Four years ago, I was in Philadelphia for a digital media conference. In the opening session, the speaker woke us up with a boisterous shoutout to all the cities being represented by attendees.
“NYC, you in the house?” People roared.
“ATL, where you at?” The man beside me banged on the table while a bunch of other folks hollered.
And so it continued, with cities like Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Dallas all receiving their rousing call-and-response moments. Once satisfied, the speaker cleared his throat, fixed his tie, and seemed ready to settle into his official welcome. I looked at my homegirl who made the 11-hour bus trip with me to Philly, then hollered something of my own.
“What about Toronto? We’re here, too!”
With that, the conference room fell silent and all eyes turned my way. Finally, one question cut through the quiet.
“Toronto? So do you know Drake?”
In a role that’s been both self-appointed and crowned upon him in recent years, Drake has become one of Toronto’s most impassioned ambassadors. With the lead-up to and subsequent release of his latest album Views (originally titled Views From the 6), Drake leveled up on his devotion to Toronto, choosing to use this opus as a billet doux to the city where he was born and raised.
“I’ve just become really adamant about leaving fragments in everything I do that belong strictly to my city,” said Drake in a September 2015 interview with Fader. Some of those fragments in recent works sound like a pointed use of Toronto slang peppered with patois from various Caribbean islands (that falls awkwardly on my Jamaican-Canadian ears at times) and Arabic words, and a musical dalliance with Caribbean and African beats and rhythms. While Drake has always made his love of Toronto clear, his sound has increasingly showcased a city-centric vibe. In doing so, Drake ignited a firestorm of conversation about the culture of the city and whether his method of claiming it on Views was sincere, or whether he’s simply trying on a new outfit that isn’t true to size.
In defense of Aubrey Graham, I’m not trying to hear a lot of it. A good amount of that criticism comes from people who don’t understand the essence of Toronto; people who don’t understand that the 51% of Torontonians born outside of Canada brought their cultures and mother tongues here, then passed them on to their children and their children’s children; people who don’t understand that Toronto is a unique environment of the third space theory kind, where the cacophony of voices and languages and sounds are able to bleed into one another, making something new — something enjoyed and adopted by people across all points of origin, who have Toronto as their centre.
What exactly is the argument? Is it that the culture and slang folks are taking in doesn’t belong to Toronto? “Drake is copying Black Brit slang!” some say. Due to similar trends of Caribbean and African migration to areas of Canada and the U.K., common threads between slang, sounds, and new cultural creations exist. Each group lays claim to their unique mélange, however, and it would be quite erroneous to believe otherwise.
Is it that some think Drake has Christopher Columbused dancehall and Afrobeat, “introducing” the world to sounds that existed before his shine? That argument should be taken up with people who see Drake as a cultural inventor and their personal cultural tour guide — those who thank him for “something new” instead of realizing that whole musical worlds have thrived beyond the reach of their headphones and aux cords for decades.
It’s not like Drake is the first to introduce the world to the sounds and flavours of Toronto. Before it was called “The Six/6/6ix,” the T-dot was well represented by hip-hop artists like Michie Mee, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, Dream Warriors, and many others. The Kingston, Jamaica-born, Toronto-bred Michie Mee was one of the “firsts” in a lot of areas: one of Canada’s first women MCs, one of the first to marry hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall, and the first Canadian MC to sign with a major American label. Kardinal gave y’all a veritable Toronto slang dictionary with his hit single “BaKardi Slang” in 2000, introducing you to the way we talked then and talk now: “We don’t say, ‘You know what I’m sayin’ / T-dot says, ‘You dun know.’”
Aside from this explicit example, Kardinal, like other Toronto rappers, regularly raps true to how Toronto mans speak — and while some may not understand it, many more respect it. The 1998 monster single “Northern Touch” featuring Toronto MCs Kardinal, Choclair, and Thrust alongside Vancouver rappers the Rascalz and Checkmate became one of Canada’s biggest tracks ever. The success of “Northern Touch” helped set a new stage for Canadian hip-hop and paved the way for other future proud Torontonians on the mic, like Drake.
Perhaps the argument is that Drake is laying it on thick now because Toronto (and Canada) currently has a grip on the world’s attention. The Blue Jays and Raptors (Drake serves as global ambassador for the latter) have been lighting up Toronto’s sports scene. The city just hosted the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend. Rihanna filmed one of her dopest videos here. Toronto is home to the largest Caribbean cultural festival, known as Caribana, and largest free African festival in North America. Alessia Cara. Tory Lanez. Justin Bieber. Justin Trudeau. A lot of people are talking about Canada, and about Toronto — and maybe Drake has abandoned his ambitionz az a south-of-the-border ridah to ride a wave for his city. Time will tell if this is artistic and identity-based growth or simple opportunism, but while we wait, we’ll be over here catching a wine to “Controlla” and bubbling to “One Dance” same ways.