Why wont Toronto venues book hip-hop?

It was a bleak day in May for Jamarlo Johnson when his long-awaited Creative Minds event had to be postponed..


It was a bleak day in May for Jamarlo Johnson when his long-awaited Creative Minds event had to be postponed. Hed secured a booking at Kensington Market club Supermarket, but, he says, the venue added costly fees when it learned the event included rap performances.

This is probably the fourth or fifth [time] that [Ive had a show cancelled], but this is the first one that got cancelled because of rap, says Johnson.

Johnson had just launched his event-planning and A&R company, Wisentertainment, with the hopes of building community and opportunities for creatives in the city. The Creative Minds event was to include networking, live painting and a music showcase. After all of the booking and promotion, says Johnson, Supermarket gave last-minute notice to hire more security, and added a bar fee for the event. This wouldve all been at Johnsons expense, and as an up-and-coming promoter he wasnt able to afford it.

Supermarket owner Greg Bottrell says the event was cancelled due to a lack of pre-event promotion. Also, he says Johnson didnt tell him there would be a rap performance during dining hours (when sound could bleed between the back room and front restaurant area), and that the venue had already made it known that it is their policy not to book rap and hip-hop shows.

You know, [hip-hop] is just not my jam, he says in an interview with NOW. I do live funk and soul. I do a lot of different types of dance parties…. We do a lot of different things but hip-hop and rap I generally reject, just like how I dont do punk [and] metal. The hip-hop thing is way too loud.

The Creative Minds event has been rescheduled for August 18 at 1230 St. Clair West.

Johnson is not the only local promoter whos run into problems booking hip-hop shows. Despite being the highest-grossing genre in Canada and a fast-rising one in Toronto, the music has struggled for space. In light of the small-venue crisis, and with many bigger rap-friendly venues disappearing, there are few rooms for the music to thrive in a live setting.

Brenden Hewko, founder of SmashMouth Entertainment, has been working with Toronto venues since 2010, but even after building positive relationships with many owners and promoters, he still has trouble confirming spots for hip-hop shows.

There are absolutely venues in the city that wont work with hip-hop, says Hewko. The smaller establishments are definitely much more subjective about what they book, and I find that they are the ones that stereotype the most.

Hewko theorizes that many smaller venues fear hip-hop shows will lead to violence, and often force promoters to hire more security. Hes also heard owners tell him hip-hop shows require more expensive insurance.

Hewko cancelled a show sponsored by NXNE in 2013 titled SmashMouth Mentality. The venue was warned by the Toronto police and gang unit that the event could get violent if it went ahead with the show, he says. But none of the artists scheduled to play have ever been gang-affiliated.

Despite the challenges, many young people have taken the matter into their own hands.

Abel Lulseged is the founder of Soundstock Inc., an up-and-coming music promotion agency that launched last year. Hes curated events with NXNE and Manifesto, where hes spotlighted Toronto hip-hop and R&B gems like Liza Yohannes, M.I. Blue and TiKA.

When they say, We dont do hip-hop shows, its code for, We dont want Black people in our establishment, Lulseged says.

Nathan Baya started his own organization Jane Street Speaks in response to the lack of support from Toronto venues. Hes been booking hip-hop shows, album release parties and spoken-word events for the last year, spotlighting up-and-coming locals like Glowz, Lazz and Txnic. Many shows have sold out.

It was really hard at first because when youre Black and you do hip-hop, theres already a stigma about what type of hip-hop it is. Why cant we just let art be art? he asks. If Toronto wont book you then you have to book yourself.

Baya recounts a time when a venue wasnt responding to his booking request, so he went there to try to talk things out. The owner explained to him that he only does hip-hop shows if he already has a relationship with the booker, all while Cardi Bs music played in the background.

[Owners will] love hip-hop, theyll play hip-hop, but they wont have hip-hop shows, he says. Thats like me saying I love Black people but I just dont befriend them.

Essentially whats going on now is, if you book a hip-hop show with a local venue, they need to go and clear it with a police station first, says Lucas Prince, an independent artist manager.

Prince is putting a together a Unity show in partnership with 6ixBuzz, a Toronto-based media platform. The show is supposed to promote peace and unity in the hip-hop community with performances by Yung Tory, Ramriddlz and Booggz. Even though none of the performers are involved in gang politics, he says the show was rejected by a number of venues. (It was scheduled for August 9 at the Phoenix, but then indefinitely postponed.)

Its slowing the growth for a lot of these kids who are up-and-coming, says Prince. Its preventing some from really seeing their potential and getting to that next level.

Since hip-hop is primarily celebrated and made by people of colour, its easily subjected to subtle and systemic discrimination. Even though efforts are being made to change the perception of hip-hop, safe spaces for its expression have remained elusive.

I believe if there were more spaces that would allow youth to have a healthy expression, there would be less violence in the city, says Baya.

On July 1, up-and-coming Toronto rapper Smoke Dawg and Prime Boys affiliate Koba Prime were gunned down outside of a downtown nightclub.

All of these young Black men, or men in general that are fighting each other, killing each other, these are traumatic youth, who are a bunch of kids, in one hood who have the crack-in-the-barrel mentality who are all trying to make it to the top, says Baya.

Opening venue doors to hip-hop could help artists make a career out of their art, according to Lulseged. Starting local is the first step to get on bigger stages, with larger audiences.

If artists are able to have their own place to do their own shows, to make their own money, then they might be more likely to pursue a career in rap.

While the Toronto Music Advisory Council has made efforts to stop the closure of venues and create affordable spaces for arts and culture, theres been little public discussion on implementing diversity and inclusivity into these spaces.

If Toronto is going to become the Music City it aims to be, we have to remove the barriers that prevent hip-hop artists from being part of that vision.

music@nowtoronto.com | @lidiabraha

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