Charity Marsh is director of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs and associate professor in creative technologies and interdisciplinary programs at the University of Regina. Mark Campbell is assistant professor of music and culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough. They are the editors of We Still Here: Hip Hop North of the 49th Parallel.
“Stolen locations/abusive relations/150 years of celebration/but we still here!”
These are the rhymes of JB the First Lady – one of the many hip-hop artists in Canada keeping the genre’s roots firmly embedded in social and political commentary – proclaiming the triumphant resilience of Indigenous women living north of the 49th parallel. In that track, Still Here, she rhymes about the systemic violence and the myriad effects that more than a century of colonization has had on Indigenous people. She speaks her truth, and she does so within the genre of hip-hop – carrying on a legacy that can be traced back to The Message, the 1982 anthem by South Bronx pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
That goes to show how, over the decades, hip-hop – often dismissed in its early days as a fad – has gained traction globally. From Angola to Japan, from Mexico to France, hip-hop has reached across national borders to foster innovative and creative relationships. It has played multiple roles and has provided shared strategies for resistance, provocation and protest among youth living in places far away from its New York cradle, while influencing pop music, youth culture, fashion, language and beyond. In its ability to endure, hip-hop has only become more complex and more diverse.
Canada is no exception. In recent years, the country’s well of talent has been overflowing. While many are familiar with the likes of former Degrassi star turned emcee Aubrey Drake Graham and his chart-topping success, artists such as Halifax’s Jorun Bombay, Ottawa’s Belly, Montreal-raised turntablist DJ A-Trak and Toronto’s K’naan continue to make their mark on the international stage. In fact, it’s been more than 20 years since the Dream Warriors toured Europe, selling out 27 shows in cities such Copenhagen, Brussels, Milan, Paris and London in 1995.
While Drake’s recent ascendance to the top of the billboards has been wonderful news for music-industry stakeholders in Canada, his success casts a huge market-oriented shadow on how we might think about hip-hop cultures as a social phenomenon, and how we might articulate what might be unique about our own hip-hop cultures. While that might feel like an odd project in our age of sophisticated algorithms and global discoverability, where hand-held devices can instantly play the latest track by Scarborough-raised beat-maker Boi-1da in places as far away as New Zealand or Brazil, such a focus helps us break away from the problematic Canadian tradition of defining our success in intimate relation with what occurs south of our border.
There is a plethora of artists across Canada whose music doesn’t break streaming records, but speak truth and tell us something fresh and interesting about being Canadian: about being bilingual, about navigating life in the Arctic, about creatively negotiating second-generation Caribbean identities, about the resistance and celebrations of Indigenous people. In Canada, hip-hop music and culture reflects, refracts and responds to the various ways this country both imagines itself and desires to be imagined on the world stage. We just need to listen.
Despite these successful times for Canadian hip-hop, the music industry at large has not appeared overly invested in building the infrastructure for continued success here in any sustained or significant way. There has been a lack of local radio airplay and broader national support for Jazz Cartier of Toronto, who won the 2017 Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year; Montreal’s Kaytranada, who claimed the 2016 Polaris Prize; and Haviah Mighty, whose album 13th Floor took home that prize last year. We only have to think back to the careers pioneering Canadian hip-hop artists signed to record deals in the 1980s to recognize a pattern of institutional dismissal; artists such as Rumble, Michie Mee and Maestro Fresh Wes were all signed by record companies in Britain, the United States and Germany, respectively.
To think about the country’s hip-hop culture is to necessarily struggle with the problem of the country itself. Hip-hop’s fluid and diasporic nature troubles some of the routine ways in which we understand culture, nation and art. To understand hip-hop in Canada, we need to make sense of the rich and diverse ways in which hip-hop is taken up within our borders. So when DL Incognito, the Ottawa-raised member of the independent label Nine Planets, moves seamlessly through English, Haitian Creole and French, or when francophone emcee Samian rhymes at the intersection of Indigenous reservation life and rural northern Quebec life, a Canada we are not intimately familiar with takes centre stage. Similarly, when supergroup Nomadic Massive take the stage, whether in France, Brazil, Cuba, Switzerland or French Guiana, Canada’s founding two solitudes come under duress. Rhyming in Spanish, Creole, French and Arabic, members of Nomadic Massive – hailing from China, France, Chile, Iraq, Haiti, Algeria and Argentina – reflect a post-multiculturalism Canada, one in which being an immigrant is as Canadian as outdoor ice hockey rinks.
Both the hyperlocal ways in which hip-hop affects young people today – representing your neighbourhood remains a top priority – and the global ways in which this subculture of style travels between national borders creates the productive friction that fuels the art form. This friction forces us to continually reassess and re-evaluate some of the easy cognitive frames that suggest hip-hop is simply entertainment or the creative responses of African-American youth to postindustrial U.S. society. In its resonance with and its take-up by communities around the world, hip-hop is clearly so much more than that.
Rather than talk about hip-hop in Canada as having a single national identity, perhaps it makes more sense to recognize and celebrate the richness and diversity of hip-hop artists, community hip-hop projects and those other hip-hop folks contributing to less commercially oriented paths whose focus is dedicated to their localities, when we begin to dig up hip-hop histories in cities such as Halifax, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver, as well as in smaller centres like Pangnirtung, Nunavut, and Prince Albert, Sask., as a way to articulate a sense of place.
At a moment in which auction houses such as Sotheby’s are selling off historic hip-hop memorabilia and Ivy League schools are attempting to archive hip-hop culture, there seems to be no better time than now to turn our attention inward, within the Canadian borders. As the past few decades can attest, hip-hop in our country is a dynamic force whose manoeuvres and fluidity nicely map and remap what it means to be a hip-hop head – and a Canadian, in general – north of the 49th parallel.
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