How rap music helped this immigrant find her power and community

In rap ciphers, rappers and beat boxers hang out and share their music and ideas. That's where artist SUM-01 says she learned to share her music ideas and to belong in Canada.

SUM-01 says rap ciphers helped her find her music, share her voice, and learn to belong

London rapper Trish Kiwanuka, also known as Sum-01. (Submitted)

It was in the late 1990s, when Trish Kiwanuka was taking part in rap ciphers with fellow teens from Beal Secondary School, that she found her voice. 

Kiwanuka was a young child when her parents and siblings emigrated to London from Uganda. The family, particularly her parents, faced the usual challenges of adapting to a new culture and language, she said. 

It wasn't that she didn't feel like she belonged, but standing around in a rap cipher, where musicians jam together, was a powerful experience. 

"We were one of the few African families in London at the time. But when I got to high school, at Beal, there were a lot of kids from the Caribbean, from Africa, from Arab nations," Kiwanuka told CBC Radio's London Morning. "It was a melting pot and there were a lot of children from immigrant families, so you felt more at home." 

Kiwanuka is now a mom of two, and is known as the rapper SUM-01. Her music and lyrics kept her grounded as a teen and continue to express her life as an adult, she said. 

"The love of hip hop grew while I was doing open mic nights in the community or in front of the church, hanging out and having ciphers where people were just sharing their ideas," she said. 

"There's a reciprocation from the audience and like-minded friends. Back in those days, hip hop was a voice for the youth and it was very positive. You can say what's going on in your experience and in your neighbourhood. It was an outlet and it was a way to keep you on your path, keep you sticking to your vision of positivity."

'Education is key'

London plays a prominent role in her music and lyrics. 

Racism, she said, was more overt when she was younger, but lyrics put people into situations they wouldn't normally know about. 

"You don't know anything first hand unless you were born into that situation, so if you don't share what you're going through, no one will know," Kiwanuka said. "Education is the key to breaking down ignorance about other people." 

​It's especially important to share stories in smaller cities such as London, she said, where there is less integration and less education about people from different backgrounds. 

Kiwanuka is releasing a mini album in May, her first in nine years. Her kids, she said, are taking it in stride. 

"My daughter is seven so she thinks it's cool. My son, he's 13, so I think it's treading on his territory of being cool with his friends, but deep down I think he thinks it's cool," Kiwanuka said. 

"They're in this next generation of integration, they're mixed race, so they have a lighter take on the feeling of being the minority, but they do know they are different than the rest." 

Kiwanuka says it's important for her to pass on pride in her heritage and community to her kids, and Black History Month is a good time to celebrate the achievements of black Canadians. 

"Sometimes the black history of the United States overshadows the Canadian experience, but there's so much history here, so much deep history. It's important to remember the people who came before us so we're not doomed to repeat history."