Questions swirl around Toronto rapper Smoke Dawg's death

Jahvante Smart, one of the two men killed in what police are calling a “brazen” daylight shooting in downtown Toronto, was well known as the rapper Smoke Dawg, and some experts are connecting his death to his prominence in the city’s hip hop scene.

Police decline to say whether shooting was targeted

Jahvante Smart, right, also known as Smoke Dawg, is seen here in a photo with Toronto rapper Drake. (Instagram)

Jahvante Smart, one of the two men killed in what police are calling a "brazen" daylight shooting in downtown Toronto, was well known as the rapper Smoke Dawg, and some experts are suggesting his death may have been targeted.

"Everyone I've spoken to, everyone who is a musician or just involved in making hip hop music here in Toronto was really affected by this," said Jake Kivanc, a journalist who covers the Toronto hip-hop scene for Noisey and Vice.

Smart grew up in Regent Park, and established himself as a member of the Halal Gang, a group of four rappers. Kivanc says the rapper, who toured with Drake in Europe last year, hadn't reached "super international heights yet" but was "making pretty big waves" in Toronto.

"Halal Gang kind of established themselves in the last few years for putting out a lot of different types of music from artists from U.K. and Toronto; they're kind of known for their relationship to OVO and Drake," explained Kivanc. 

The second victim of Saturday night's shooting is Ernest 'Kosi' Modekwe, who was part of a Toronto rap group called Prime.

Kivanc says Halal Gang were known as "really friendly" musicians and rappers, but admits that "it never really gets to these levels [of violence] unless there's other personal beefs happening."

Theories about the reason for Smart's death are circulating online — many in the comment section on the rapper's Instagram page.

Some of the comments suggest Smart was killed in retaliation for filming a section of a video for his song Fountain Freestyle in front of a rival gang's housing project, raising speculation that this video somehow sparked a neighbourhood war.

Some people are speculating on Instagram that a video shot on a rival gang's turf led to Smoke Dawg's shooting death. (Instagram)

"He fully shot a vid on an opp block and dissed dem," reads one comment.

"He dissed a whole gang and shot a music video on there (sic) block dissing them," reads another.

In the video, Smart can be seen in front of the sign for the Atkinson Housing Co-op, in a neighbourhood known as Alexandra Park, near Queen Street West and Augusta Avenue. 

Jahvante Smart, far right, released a video for his song Fountain Freestyle just five days before his death. It features him rapping in front of a housing co-op in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood of Toronto — a move some say may have led to his death. (878 Dream Team/YouTube)

In a post on the online forum Reddit, one person suggests that for Smart to record his video in a neighbourhood other than his own could cause waves with local gangs. 

"Somebody clearly got pissed off and … decided it would be better to send a bigger message and make an example of him," reads the post.

People posting on Reddit try to make sense of the shooting death of Toronto rapper Smoke Dawg. (Reddit)

Some lyrics for the song read: "You don't want to go missing. We'll make you swim with the fishes."

On Sunday, Mayor John Tory blamed the shooting on gang violence.

"Some of these people, who are out on bail and have been doing this repeatedly [and are] involved with gangs, are the only ones that pose a threat to the safety of the city," he said.

However, Toronto police declined to say whether they believe the shooting was targeted.

Rappers need to fit a mould, expert says

Regardless of whether Smart was involved with gang violence, Jooyoung Lee, a University of Toronto criminologist says the music industry rewards hip-hop artists who suggest they have gang ties.

"There's this assumed link that people who get into rap music, or aspiring rappers, might talk about having connections to the street," said Lee, who wrote the book Blowin' Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.

Jooyoung Lee, author of the book Blowin' Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, says up-and-coming rappers are often pressured into fitting the mould of a gangster by people in the music business. (CBC)

"People within the music industry tell them pretty much point blank that their image needs to change, that they have to fit within a mould that sort of makes sense to the average music consumer, and one of those images is the gangster."

But rappers claiming they've "done dirt in the streets" may have consequences with people who really are immersed in that world and "don't take kindly to a person pretending," Lee explains.

'They're rapping about what they know,' Kivanc says

Kivanc says violent lyrics in hip hop often stem from personal experience, "so they're rapping about what they know."

"It's not necessarily something that I think any of them are trying to promote or glorify."

In fact, Smart and the Halal Gang have been a positive force, and have influenced and inspired artists from Regent Park and other "low income areas of Toronto," says Kivanc.

But he adds that a style of rap creeping across the border from the U.S. that is "a little more aggressive and blatantly gang focused," is also a strong influence on the Toronto scene.

"It's really unfortunate that this has come to head — I just hope we don't see any serious repercussions brought down on people who were maybe just in the wrong position in the wrong time and not necessarily bad people."