Does Toronto Have a Problem with Urban Music?
Terence Penny has always had trouble finding space to showcase his music in Toronto.
A local Christian rapper, he says that even in spite of the positive and uplifting message in his lyrics, many venue owners in the city are reluctant to provide their venue spaces to rap artists.
“When you’re a hip-hop artist people assume that because you rap, you may be bringing a negative environment to their venue,” Penny says. He adds that on many occasions when he’s tried to book venues, owners have given him outright refusals, explaining, “They don’t do hip-hop.” Other times, Penny says that upon arriving at venues for viewings and telling owners about his music, the booking price he’s been given has been significantly higher than that listed on the venue’s website.
“They’ll give me bullcrap like, ‘Oh, it’s for security, because hip-hop sometimes creates situations where it’s dangerous,’” he says. “And in my head I’m like, ‘So, what about when the rock star smashes his guitar and everyone’s high off angel dust?’
“What’s the difference?”
It’s a similar story heard across Toronto, where many urban artists, DJs, event producers and promoters say that it remains increasingly difficult to find space where their music—and they, themselves—are welcome.
While Toronto is home to some of the biggest names in hip-hop music right now, at its heart, many of those within its rap industry say the city has a strained relationship with the genre. Though internationally successful artists are seemingly welcomed with open arms at some of the city’s most popular venues, for local artists still trying to make a name for themselves, the same opportunities are rarely given.
“The only time they look forward to hip-hop is when the hip-hop is from outside of the city because they know that first, these people have major followings, which is why they’re touring, and second, they don’t have any connections in the city for gang affiliations,” explains Penny.
But hip-hop—along with its largely black audience—isn’t the only genre forced to bear this unfair assumption. As urban-alternative styles like reggae, dancehall, soca and afrobeats—all styles in which the artists and their audiences are predominantly black—grow in popularity within Toronto’s nightlife scene, so do criticisms of the crowds that come to hear the music.
As one of Canada’s most prominent DJs with more than a decade in the industry, Sean Crooks, widely known by his DJ name “DJ Smartiez,” has seen firsthand how over the years, many Toronto venues have quietly distanced themselves from urban music genres out of concern for the audiences they draw. Although much of today’s resistance seems to be towards hip-hop—in particular, trap music—Crooks says that in the early days of his career, on more than one occasion he was asked by venue owners not to play reggae music.
“Pretty much, what the owner said was, ‘You know, just play two or three songs and then get out of that stuff and go into something else,’” Crooks says of one particular instance. “I was kind of confused and I was like, ‘Why?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, you know, reggae just brings too much problems. I just don’t want that with my venue, you know?’”
More recently, this past summer Crooks says he was told by a venue co-owner not to play music from Toronto rappers, because of “all the shooting stuff” happening in the city.
This past July, Jahvante Smart, an up-and-coming local rapper known as “Smoke Dawg,” was one of two men gunned down in a daytime shooting in the city’s core. Although Toronto police have yet to say whether the shooting was targeted, Toronto Mayor John Tory has called the murder “gang-related.”
Crooks admits that there are sometimes local artists who have issues with other artists, which he says “to a certain degree” creates understandable cause for concern. But he takes issue with those outside of the industry who try to blame a particular style of music for gun violence in the city.
“I think people are trying to find the easiest answer in the most open and vulnerable thing, which is the music, obviously,” he says. “But they’re not really thinking deeper, they’re not delving into what the real issues are, like the environments that people are in. They’re just like, ‘It has to be the music.’ It’s just the easiest thing to grasp at.”
Many urban event planners share a similar frustration, saying that too often, they find themselves on the receiving end of venue owners’ preconceived perceptions about their music. For some, these misguided attitudes and lack of available spaces have pushed them to adopt a “for us, by us” approach, creating events specifically for people of colour, by people of colour.
It’s exactly what Rebeka Dawn set out to do two years ago, after years of clubbing in an environment which she says left her feeling uncomfortable and out of place. Fed up with the microaggressions and racial biases ingrained in Toronto’s nightlife scene, she decided to launch her own events. Finding venues wasn’t easy; she says several owners raised concerns about the crowds she’d be bringing in, while others simply ignored her booking requests. But she now has several party series under her belt and though each event has a different flair, they all share a common goal: to provide black and other people of colour with a safe space where they can be themselves and enjoy their music without restriction.
“People have been letting me know that it’s a space that they’ve been looking for and a space that they need,” says Dawn of her events. “They’re appreciative because they can’t really find it anywhere else. I’m happy that I can do that because that was my only intention.”
Like many event planners in the city, this upcoming weekend will be a big one for Dawn: Caribana. Officially known as The Peeks Caribbean Carnival (named after its new title sponsor, the carnival is still widely referred to as “Caribana”), the month-long celebration of Caribbean culture will culminate this weekend as millions flock to the city from all over for the festival’s annual mas parade, musical events and several parties happening across the city.
For over half a decade Caribana has been a staple summer event in Toronto but in recent years, the celebration has been overshadowed by incidents of crime and violence. Although many in the black community have pointed out that several of the incidents weren’t actually related to Caribana—they just happened to take place in the city on that particular weekend—media coverage of the violence, often unfair and biased, they say, has done little to assuage the concerns of venue owners already wary of urban music and the crowds it draws. But this year, even in the event of a weekend without incident, many say they doubt the hostility they face will dissipate anytime soon.
Let’s face it—Toronto’s got beef with urban music.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.