Hamilton's hip-hop, R&B and soul scenes craving local support

In a city desperate to brand itself a “music city,” Hamilton’s hip-hop, R&B and soul artists say they’re being left behind from a groundswell of support that is churning out bands to a national stage.

Urban artists say they're forced to forge their own creative spaces

Hamilton R&B artists say it's a struggle to get booked in local clubs and festivals, so they're creating spaces and events to showcase the music they love. (Gustavo AJ/Gaje Media)

In a city desperate to brand itself a "music city," Hamilton's hip-hop, R&B and soul artists say they're being left behind from a groundswell of support that is churning out bands to a national stage.

It's not as if there aren't great acts in the city within those genres. Artists like Emay, Canadian Winter and Mother Tareka have the talent to stand with the best Hamilton has to offer — but they don't tend to get the widespread recognition of some of the city's premiere rock and indie acts.

In a collection of genres with roots firmly planted in the black community, musicians are still fighting to gain equal representation on the city's stages, local artists say. Weekend club bookings and festival slots in Hamilton tend to be dominated by rock acts. When urban artists do get play, they're often acts who are brought in from out of town, leaving locals in the lurch. 

"There's so much soul and hip hop in the city, but we're not letting it grow," said Kojo "Easy" Damptey, a musician and activist who is one of the creators of COBRA — Hamilton's Coalition of Black and Racialized Artists (COBRA).

"It's a societal thing. Anything that's considered non-traditional, you say you can't do it. But if you do that in music, you stifle innovation and expression."

Soul House Live's November show at Mills Hardware was a sellout success. Owner Michael Brown says that proves Hamilton wants to hear homegrown R&B, soul and hip hop. (Gustavo AJ/Gaje Media)

There are hints that things may be changing, with new artist organizations like COBRA and Soul House Live pushing for increased representation in the city. But artists say there's still a long way to go.

When Damptey starting booking shows back in 2006, the now-shuttered Pepper Jacks was the one club he could find that would book non-rock and indie music. Eklipz would also do open mics and rap battles, but other than that, opportunities were few and far between.

"Those were the only avenues that were available," he said.

Festival gigs were almost non-existent — though It's Your Festival offered an opportunity with a stage that would feature hip-hop and afrobeat acts.

That's where Hamilton R&B artist Queen Cee Robinson got her start, back in the early 90s, performing on Caribbean and Latin days. "It just became my yearly gig in my teens," she said.

While she was grateful for that opportunity, there's an issue with pigeonholing black artists solely into "themed" stages or days, she says. Instead, they should be incorporated into lineups as a whole.

"Like on Canada Day, you should have a variety of acts, a true version of what Canada is," she said. Last summer's Canada Day event at the waterfront did feature noted Canadian R&B artist Jully Black, but that's most often the story when these genres are featured, Robinson said. It's tough for local acts to land on these bills.

Much like Damptey, she finds the same difficulty securing bookings on local stages and festivals.

"There's obviously a discrimination in regards to genre, and that [promoters and clubs] don't want a certain type of crowd," she said.

But the appetites exist in Hamilton for urban music, says Michael Brown, owner of Soul House Live, a production company that just launched a series of shows that feature local R&B, soul and hip-hop artists.

"We have something special here. It should be heard," Brown said. "But there's a wall up when we try to do anything. Even booking venues can be tricky."

"I don't feel welcome all the time … from what I gather from Hamilton is that urban music, we don't get representation."

Kojo Damptey is a hip-hop/R&B musician. He is part of Hamilton's musician subcommittee. (Bandcamp.com)

There are notable exceptions, artists say. Clubs like This Ain't Hollywood and The Casbah are willing to take a chance on hip hop and R&B. But on the whole, black artists need to make their own spaces to perform, Damptey says.

"We needed to create our own spaces to do shows," he said. "We couldn't get onto Supercrawl. We couldn't get onto the big shows.

"There's no infrastructure to support hip hop."

Soul House Live aims to change that. Back in November, Brown hosted the company's first show at Mills Hardware (which is run by Sonic Unyon, the same company that organizes Supercrawl). The show featured the DNA project, and several local vocalists.

The show sold out, proving there's an appetite in Hamilton for these genres, Brown says.

"The city wants this … when we put on the shows, they're very successful," he said. "The whole idea is to give local people a stage."

Maybe it's an unjustified stigma that these kinds of shows attract drug use and violence that's proving a barrier, Brown says, even though that's a sweeping stereotype, he's quick to add.

Regardless, Brown plans to keep using Soul House Live (with his next show on March 23 at the Lincoln Alexander Centre) to prove there's a need for hip hop, R&B and soul shows in Hamilton.

"People want to see this happening in our own city."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.