Its not every day you see seniors in tracksuits and kids in snapbacks enjoying the same music. Last week, Toronto’s annual UNITY Festival brought a diverse group of performers to an even more eclectic audience with great results.
The festival, coordinated by local arts organization UNITY Charity, invited veterans of the hip-hop genre to share the stage with some of Canada’s up-and-coming talent. One of the festival’s biggest draws this year were rappers Biz Markie and Maestro Fresh Wes.
UNITY takes a grassroots approach to bringing local arts talent to the forefront. The charity runs after-school programs, workshops and events geared towards Canadian youth. The organization encourages young Canadians to channel hip-hop as an outlet for creativity, positive self-expression and community building. The festival is a culmination and celebration of their yearlong outreach efforts.
RESPECT. caught up with some of this year’s performers to get their take on hip-hop as a force for good in the community and their thoughts on the Canadian rap scene.
The festival’s week-long roster of events featured a breakdancing competition, a beat box battle and a spoken word recital. Lastly, giving youth artists one of their most public venues, the UNITY Concert wrapped up the week on Saturday July 26th at Yonge-Dundas Square. Often cited as Toronto’s Time’s Square, a show at Yonge-Dundas can often be the starting point for a lot of young artists’ careers.
With the UNITY Concert in 2011 being one of the first shows of his career, Toronto MC Ayydos can speak on the organization’s impact: “When you start off as an artist you just want to get out there,” he says. “They gave me that opportunity and this great venue to showcase what I’ve got.”
Educator-rapper hybrid Shaun Boothe was one of the artists in attendance at the Spoken Word Showcase. Boothe’s career took an unconventional turn when he started the Biography Series, a set of songs based on the lives of cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey and Tupac Shakur.
“Both of us are using the arts to engage, help and inspire youth,” says Boothe, comparing his efforts with the Bio Series and the work that UNITY does. To him hip-hop seems like a natural fit to help reach out to youth. “Hip-hop has its fingerprints on everything,” he says, “and it’s so much bigger than it once was.”
To give today’s icons a direct platform to inspire youth, the UNITY Concert has previously brought performers like Kardinal Offishall and Talib Kweli to Toronto for free concerts. This has made great hip-hop more accessible to the public than ever.
The festival has also made big stages within reach for up and coming artists. Toronto area native The Flan was just glad to be in great company as one of the youth artists featured at this year’s festival.
“This is all surreal for me because this is my first big performance,” says The Flan before taking the stage for his energetic, dance-infused set at Yonge-Dundas Square, which welcomed surprise performer D-Pryde.
“When this younger generation grows up they’re going to be leaders,” he says, “and that’s why its important to spotlight them. UNITY spreads positive messages for people to do what they love, pursue their passion and work on their craft.”
The Flan may be new to the rap game, but he knows his city isn’t. “Toronto hip-hop is running things right now,” he says. There’s lots of great talent coming out of this city. I think we’re starting to come together and that’s what UNITY is all about.”
“Don’t sleep on us,” adds DJ, rapper and producer Vico. After years of bringing his country’s music to the world, touring with fellow Canadian hit maker Massari, Vico was invited to perform at this year’s UNITY concert. Hailing from Canada’s capital Ottawa, Vico was thrilled to be a part of the show. “Its an honor to rock out with the people of Toronto and share my craft,” he says.
While Vico laid out some solid bars at the Yonge-Dundas stage, the day’s performances were hardly limited to rap. The people of Toronto came out to see breakdance routines, gospel inspired vocals and even graffiti art.
“Its important to have dancing, beat boxing and all those elements of hip-hop on stage, because it represents the culture fully,” says local rapper Raz Fresco. “Toronto hip-hop culture has been growing since the 90’s with a lot of dope artists like Saukrates and Maestro Fresh Wes,” he says.
Fresco is one of the artists that’s making the narrative of Toronto as a respectable hip-hop city come to life. At the age of 19, he’s already produced for the likes of Big Sean, Wale and B.O.B. Meanwhile, his upcoming project features a verse from Raekwon.
“Success to me is sparking minds and making people come together,” says Fresco, hanging out backstage before his performance. With thousands of people from a multitude of backgrounds coming together in one of the most diverse cities on the planet to enjoy music, Fresco must have felt pretty damn good to be out at Toronto’s 2014 UNITY Festival. The event is a staple for anyone who wants to see the coming of age of Toronto as a great hip-hop city, and Canada as one heck of an arts destination.
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