My Definition is This: Finding my identity in Canadian hip hop

Growing up in London, Ontario in the early 1990s, I was accustomed to not seeing myself. In life and in pop culture, the role models I had to choose from often only held fragments of my identity: they were Canadian, they were women, or they were black, but rarely were they all three. Very early on, I learned that in order to fit in, I would have to tuck parts of myself away. 

In Canada, being a woman and being Canadian were the aspects of myself that I was encouraged to celebrate. My teachers would point to women like hockey legend Manon Rhéaume and former Prime Minister Kim Campbell as sources of female inspiration and Canadian pride. Never mind that I didn't care for hockey and that, in a school with an all-white faculty and administration, seeing a white woman in charge was not new to me. 

My blackness was something I had to cross the border to discover. Most of my family lived in the States and during childhood visits, I'd get a dose of the racial representation London didn't provide. There were no shortage of black heroes (both men and women) in American neighbourhoods and pop culture, but of course, there was no celebration of Canadian heritage either. In fact, the Canadian aspects of my identity were the things I had to hide on visits to the States— I tried to mask my accent, resisted the urge to speak to my cousins in French and kept all the things I knew about tapping maple trees to myself, lest I be accused of not being "black enough ... It seemed that America ran a monopoly on blackness, and if I wanted access to that part of myself, I had to shed my Canadian identity. 

Canadian hip hop's journey from infancy to adulthood mirrors my experience as a black Canadian woman in a lot of ways. We came of age around the same time and for both the genre and myself, the past few decades have been about discovering an identity - or rather, defining that for ourselves.

Watching the video for Michie Mee's "Jamaican Funk — Canadian Style" is the first time I remember seeing all of myself. There she was, a black Canadian woman, embracing all aspects of her identity and claiming a space — with no point of reference. Like me, Canadian hip hop was just a small child then, stumbling along and trying to figure itself out. And over the years, we grew together. 

We both went through a period when we ran away to the States to find a piece of ourselves. We masked our accents and looked to our older, cooler, American cousins to validate us. Our Canadian heritage was something we had to hide, excuse, or explain in order to be accepted. ("Because I'm from Canada, don't think I'm an amateur" is one of the realest lyrics I've ever heard).

But eventually, we both learned to create a culture for ourselves, right here at home, rather than looking for bits and pieces of it elsewhere. I moved to Toronto in 1997 and finally starting seeing more people who looked like me. I started settling into my skin and embracing my full identity — my womanhood, my blackness and my Canadian heritage —without having to choose two out of three. And hip hop was growing alongside me, encouraging that all-encompassing pride. We stopped trying to hide our accents and took pride in speaking our Bakardi Slang. We started seeking validation from within and embracing the magic in our Northern Touch. We gained confidence, we raised our voices and we defined for ourselves what it meant to be Canadian. And the more firmly we planted our feet in what made us unique, the more successful we became. 

Today, Canadian hip hop and I are both all grown up. She is enjoying mainstream success and has blossomed from underdog to legitimate contender in the global conversation about hip hop. And I am enjoying the opportunities to write about my old friend any time I get the chance. Today, decades after we first met, she is still the lens through which I see my full self.


A. Harmony is an emcee and writer based in Toronto. She writes for Exclaim! magazine.