a young black male walks with a pronounced swagger, smokes joints freely, then downs a couple of gulps of brew. Another plays basketball all the time. Then he takes off his shirt and shows off his collection of gunshot wounds. Images lifted from John Singleton’s 1991 coming-of-age-in-the-slums flick Boyz N The Hood, right? No, uh, it’s actually CBC-TV, circa 2001.In June, The National aired a coarse 20-minute documentary segment titled Street Rappers that was intended to explore the connection between rap music and violence in Jane-Finch and to somehow convince unsuspecting viewers that the CBC is “down” with the hiphop community and its issues, Drop The Beat-style. The doc centred on two Jane-Finch-based rappers named Speng and Stick-up, whose group, the Smugglas, rap exclusively about guns, death and violence. Viewers were supposed to get some insight into how youth in the area see their lives taking shape.
But Jane-Finch activists feel they were bamboozled and are planning to convey their fury to the Mother Corp. They allege that the documentary regurgitated the cartoonish stereotypes of young black maledom and of the Jane-Finch corridor that residents have been trying to shake for more than a decade.
When you add up all the profanities and “niggaz” references, the number of joints smoked, the brown-bagged beer bottles passed around and the falsehoods, the picture painted by The National is way out of whack.
“How could the CBC come into a community and then reflect it incorrectly as a community of just black people — and black people who have such violence on a day-to-day basis?” asks Roselyn Miller, an outspoken Jane-Finch community stalwart based at the Delta Child Care Network.
While the program aired in June, the reverberations are only now being felt, because most of the neighbourhood organizations’ reps did not catch the original broadcast. One member of the Network of Community-Based Organizations, a collective made up of community workers in the Downsview area, saw the piece and became infuriated.
The tape made its way onto the agenda of a recent Network meeting held at the Black Creek Community Health Centre. Wanda MacNevin of the Network (which boasts a membership of some 15-plus organizations, from the Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women to the Jane-Finch Community Ministry) says that “if anybody from somewhere else saw this video, they would get the impression that Jane-Finch is made up of bad people and the only population is black youth.”
Despite the fact that the area’s residents hail from 80 different ethno-cultural groups and speak at least 112 different languages, Street Rappers plays into a uni-race mythology (the only non-black sources in the doc are the cops) when it’s not busy painting a picture of some “notorious” slum teeming with restless, hiphop-styled youth wearing baggy clothing and do-rags.
And then there are those dodgy moments like reporter Mark Morrison’s framing of an early part of the story by saying, “The newspapers call it the gun crime capital of Canada.” What newspaper is he referring to here, the Toronto Sun?
Jamila Aman, a member of the Network for nine years, says “I’m not denying that there are problems in Jane-Finch. But they are coming from very few individuals, and they are problems that all of the ethnic groups go through, not just black people.”
Convinced that the CBC has used the community as a punching bag, Aman wonders aloud whether anybody cares that Jane-Finch was one of the recipients of the prestigious Ontario Trillium Foundation 1998 Caring Communities Award.
One of the most jarring scenes, she says, shows one of the main protagonists lighting up joints and flashing stacks of dollar bills for the camera. Then there’s the scene where one of the rappers lifts up his shirt to show some of the 14 bullet scars he purports to have gotten as “war wounds.”
“This kind of publicity the community can do without,” says Aman.
It’s not just the distorted picture of the community that’s so aggravating, but also the refusal to understand hiphop culture. The CBC piece is set to a backdrop of hiphop beats and rhymes and Jane-Finch street signs (which The National tends to cut to too often). But there’s no real discussion about the protest ethic that forms the backbone of much of rap music in particular and hiphop culture in general.
In one scene, reporter Morrison refers to the “gangsta rap” genre and how “it’s a U.S. import growing in popularity here.” Even the most casual hiphop head could have informed him that this media-coined “gangsta rap” trend (do real gangsters have time to sit down in plush recording studios to cut tracks that will broadcast all their wrongdoings in stereo???) died years ago.
Street Rapper presupposes that hiphop is another black pathology. So there’s reporter Morrison pronouncing that popular Toronto Juno Award-winning rapper Infinite “used to be a gangsta rapper.” Gangsta rapper? Infinite? Local hiphop industry insiders would have a field day with that one. In fact, Infinite is still dismayed by the way the CBC crew tried to glean “negative” info from him just because it was a well-known fact that his brother was stabbed to death in 1995 in Rexdale.
“I told the reporter a little bit about my history and my brother passing away, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a gangster. I told him about the things I’m trying to do to help young people, to help them forecast their future. Going into schools and stuff. There was the guy, asking me if I was around on the night of some shootings and whatnot…. What does that have to do with my career?”
Marie Caloz, the producer of the doc, insists Street Rappers “was never meant to mirror all of the texture and complexity of the Jane-Finch neighbourhood.” She says the crew spent months following the Smugglas and that the piece “is very much a reflection of how they see their neighbourhood. If that view sparked a lot of debate on important issues, then I think the documentary achieved its goals.”
Speng and Stick-up could not be reached for comment.
Mark Morrison, the black reporter who worked on the piece, couldn’t really comment on the record about the documentary’s obvious shortcomings, due to CBC protocol, but he does admit that the audience reaction was not good. “There were a lot of people who were actually kind of outraged, but there really wasn’t constructive feedback, y’know.”
Local filmmaker Roger McTair, director of Jane Finch Again, says the mainstream media always tend toward the sensational. “I’ve worked on two films about the area. In the second, the point was to show how the community had settled down incredibly. There were drugs, but there are drugs all over the place. The kids this time around were headed for university, they had a better sense of where they wanted to go. If you have a community trying to lift itself up by its bootstraps, it doesn’t make good TV.”
York University professor Carol Tator, who along with colleague Frances Henry has co-authored the upcoming Discourses Of Domination: Racism In The Canadian English-Speaking Press, says, “The forces that drive media organizations prefer sexy, sensational subject matter. But there are a thousand important stories in Jane-Finch to tell. They didn’t pick the stories of those students sitting in my class at York, some of whom live at Jane-Finch. They have really interesting stories to tell about their lives and how they got to York University.”
Certainly, with York Centre city councillor Maria Augimeri throwing herself headfirst into the fray after viewing the tape at a recent Network meeting, some are hoping that the CBC will issue a response.
The doc, she says, “is offensive and hurtful to kids, especially because it reinforces a very regressive message that education is not the way out of the burbs, that rap music is the only way out, and maybe basketball. That kids have no other hope.” The Network’s subcommittee plans to send the CBC their grievance, she says, with hopes to work with them on a “second piece on the community — a more honest piece.”
Lennox Farrell, who’s lived in the community for over 26 years, says he tried to tell the The National folks about the good things going on in the area (like the fact that two of his four kids are in medical school), but only a smidgen of this info made the final cut. In terms of how young people focus on “getting out’ of Jane-Finch, Farrell says, “There are youth who are doing math to get out or doing computers to get out, and there are those who aren’t doing anything to get out. This is where they live. This is where I’ve lived for 26 years, and I’m not doing anything to get out. I’m trying to keep it a good place to live. It has a sense of community, it has a sense of history, it has a lot of very vitalizing people and institutions.”