Canadian hip-hop artists like Tory Lanez need support, not tokenism
Why our country can't afford to wait for the industry to catch up
On Tuesday, I, like much of the world, spent hours combing the net, immersed in music, photos and videos of the late David Bowie. I stumbled upon a 1983 interview with MTV where during a typical press junket Bowie brilliantly subjected Mark Goodman to an interrogation of his own, asking the VJ why the new channel featured so few black artists. The response?
"Popularity is encouraged and invested in; it doesn't simply happen." - Toronto artist Ian Kamau
"We have to try and do what we think not only New York or Los Angeles would appreciate but also what Poughkeepsie or some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we're playing, or a string of other black faces and black music. You know, we have to play the music we think an entire country is gonna like."
I've heard that reasoning before, I thought — not in the '80s or even the '90s, but in the past year, each time I questioned someone in a relative position of power on why so little room is given to hip-hop music in the Canadian music industry. The specific excuses change somewhat over time but nearly a quarter-century later the rationale remains just as weak and flimsy as Goodman's.
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Complaining about the lack of Canadian industry support for hip-hop is a tradition almost as old as the art form itself. However with the history of Canadian hip-hop now divided into the BD and AD eras — Before and After Drake — the protest is getting louder.
Disclaimer: I am not a hip-hop artist and I don't work in the music business. I'm simply a frustrated fan of the art form witnessing an industry make sporadic, tokenistic overtures while keeping the real doors closed. In the worlds of commercial radio and awards shows — two key measurements of the music industry's priorities — hip-hop is treated like a second-class citizen.
One day in December I was driving home from work and turned the radio to CBC Radio One. My mouth dropped open when I heard what was playing. It was Toronto born and Brampton raised singer/rapper/producer Tory Lanez belting out his hit single "Say It." I had recently been introduced to his catalogue and he was my musical obsession of the moment. When I heard the song, I began yelling in my car, singing along (slightly off-key) and dancing without caring about the stares from other drivers at the red light. When I came down from my high, I started to wonder, how is it possible that although I live in the same city as this upcoming artist, I'm learning about him at the same time as (or even later than) hip-hop fans south of the border?
Tory Lanez is not an overnight success. He's been recording music for the past six years but it was in 2015, after years of selling mixtapes on street corners and in malls across the GTA, that the wider world learned about Lanez when he signed with Interscope and provided the hook for the hit Meek Mill single "Lord Knows" (which was also featured on the soundtrack for the movie Creed).
I argue that one reason Tory Lanez needed the U.S. to get attention in his home city is that for almost five years, Toronto has not had a commercial urban music radio station that would provide the platform for listeners to be introduced to a new artist like him. Back in 2001, hip-hop was granted a platform after years of being played only on volunteer-led community stations. Flow 93.5FM was Toronto's first black-owned and operated commercial radio station, and boasted well-rated shows including O.T.A. (On the Air) Live!, a key showcase for emerging local talent. When the station was sold in 2011 to CTVglobemedia (now Bell Media), O.T.A. and other similarly popular shows were soon cancelled. The void they left has yet to be filled.
It is so unfamiliar to have anything other than Top 40 hip-hop represented on radio in Toronto anymore, so when I hear the music of a young dude on the come-up from my hometown, like Tory Lanez, I have to double-check my radio dial.
The culture cannot grow if it is not given platforms for artists to have their music heard and for audiences to be introduced to them. In a recent op-ed Noisey titled "An insider's look in: Examining the real value of Toronto's rap scene," Toronto MC Ian Kamau writes, "Investment is no accident: I would argue that rock and pop have been consistently invested in and became more popular because they are genres that are more economically or culturally valued by the industry decision-makers, programmers, and tastemakers with the most power. But popularity is encouraged and invested in; it doesn't simply happen."
I recently conducted an interview with the rap group Naturally Born Strangers, who won Best Rap Recording of the Year at the Junos in 2015. In my research, I couldn't find footage of it, and soon discovered why: it wasn't televised.
Although many award categories at the Juno's are not televised, in hip-hop's case, the snub has particular significance. In 1998, the West Coast rap group Rascalz famously refused to attend the ceremony and accused the award show of racism for its refusal to televise the category. In response, the category was televised the following year and the Rascalz performed their hit song "Northern Touch" on the show. The category was televised again in 2002, 2005 and 2010.
My interest was piqued, so I decided to look further into the relationship between the Junos and rap music. In 2011 Drake hosted the award show, and despite garnering six nominations, he went home without any hardware. Music critic Dalton Higgins notes in his book Far from Over: The Music and Life of Drake, the Unofficial Story: "This was the first time in the 40-year history of the Juno Awards that a musician who agreed to host the show and had nominated music didn't win at least one award. When acts like Nelly Furtado, Shania Twain and Céline Dion hosted the Junos, they won 12 awards combined." The following year at the Junos, Drake's critically acclaimed album Take Care lost in the category of Album of the Year to a Michael Bublé Christmas compilation.
Beyond the Junos, there's also the Polaris Music Prize, a music award annually given to the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales or record label The jury list for the Polaris Music Prize is comprised of more than 200 Canadian music journalists, bloggers and broadcasters. Hip-hop artists ranging from megastars like Drake and The Weeknd to independent acts such as Cadence Weapon, Zaki Ibrahim and Shad have made it onto the shortlist. But in its 10-year history, it has never been won by a rap or R&B artist.
Over the Christmas holidays I spent hours watching the annual countdown of best music videos of the year on Much. I was stunned by how many of the videos I had never seen. I realized how much I missed the days of curated programming, where the onus was on a trusted presenter to introduce me to the music. Kudos goes to the music writers and critics who through print, blogs and podcasts have attempted to fill the void.
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The open access of platforms such as SoundCloud and YouTube has democratized the process artists go through to have their music heard, but it has also led to an overwhelming array of content that never reaches most peoples' ears. Most emerging and mid-tier artists do not have a clear next level to work towards, at least not in this country.
Meanwhile, awards and commercial radio painfully illustrate that the traditional bastions of the Canadian music industry have remained stagnant since the Rascalz protest of 1998 and the massive Drake diss of 2011. Tokenistic overtures lead to a performance here, an added nomination there, but no substantial attempt has been made to create space within the infrastructure.
This frustrated fan is joining the growing swell of protest demanding that the Canadian music industry let go of weak excuses and begin making fundamental changes. Here's hoping that this moment is similar to MTV's 1983. Open the doors and culture will inevitably grow.
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