Members of Ottawa's hip hop community say work being done to crack down on gang violence in the city should include their art form as a way for young people to express themselves and find role models.

Gazi Dakhil, a 13-year-old poet who "dabbles" in graffiti, said he grew up in an unfriendly part of Ottawa but hip hop was an escape route for him.

"I feel like hip hop helps troubled youth because once you get into hip hop you want to keep growing and you want to be the best at what you do. It gives you something to focus on rather than the trouble you're having," he said Sunday at Ottawa's House of Paint hip hop festival, where he's a volunteer.

Gazi Dakhil House of Paint

Gazi Dakhil says focusing on his art helped him stay out of trouble as he grew up in an "unfriendly" and "rugged" part of Ottawa. (CBC)

"Writing poetry, writing music, it helps you put what you have on paper kind of like a diary. When you do art on the wall everything comes out of the spray can, all of the stress. It's not just paint that's coming out."

"I don't think it's being utilized nearly enough as a tool to engage youth in a positive way and to steer them away from the negative influences that can happen," said Patrick McCormack, House of Paint's general manager and a longtime hip hop artist.

Ongoing anti-gang work

Ottawa police doubled the number of officers in its guns and gangs unit after a record 49 shootings in 2014, many of them gang-related, and made that change permanent earlier this year after another spike in shots fired.

Gang violence has been one of Chief Charles Bordeleau's priorities since taking over the police service in 2012.

The following year the city's anti-gang strategy was released by groups such as the police, Crime Prevention Ottawa and the Youth Services Bureau.

McCormack said Sunday that hip hop, which includes rapping, breakdancing, graffiti and DJing, belongs "right in the middle" of this effort.

"When you get to the root of the culture it's really about peace, love, unity and having fun, building something, making something out of nothing," McCormack said.

"Hip hop was actually anti-violence, anti-gang, anti-oppression when it started. It has changed and gone a lot of places but we can at least, as those who recognize that history and that culture, take it back to its roots."

He said depending on the message it's sending, hip hop can be a tool to get youth into violence, but there have been successful models to get vulnerable youth into the arts, such as Toronto's The Remix Project, which turns 10 this year.

Programs for Jasmine Crescent

McCormack said House of Paint has helped teach young people art skills through mural projects at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and in Centretown.

He said he's also working to set up some hip hop workshops around Jasmine Crescent, a part of the city hard-hit by gang violence and also his former home.

"We need to provide nourishment to the youth, not just an open basketball court to shoot balls around," he said.

"We need to have mentors and we need to have positive role models intervene in their lives on all sorts of different levels."

With files from Florence Ngué-No