Toronto is that lowkey poppin’ but highkey neglected ting at the party who’s always in their feelings. Just hand us the mic for one hot minute and we’ll guarantee to spark creativity and bring heat to the city on the coldest of nights. It’s one of the 6ix commandments.
What is Toronto?
Whether it’s from the random Japanese hypebeast in the streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo or the filipino gangsters from Brooklyn, the answer usually revolves around these 3 key features - Drake, the 6ix and the weirdly popular hashtag #WETHENORTH. That’s about as in-depth of an answer you’ll get. Because, let’s be real...
No one knows shit about Toronto.
But besides it’s diverse culture, insanely beautiful women and OVO XO cosign, Toronto is a pretty fucking awesome city. Atlanta’s trap scene is cool and all, and Seoul’s K-hip hop scene is pretty lit, but Toronto has this dark and progressive underground music scene that just can’t really be explained.
And let’s not fail to mention how much melanin is poppin’ and thrivin’ in the city. In a multicultural playground where almost half of the city’s population was born outside of Canada, more and more artists of colour, like Jazz Cartier, J-Soul and 88 Glam to name a few, are finding success in the city and beyond.
Here are five artists of colour who are progressing the Toronto sound and setting the tone of the 6ix for 2018.
SEAN LEON *
Sean Leon, the self-proclaimed dark prince of Ajax, is one of the most promising rappers to come from Toronto. Some may characterize his sound as dark and eery, especially on his past projects like I Think You’ve Gone Mad. But then you hear some of his new tracks off his recent project C.C.W.M.T.T, like one of my personal favourites and car bangers Turf, and can’t deny his versatility and sonic ability. What I like most about Sean Leon is that he allows his environments, from the east end of Durham to the west end of Parkdale, to largely influence his sound and as a listener, you are taken on a historical and physical tour of his life in Toronto through his words. I had the chance to tap into his mind and see the screening of Life When You’re The Movie here in Toronto, and in case you were wondering, the audio and visual trip was insane.
If you’re new to the city like me, he has an upcoming event in which he turns his old Parkdale apartment into a museum to give us a peak inside his creative space. What I’m most excited about is (hopefully) previewing his most anticipated project King & Sufferin.
Another one of my faves is the slow and sexy Fear Of Missing Out 2017. Arguably, it does have some Drake vibes, but I’m not even mad at him or it because it can def gwan as it’s not only satisfying my ear on this snowy drive through the Bridlepath, but also helping engineer the Toronto sound everyone’s working to refine. Like Sean says it best,
“There’s no money here. There’s no market, there’s no precedence, there’s no economy, there’s no support.” —Sean Leon.
As a girl from the East end, I support the cause and after catching his vibe, I’m sure you will too.
JON VINYL *
I’ve said it before multiple times, and I’ll proudly say it again - the East end is the best end. It’s like we have nothing better to do in our fields of farm land than lock ourselves in our parents’ basement and shoot the shits. For some, that's finding a creative outlet to get you out of boredom’s misery. I say this because there are so many freaking talented souls from Durham region that are overshadowed or straight up left in the shadows because we don’t know how to support our own.
Okay rant over. Here’s another East end mandem that can soothe both your soul and your ears with his silky smooth vocals. John Vinyl is a 19 year-old babyfaced singer that also hails from my hometown of Ajax, where he won the hearts of the city with his recent independent debut Nostalgia. My best comparison is that he’s the Canadian Khalid. That newwave-college-coming-of-age sound. Okay, I entirely made that shit up, but I think that’s a pretty awesome comparison, don’t you?
Check out one of my favourites, Life, which explores Jon’s struggles with remaining diligent in a fast-paced city. Trust me, your girl can relate.
Balu is a Toronto-based R&B singer who brings something fresh to the Toronto soundwave. The singer describes his sound as an eclectic blend of diasporic R&B, which explores the cultural landscapes of South Asia to Canada. He sings about his experiences being a darkskin brown man from the West end of Toronto, drawing on experiences from Little Jaffna to Little Jamaica. His music takes us on a journey through the trials and tribulations of life in the hood to life in the upperclass downtown core, as his cultural space largely influences his unique sound. After premiering his newest video Never Home, Balu jetsetted to Los Angeles to further perfect his sound and prepare for his mass takeover of South Asia in the upcoming months.
