“…[It began as] the voice of people who didn’t have a voice. Today, it’s our news channel — how someone from Edmonton can communicate with someone across the world.”
I’m hearing a revelation about hip-hop that’s very different from what I learnt as a girl. Hip-hop was the anthem of “people with bad morals” as some teachers said. But Sonny Grimezz, a DJ and member of Edmonton’s hip-hop music group Politic Live, tells me about hip-hop’s power. He’s one of many in Edmonton who understand the world better because of hip-hop. Critiques on society, politics, economics and neighbourhood events are all channelled through hip-hop culture.
Hip-hop (culture) began in New York as a reaction to injustice in the 1970s. Breaking away from carefree disco culture, hip-hop looked at the lives of marginalized people and used their struggles to create gritty, in-your-face emotions through DJing, rapping, breaking, and graffiti. Today, hip-hop uses its traditional roots and our modern commercial society to communicate to people across the world.
Hip-hop artists in Edmonton know that the culture has its problems and that people tend to focus on its darker side with glamorized violence and risky morals. “A lot of people get it confused. Many [hip-hop] artists rap about their experiences and what they’ve gone through… They don’t endorse certain negative things like violence, but other artists do. Rap has both sides of the spectrum,” rapper Jo Thrillz confirms. But the Edmonton hip-hop community believes that there’s more good than bad to hip-hop, and as the rappers of Locution Revolution told me, “there will always be people to school”.
Recovering hip-hop’s past
Taking the public to “school” begins with a connection to the past. This doesn’t mean Edmonton hip-hop artists rap rhymes like Grand Master Flash “…Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge…” or dress up in velvet tracksuits, rocking their b-boy moves to oversized boom boxes. Instead, they connect with the message that’s been there from the beginning — empowerment— and share it with the city.
In 2001, hip-hop culture was recognized for its goal to empower people with the Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace. It was signed by artists and agencies like UNESCO and the Temple of Hip-Hop, and was presented to the United Nations. To further this, the Declaration named the third week of May Hip-Hop Appreciation Week.
While Edmonton artists may not have signed the Declaration, many are fully committed to it. Hip-Hop in the Park, created by Locution Revolution’s iD, occurs the third week of every May to honour Hip-Hop Appreciation Week. An event like this one, which just had its sixth running, not only showcases the culture to the city, but allows hip-hop to become “beauty in its purest form” as expressed by breaker Pharush.
Other artists, like painter Lorien Mahieu, agree with Pharush’s statement, saying, “[Hip-Hop in the Park] is a great place to watch, learn and build confidence as an artist.” The public also gains confidence in hip-hop artists when they see their passion as they perform. Mitchmatic, who has performed there four times, adds that it “works really well for changing people’s perception [about hip-hop]”. The negative ideas people have about hip-hop change when they hear and see stories of ordinary lives becoming extraordinary.
“Imagine the strength, ‘cause momma there must be
The humility that must accompany begging for money
Stripped of all pride, but your baby’s hunger
Gives you the strength to be just another number.”
This verse from Wanty Wanty on Politic Live’s album, Ellipsis, helps listeners empathize with situations they might not live with, like welfare.
“…There are a lot of stories that aren’t being told,” says Politic Live’s Arlo Maverick. He reflects on the Edmonton hip-hop community’s desire for us realize that we can empower each other by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes — like the hip-hop artists before them. He continues, “Hip-hop is very much about where you’re from. We take a lot of pride in our city. Politic Live’s Dirt Gritie finishes, “Being community-minded is a big part of who we are.”
The art of individuality
Many artists develop as individuals by sharing their talents with the community. “Why wouldn’t you share something that helped you find your identity with other people?” Pharush remarks with confidence, referring to dancing with his crew, United 1ne, fellow hip-hop dancers and DJ and mentor, Creeasian, at Churchill Square on Thursday nights.
Pharush’s identity as a breaker began with his determination to prove that breaking involved just as much skill and discipline as studio dances like jazz or ballet. He founded his crew United 1ne along with fellow dancer Poppin Fresh.
Pharush says, “People don’t understand the roots of b-boying — a b-boy or girl is their own person.” When he dances, he mixes breaking moves with other dance genres like salsa, First Nations grass dancing, and even ballet, to help people see the unexpected in breaking. Being open to other dance forms and cultures has taken him across Canada, particularly to help youth be comfortable with their identities. “Everybody has a creative potential — dance doesn’t limit you. You get to a point where you’re not thinking [when you’re breakdancing], ‘cause you’re in the moment.”
He’s seen many moments where youth feel proud of their dance accomplishments while working with friend and mentor, Conway Kootenay, who’s a member of Red Power Squad. The Squad uses hip-hop to empower inner city youth. Kootenay taught him about First Nations culture, and with this knowledge, Pharush began doing workshops in schools with United 1ne and Kootenay in Edmonton where he says they demonstrated “culture and not just steps” to students.
Edmonton hip-hop’s future?
Lorien Mahieu’s paintings aren’t what you expect when you think of hip-hop art or graffiti.
“Graffiti has always been a hard topic for me to discuss. I’ve often heard the stereotypical saying of how it’s not art, it’s just vandalism, but I love graffiti! In my opinion, it’s as beautiful as a Dutch landscape or impressionistic painting.” Mahieu admires graffiti’s form and style, but he doesn’t see himself as a graffiti artist or street artist even though his work is appearing at more hip-hop events like Hip-Hop in the Park.
Ideas about what hip-hop can be, like what defines graffiti, are changing. Technology plays a role in promoting this change.
The future of hip-hop lies in the past for some artists. Mitchmatic’s comedic 2013 Edmonton Music Award nominated song Why Don’t You Know? uses a track from the ‘50s to create a sound that’s distinctly fresh and different. Other artists like Jo Thrillz, who has wanted to be a rapper since he was six, capitalize on social media sites like YouTube to make childhood dreams a reality.
Five years from now people will either love or hate hip-hop — as it’s always been. But no matter how people feel, hip-hop will never stop being an experience that people react to. Locution Revolution’s Khiry Tafari believes people should always react to how artists work to improve hip-hop. “Hip-hop allows me to use my voice to do valuable work,” he says, “Maybe we don’t have a lot of people listening, but at the same time, what’s more important is making the effort to get them to listen.”