Day 6

How Canadian hip hop prepared a future music professor and DJ to navigate the world he was growing up in

Growing up in Toronto in the 1990s, University of Toronto professor and DJ Mark Campbell says hip hop — especially songs by Canadian artists — helped him understand his place in the world.

Prof. Mark Campbell says rappers like Devon and Maestro Fresh Wes can help ‘develop critical citizens'

Mark Campbell says hip-hop — especially songs by Canadian artists — helped him understand his place in the world. (Submitted by Mark Campbell)

Originally published Oct. 9, 2020.

When Mark Campbell was growing up, hip-hop music wasn't just an artifact of popular culture — it was a way for him to understand his place in the world around him.

"Hip hop was one of the first critical educators in my life," said the DJ and University of Toronto music and culture professor, in an interview with Day 6. "Hip hop allowed me to better understand how the rest of the world would see me."

In 1990, Campbell was only 12 years old, but he says he was the same height as his father. 

"It was a moment in which the body of a child had disappeared," he said. "As I got older, as I started to grow more mature, I was drawn toward some of the more critical social commentary about how my large Black body would be seen — even if I was only 10, 11, 12 years old — in the public's eye."

While many people in the 1990s were listening to American artists like N.W.A. or Public Enemy, Campbell was listening to Canadian hip hop. And he says it played an essential role in his upbringing.

Devon's Mr. Metro, and police brutality

For Campbell, songs like Mr. Metro by Devon helped him better understand the concerns his father would share about "being randomly stopped or harassed by police for no reason."

The song's music video features footage of police officers and vehicles in Toronto, the city he grew up, interspersed with lyrics critical of law enforcement. Campbell says the song "reaffirmed some of the stories that my father would bring home."

"I saw that it had nothing to do with my dad, but it was a larger trend in the rest of Canadian society," he said.

"What was coalescing for me is that there was a world out there that I had to learn how to be careful in."

Nothing at All by Maestro Fresh Wes, and the struggles of Indigenous peoples

But Canadian hip-hop didn't just help Campbell better understand the struggles of his own community. 

Songs like Nothing At All by Maestro Fresh Wes, which talks about the 1990 Oka Crisis, allowed Campbell to "connect the struggle for racial justice and racial equality in Canada and connect it with what's happening to Indigenous people."

"In the 1990s, there weren't lots of connections between the struggles that Black Canadians faced and the Indigenous populations [faced] that were in popular music," he said, adding that Maestro Fresh Wes made the conversation more accessible. 

Progress's As I Reflect, and systemic racism


While certain tracks commented on injustice and inequality specific to racialized groups, Campbell says song's like Progress's As I Reflect provided an "introspective look at the social conditions in Toronto."

"In the video, what stands out for me is he walks through the city with these hand-held signs," Campbell said. "One of the signs, for example, reads 'Real terrorists have badge numbers.' Another sign reads, 'The state only cares when white people die.'"

Hip hop as 'public social discourse'

Campbell added that protest songs created by Black artists — and hip-hop music more generally — serve as a way of informing Black people, but others as well. 

He said lessons can be learned about the ways people face structural inequality and "biased systems."

At the same time, Campbell said that these kinds of songs balance out the music industry, while also providing educators and parents "access to some of these things that you may not have experience with, or viewpoints in the world that you might not have run into in your workplace."

"And they provide us with the kind of public social discourse that we need to develop critical citizens -- people that can be proud to be Canadian, because they struggle with some of the terms of what it means to be Canadian. But we struggle to make our society better." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

Written by Sameer Chhabra. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.