the course of four years I got to know a lot of the street rappers in the city.

We get to know some of them through your film. Is there something that connects them, besides the music?
They're all single parents. Some of them have custody; some don't. Some see the kids regularly; some don't. They've all been directly touched by violence in their lives. But besides that, they're all artists who have a hope and a dream for something.

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Can you relate what is happening in Northern Ontario to what's happening in some of the housing complexes in Toronto?
If you grow up on a reserve or in a highrise, it's interesting how you can internalize what's expected of you. Maybe you have a teacher who says that you're not going to amount to much. You hear that, and some people choose not to do anything with their lives. But others choose to hang on to their dreams, well into adulthood. All the artists in this film are holding onto their dreams. I have a deep respect for that.

How do the street rappers relate to some of the more prominent hip hop artists in Canada? I mean, k-os, Shad, Cadence Weapon and Drake come from a different world.
The reality is that some of the biggest rappers in this country haven't been from the streets. They've had parents who have supported them and communities who have supported them. Whereas the artists in my film basically grew up without parental figures. So, try to get up on stage and think you're [all that], when you've had nobody tell you that you could achieve something, all your life.

As you see it, is there something unique to the street-rap scene in Toronto, as opposed to what's happening in Los Angeles or New York?
There's a huge Caribbean community here, with a lot of people second-generation Canadians. It's different than in the States, where generations of African Americans have grown up there. I think it makes for an interesting idea of identity, when you're straddling two worlds. And I also think there's a quiet anger that comes with assimilation.

Which can lead to violence, right?
We like to think that we're so superior to the States, with our safe society. I've come to believe that we're living under a facade. I've been following the recent stories about the gun pipeline, and from what I've seen, that's all true. I think we feel like we're safe here. But I sense a rumbling anger, and a rumbling unrest in these communities.

Alias screens April 28 (1 p.m.) and May 4, (8:45 p.m.), Scotiabank Theatre, 259 Richmond St. W.,

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