Gangsta Fairy tale

Our cover story on racism in the T.O. music scene hits a nerve in Jane-Finch


I just so happened to be talking with Ian Kamau recently, one of the artists featured in NOW’s cover story on racism in the Canadian music scene last week. I also have a story related to gangsta rap and racism in music. The kicker is I am not black, and not even a rapper, but a kid whose parents escaped Vietnam as boat people and settled in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area.

Jane and Finch has a decades-old reputation for guns, gangs and drugs. So back in 2004 I started Jane-Finch.com and began directing homemade rap music videos for local artists. This was the pre-social-media age and before DSLR filmmaking took the world by storm. Basically, I was one of the first guys in my ‘hood with a Sony Handycam and a website. 

My goal was to show life beyond the media stereotypes. To some, the area conjures images of the Wild West, but my experience was kids riding bikes in the summer and tobogganing down hills in the winter. As a teen, I spent summers shooting homemade kung-fu movies with my friends. I shot a zombie movie in Grade 12 at C.W. Jefferys, now known as the high school where Jordan Manners was killed.

After I filmed a music video for Vietnamese rapper Chuckie Akenz, my site gained worldwide attention. 

You Got Beef? was buoyed by an underground North America-wide movement called AZN (Asian) Pride. The video went viral and was featured on national news and virtually all major media in Toronto. How did it go viral before YouTube? Thank RapidShare and heavy compression….

Aside from girls recognizing me at Pacific Mall, You Got Beef? put Jane-Finch.com on the map. I got emails from around the world from kids asking for help with their homework, advice with relationships and even how to deal with parents. 

But the attention also drew critics, the same way N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton hit a nerve. The website soon came under attack. People started disassociating themselves. I had requests to take down photos and stories. There was an effort to silence us. I won’t name names, but they were people with influence who felt threatened by new voices from the neighbourhood. These critics appeared on radio to rally local politicians to get us to remove the “gang-related” music videos.

My contact number and email have always been publicly available, so it was a great wonder why they never reached out to me. “Is this a case of a bunch of old white guys being afraid of rap music?” asked one interviewer on AM640.

Gangster rap has been demonized for years. Critics who say its authors are trying to incite violence or promote criminal activity are off base. These are merely genre labels. It’s a musical art form with talented storytellers, like “CNN for the streets,” as Chuck D of Public Enemy called it. 

Some of my subjects were the real deal and faced violence, conflict with the law and serious tragedy in their lives. They just wanted to share their stories with the rest of the world. I believe I had no right to censor what they were expressing.

Through Jane-Finch.com I’ve been fortunate to connect at-risk youth with many opportunities that exist outside the community. The site has produced award winners, media personalities, passionate community activists and well-known musicians.

I continue to work with local rappers, and many of these artists get involved in community events, engage in public speaking and advocate on behalf of the community. The list goes on. 

Paul Nguyen is a recipient of the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal and founder of Jane-Finch.com.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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