I had the pleasure of hearing his recent song Voices in my Head before the visuals dropped this summer, and I remember turning down my car stereo and exclaiming, “OKAAAY MAJID, I FEEL YOU!” After pairing the feel good island melody with a peaceful retreat down to Toronto’s waterfront with the sweetie darkskin brownmon himself , Balu was definitely on my list of Toronto artists to watch. Vibes go a long way. His music is pure good ones.
JUST JOHN *
It’s a sad reality that when you’re black, everyone thinks you’re on some gang shit. The gangs in Toronto aren’t comparable to those of America, and hell I’m glad they’re not. But the city is on our own creative collective #gang shit. Like Blank Canvas.
John Samuels, popularly known as Just John, is a Toronto-based artist who is best known in the city for curating dope art & cultural exhibits through his “done by community” safe space for Toronto creatives - Blank Canvas Gallery. I had the pleasure of bonding with this talented soul through the space, and his inclusive message transcends much further than the city’s scope. If anyone has been to a Blank Canvas event and felt the energy in the room, then I can just say less. You’d have to be there and feel it to get it.
But if not, you can still catch a vibe through his music as Just John gives you a taste of his experiences being a black creative in Toronto and the struggles with identity, power, politics and all in between. His latest EP, Black Beret, is an easy listen with only 4 quality tracks that tackle the social issues of anti-black racism and police brutality. After John personally experienced police violence at a Blank Canvas event on New Years Eve 2016, he made an effort to speak on police brutality and anti-black racism in the Toronto community. The opening line from his newest track Gang boasts, "Be cautious; Trump's in office. Man I think we fuckin' lost it.”
It’s SO IMPORTANT to talk about real shit in rap. No more gang shit. No more drug shit (unless it’s medicinal...we’re almost legalized out here). Just John talks about real issues in the city. From addressing issues of exclusivity in the LGBTQ community, to giving artists of colour a voice in an anti-black world, Black Beret shouts, WE ARE MINORITIES. WE ARE CREATIVES. WE ARE IN TORONTO AND WE ARE GOING TO FUCKING BE HEARD. Even if you have to go out by the police, and ridiculous neighbours who can’t catch a vibe and not make noise complaints to the city. Although the walls of Blank Canvas are no more due to this fact, the vibe lives on. Check out my favourite track, Noise, below. And come join the movement at the next Blank Canvas event. Thank me later.
Oh look, another set of creatives from the East end making a mark in the city and spitting some truth. The NuANCE is a new wave rap group from Ajax, consisting of 4 childhood friends who are fighting to make their mark in a city that never found success in boybands or rap groups. The NuAnce proudly boasts that they are “doing it for the culture”, and setting a precedence for rap groups in Toronto, which I’m all for. Their tracks speak on the struggles of finding success as a black male, the hardships of relationships, and all that comes with growing up as a young darkskin male in the East end. Their newest music video, Black Truth, really explores the pessimistic perspective of the black youth in a white man’s world, as it is saturated with socio-political dialogue and black activism. All lives matter, but you know that ain’t the truth.
“Cause my skin is dark that means less opportunities. These cops are killin’ kids, it’s like they got immunity. We see they’re trying to destroy the black community. But my people strong, we’re going to show our unity.” - THE NUANCE, BLACK TRUTH
If you like what you heard, the NuAnce is having their first show at the Smiling Buddha on January 31st. Cop some tickets and I’ll see you there.
So, Toronto... Let’s not be the Screwface capital and let 2018 be the year of the Toronto rapper. First step - share this list if you’re catching a vibe. Second step - CATCH A DAMN VIBE. I know it’s cold in these Canadian streets, and Queen West aint poppin’ like it used to, but I promise you the sounds from these Toronto artists will make hibernation more bearable.
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