Group uses hiphop to take anti-violence words to the kidz
A two-storey detached house in the St. Clair West-Arlington Avenue area is home to a huge, youth-driven grassroots movement against violence. NAnd as the hiphop crowd would say, respect is due.
They call themselves VOICE (Violence Overcome In Creative Ensemble), and as you enter the front screen door you are greeted by Falcor, a golden retriever, or sometimes by a cat named Sunbear.
To get to the upstairs meeting room (which is actually the family dining room) or the main office (otherwise known as the basement) you have to navigate around bags of Purina Dog Chow, Tender Vittles and plastic blockades erected to keep the animals in the house.
There’s no signage anywhere advertising VOICE services. I’m told there’s another mini-office upstairs, but you’d literally have to go through the founder’s bedroom to get there.
All the paid and volunteer staff here, a core of three youths between the ages of 17 and 23, were directly or indirectly affected by violence.
Young as they are, they produce award-winning documentary films and videos like Fires Of Transformation, and organize ambitious happenings like the Youth Vibrations concert this Friday (June 23) at the Great Hall at Dovercourt and Queen.
Says Katherine Marielle, who’s been operating the group out of her small basement for the last 12 years, “Young people have the answers –I’m just providing the venue and a sense of safety to make them feel validated.” Her long, greying dirty-blond hair and flower-print dress exude a semi-hippy aura that trickles down to the general work area in the basement.
The organization, which is sponsored by the YMCA, receives funds from the Zukerman Family Foundation, the Children’s Aid Foundation and Health Canada.
Natisha Ryner, the longest-serving staffer (she’s been here since 1997), is dressed in black with a hat covering her braids. She’s working diligently on the lone company computer finishing off some more press kits .
Anagel Saunders, the moral leader of the group, saunters around the office with a pink head-wrap draped over her long flowing dreadlocks. Visiting today is Casandra McLeggon (aka Prophetess), one of the rappers slated to perform Friday. McLeggon goes to school down the street at Oakwood Collegiate, which has quite a rep for churning out grassroots organizers by the bushel.
This is the work of the hiphop generation that you don’t hear enough about.
Arriving in Canada from Montserrat in 1996, Ryner got involved in this cause to keep a buddy from falling off the edge. “I had a friend who used to be abused and she refused to acknowledge it. She was 17 years old, pregnant and had this abusive boyfriend. I actually took her and brought her to my house. I spoke to her myself, brought her to VOICE, had my mom speak to her, and she still went back to this guy.”
A co-founder of the influential KYTES (Kensington Youth Theatre Employment Skills), Marielle developed VOICE in 1987 to help street youth develop creative ways of using theatre to deal with their problems.
“The stories of some of the young women in the theatre troupe are what spurred me on, really. They were being beaten up by their boyfriends. As we went around the circle, we began to hear that every single woman there had had some form of violence perpetrated against her. Either incest, rape, physical abuse at home or mental and emotional abuse.”
But these activists are clear about what doesn’t work in their constituency. Books and pamphlets, for example. “We wanna reach young people where they are,” says Saunders, and where they are is shooting hoops and hanging out at HMV.
Because the new generation looks to rap not only for art and entertainment, but also for guidance and moral leadership, these youth leaders, rather than organizing snoozefest lectures, are recruiting hiphoppers to recite lyrics about saving communities.
“As a young person, you find that people can memorize words of rap songs, and this works better than lectures that are largely forgotten,” says Ryner.
Their event this Friday brings together rap groups Monolith, DJ Juice and 360 and breakdancers Bag of Trix and Motion.
These groups will rap about socially supportive things instead of jewellery, making wads of cash and fulfilling dreams of owning mansions or yachts.
The group’s also forged a new alliance with Blueprint 4 Life, a hip- hop-centred travelling seminar founded in 1998 after the death of a teen inside a nightclub. The organization assembles notable rap entertainers including CKLN 88.1’s DJs X, Michie Mee, Maestro and Motion, among others, to host seminars in schools and community centres.
Preaching to youth that violence ain’t cool is a daunting task at a time when rapper Eminem’s brand of misogyny and violence rules the airwaves and it’s easier to get a Swiss Army pocket knife at school than a spot on the volleyball team.
While VOICE’s aim is to shine light on those working to prevent violence, they’re all a bit miffed that the media aren’t much interested in their stories.
“At the end of the day, this concert is about putting (anti-violence people) on the front pages instead of guys wearing trench coats and shooting fellow students,” explains activist Laverne Ryner. “You should be able to do positive things and get that same attention.”