Lil Berete is breaking out internationally, but his heart is still in Regent Park

The 17-year-old Toronto rapper is finally making his hometown headlining debut, and it's on his home turf


LIL BERETE at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East), Friday (December 14), 7 pm. $20-$50. eventbrite.ca.


One year, one mixtape and over six million YouTube views in, Regent Park rap phenom Lil Berete is days away from his first headlining show. But he doesn’t have any fears – or a filter. 

“What is there to be nervous about?” he asks.

It’s unclear whether the rapper born Yaya Berete is speaking out of brazen confidence, blissful ignorance, sheer arrogance or a combination of all three. Nonetheless, he’s unwavering.

Only 17, Berete doesn’t see his age as an obstacle. 

“I feel grown,” he says. “In the hood there’s no age.” 

We’re talking in a Daniels Spectrum meeting room where he’s arrived late with three friends in tow. He pauses every few minutes to give them daps.

Onstage he’s gritty and unapologetic, while face-to-face he’s giggly and wildly confident. His language and mannerisms seem like a caricature of the archetypal Toronto man. But the twang in his raspy voice indicates origins that go far beyond the city: though his roots are in Regent Park, he was sent to live in Guinea with family from ages eight to 12. 

That doesn’t make him immune to local venue politics. Though his upcoming headlining show at Daniels Spectrum is technically his first, earlier this year, a concert he was scheduled to headline at the Rivoli was abruptly cancelled.

Why? 

“They never got back to me,” he says. 

He doesn’t elaborate who it was who broke off communication, but it’s one of many grassroots hip-hop shows that had trouble finding a home this year in Toronto. 

With his debut album, Icebreaker, now out and his following growing, he’s more than ready now. 

“I’ve been ready since before, when I was trying to do it the first time,” he says.

Daniels Spectrum feels like a much more meaningful place for Berete to make his debut. It’s his home turf.

The life changes brought on by his rising career are happening alongside changes in his neighbourhood, as residents are further marginalized as a result of gentrification, veiled as revitalization – a euphemism, at best. 

As his team grows, he’s keeping his hometown entourage close, which includes his manager and several friends who serve as makeshift videographers, consultants and a support system. Together, they make up the collective STN (Southside to Northside, an homage to Regent Park and a reference to his first two singles). 

“It’s not like they’re doing something for me and expecting something back,” he says. “If I want to bless them, I’m going to bless them.”

Besides his local crew, Berete has friends in high places. His early YouTube videos caught the attention of New Gen, the buzzy grime-focused imprint of UK mega-label XL. Berete is the anchor of New Gen’s expansion to Toronto, which was initiated with the release of Icebreaker last fall.

While rap-singing Auto-Tuned melodies, Berete contrasts the perks of his come-up with the downfalls of his changing lifestyle with a musical style that mixes the dominant Toronto sound with vibes from Africa and the Caribbean. It’s put him on the radar of industry types around the world.

Despite the extra hands from New Gen, independence is still his long-term goal. He and his STN crew erupt in laughter when asked if Berete needs a label at this point in his career.

“Imagine I drop an album, it goes crazy and I make bare money off of it,” he hypothesizes. “If I get enough money to run my own label, I’ll do it.”

And he’d spread it through Regent Park.

“We might turn the hood into a new QC (Quality Control),” he says, referencing the Atlanta label with Migos at the forefront. 

Speaking to his current situation, Berete clarifies that he isn’t in a 360 deal with XL, so, according to him, “there’s nothing to diss about.” 

“It’s an independent deal,” he says. “[It] basically means that everything you do, they don’t eat off your shit. Like if I tour and do shows, sell my merchandise, all of that, they can’t come and say that they want half of what I made.”

It’s an increasingly common mindset for up-and-coming hip-hop artists, where, even with label support, emerging musicians are bypassing perceived gatekeepers, building a closer connection with listeners and, in ultra-successful cases, making more money of their own.

Given the density of Toronto’s hip-hop scene, only time will determine who will outlast the hype. But Berete is not intimidated.

“People from this city, I don’t think that me and them have the same work ethic,” he distinguishes. “Everyone is on their ‘I wanna be a boss’ type shit [but don’t follow through]. But I’m on some different shit.”

As the name Icebreaker suggests, this is just the beginning. So what’s next?

“You can’t let people know where you’re at,” he warns. “I’m 10 steps ahead.”

@nowtoronto | @sumikow

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