Sure, we have OVO Fest — but no Toronto hip hop event is quite like this one
Unity Festival returns this weekend. Organizers reflect on its history and share what's in store for this year
I remember a time when finding spaces to enjoy hip hop culture in Toronto was a herculean task. No bars played rap music, graffiti was frequently criminalized and I only knew of one place to find breakdancing battles: Andy Poolhall on Monday nights.
Unity Festival, a celebration of hip hop culture, returns for its ninth edition this weekend. Between July 13-15, it'll hold graffiti exhibits, beatbox battles and a massive outdoor concert. The locations, which are spread throughout the city, include a trendy industrial warehouse turned art venue, a park underneath a central overpass and a public square steps away from Metro Hall. Nothing like this existed when I was a teenager, but alongside Manifesto and OVO Fest, it's one of three major multi-day hip hop festivals in Toronto.
Unity Charity, a non-profit organization that teaches hip hop culture to young people across Canada, runs the event. The charity was founded 10 years ago by internationally renowned b-boy Michael Prosserman. I spoke with Prosserman and Unity Festival coordinator Andrew "Andycapp" Hicks on the phone earlier this week to discuss this year's festival, why the annual celebration was created and how they've seen cultural attitudes toward hip hop change over the years.
Why did you decide to create the festival?
Michael Prosserman: Unity Festival started nine years ago, and the first version of it was a culminating event for all the students who were involved in our programs. We had 12 different performers from 12 different schools that we were doing work all year round [in] and they would showcase what they had been preparing. We'd invite their parents and community members. So it sort of evolved from that to saying, "Why don't we expand the stage to a bigger audience and get a major public venue so that their voice could be heard further and wider?"
There are a lot of festivals that include hip hop like NXNE and Canadian Music Week, but in terms of those that specifically identify as hip hop festivals I could only think of three in Toronto right now: Manifesto, OVO Fest and Unity Festival. What makes Unity distinct from these other festivals?
Andrew Hicks: Well, we're non-profit driven. We need to be inclusive to people who can't actually afford those [festivals]. Our entry in the past has been $5-10 max. We kind of pride ourselves on the free outdoor concert. It's more about participation than making money out of it. What sort of differentiates us from the other two festivals you mentioned is — OVO highlights OVO artists; Manifesto, in recent years, highlights new, who's-hot-right-now artists, which is great.
MP: I think for us it's about giving the space to young people, which is rarely done. We really focus on yes, trying to book a headliner so we can get a pull and a crowd, but really giving the space to young people who've never had their name on a bill before. This year all of our events are free. We said, "Why are we even charging $5? We're not making much off of that $5 and if that $5 is a deterrent for a kid, then all of a sudden we've eliminated a large portion of the City of Toronto." We just want to make this community driven and accessible and focus on the youth as much as possible.
Have you seen the city's relationship to hip hop culture change since you began taking up this space?
AH: To be honest, when you look at the entire [hip hop] subculture sphere, we're part of the dominant art form now. So that's really nice to see. I think if you had asked me five or six years ago, I don't think I could have imagined this to be honest. It's good to see that the elder generation isn't pushed aside as well. They can keep being a part of this art form. For instance, we also have Buddha coming down from Ottawa — he's doing a talk. He does Blueprint for Life in Ottawa and he's been working with Indigenous youth in the community there for a long time and around the country, and he's still going. I mean, he's probably 60. You know the life span of a hip hop artist is you're done at like 30. Usually in hip hop, people get older, they get married, they have kids and they usually back away from that sort of thing. But we're prospering more than ever.
Who are the people that come to the festival? Are there any surprises in terms of who you see showing up?
MP: Yeah, it's an interesting mix. Last year I was in shock at how the crowd changed — in the coolest way. You literally had people of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all art forms. You couldn't really put a description on what the crowd was. I was really wondering, how did they even get here? (laughs) How did they even find out about this?
Is there anyone in particular you are super excited about featuring this year?
AH: Last year and this year we had quite a lot of female artists, and that was really my big concern coming on — giving female artists the chance to perform. We have Los Poetas, a Latin hip-hop group performing on the main stage. We have The Sorority which is four female artists performing. I'm also excited to bring on The Samba Youth Troupe, the younger version of The Samba Squad. We're actually trying to do other things than just hip hop, although they fall under the umbrella, to just mix it up a little bit. A lot of what is misconstrued about hip hop is that if you go back to the roots, which is kind of what we're about, a lot of b-boys didn't just listen to rap music. We tend to forget a lot of roots. [It was] driven by a lot of popular women rappers from back in the day, and there were a lot of Latin, Puerto Rican members as well as black members. So we just want to be conscious of including everybody.
The 9th Annual Unity Festival. July 13-15. Various locations, Toronto. www.unitycharity.com/2017festival