Now Or Never

How hip hop saved one Winnipeg youth from addiction

Osani Balkaran used to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. Now, he turns to hip hop and imparts his love of music to other youth.

Osani Balkaran started writing rap music at the age of 12

Hip-hop artist Osani Balkaran rehearses for a show at Studio 393 in Winnipeg. (Sara Tate/CBC)

When Osani Balkaran was 12 years old, he got into rapping, thanks to the movie Austin Powers.

"I heard this song, Hard Knock Life," he said. "For some reason, I kept taking that movie, rewinding it back to that part, listening to it through, rewinding it, listening to it through."

Balkaran says the song — originally from the musical Annie, later part of Jay-Z's 1997 single Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) and then parodied in 2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember — really spoke to him. He had just started going to a school where other students were ostracizing him and calling him "Osama."

"So instantly when I got there, I felt like I couldn't relate to anyone," he said. 

"But then when I listened to Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life, I felt a sense of belonging and I felt like no matter what happened, I could get through it because this person did."

Balkaran started writing rap and performing soon after that. His mother signed him up for hip-hop workshops. Balkaran then started honing his craft at Studio 393, a program in Winnipeg that teaches young people life skills through hip hop.

Osani Balkaran, 20, has been writing rap since he was 12 years old. (Ify Chiwetelu/CBC)

Balkaran, 20, is now a producer and hip-hop artist. But before he started rapping, he was using drugs and alcohol to deal with his anger, and with the fact that his father walked out on him and his mother.

"It was something I did at lunch time, it was something I did to get up in the morning, it was something I did to celebrate on the weekend ... it was something that was always there," he said. 

"It wasn't that bliss, but it kept me going for a bit."

Balkaran finally sought treatment three years ago, and says he has been sober ever since. 

Paying it forward

These days, rather than using drugs and alcohol, Balkaran says he turns to music to help him release his emotions.

He also works as a program facilitator and teaches youth at Studio 393.

"Now, when I can do my own solo career, I can create opportunities for people," he said.

"People can realize they can create opportunities for themselves. I just got to have hope in that, and I got to know that ... if one of us can do it, then all of us can do it."

This segment originally aired in October, 2019.