Unity Festival Recap 2017

26 July 2017 / by Sanjeev Wignarajah (author)
Breakdancers perform at Unity Festival 2017 (photo: Sanjeev Wignarajah)
Breakdancers perform at Unity Festival 2017 / (photo: Sanjeev Wignarajah)

Unity Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary in style, with all things hip-hop and arts. Michael Prosserman, founder of Unity Charity, says the milestone is not only a part of Toronto’s culture but it’s a tool for young people.

“There are young people using this as a tool to express their stress,” said Prosserman. “They’re doing their art form at a high level because they take it very seriously.”

Prosserman says that the arts impact the city as an agent of change.

“I believe it’s made up of people who have their own personal experiences and use hip-hop as a tool in their lives to create that change," said Prosserman. 

The festival took over the city from July 13 to 15.

Day one of the Unity Festival began with the MC/Spoken Word & Graffiti exhibition at Geary Lane. It was hosted by Randel Adjei, Berma, and Tony G. The exhibition featured a music lineup with artists such as Full Circle and Sanae Paris. The speaker series features Dr. Audrey Hudson, an assistant professor at OCAD University and Stephen “Buddha” Leafloor, a dancer and a social worker who founded BLUEPRINTFORLIFE, bringing social change in Canadian cities and territories.

The Unity Dance Exhibition and Beatbox Competition took place on day two of the festival at  Underpass Park. Prosserman says that the venue is effective because of the open space where young people hang out.

“We don’t want to be running this on a big stage that has no real connection to culture and community that young people feel,” said Prosserman. “As you can tell right now we’re looking at a bunch of young people just skateboarding underneath this park and it has nothing to do with the festival.”

The event kicked off with beatboxing where beatboxers from the GTA and all over Canada showcased their talents on stage. Crowds of people gathered around with their smartphones to capture the moment while others sat back and enjoyed the event.

Emilie Carrey, who goes by Sparx Beatbox, was one of the judges and a Unity alumni. She says she looks for personality in a beatboxer.

“I’m looking for something original. Somebody that makes me [go] ‘wow,’” said Carrey. “On a technical standpoint, I really enjoy when somebody has a wide base of style. They can be musical, technical, [and] also perform.”

Carrey says that the new generation of beatboxers is always changing and growing: “They’re coming up with sounds that people who studied phonetics their whole life never even heard.”

James Ho, a beatboxer, says that those who are interested in beatboxing should find people with the same interest.

“When you are in a community that supports you and understands what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you grow immensely and very quickly, too," said Ho. 

The dance exhibition was also on display at Underpass Park. It kicked off with the two hosts, UDOOU Crew (Hannia & Gloria), dancing to old-school hip-hop. People gathered in a circle as breakdancers battled it out on the floor. The scene felt straight out of the ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop scene in the streets of New York.

Tafiya Itiaba-Bayah, a breakdancer, says he psyches himself out during battling with dancers.

“I think it’s important to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s no different from public speaking,” said Bayah. “Just making sure I understand where I’m coming from, where I’m going and trying to prove a point.”   

Day three was the Unity Festival at David Pecaut Square. The concert was hosted by Britta B., R. Chung, and Diamond Osoteo. The festival began with breakdancing at the square. Mobi Mawla, a Toronto-based rapper, kicked things off by performing one of his songs and later went into spoken word.

Next up was Yannick Green, a Toronto-based rapper, who had some technical difficulties during his performance but carried on gracefully. Following up Green’s performance was Ehboni, who had great stage presence and amazing vocal delivery. Ehboni’s dancers also wowed the crowd with amazing choreography that provided the ‘oomph’ factor.

Between artist performances, breakdancers took over the stage and showed off their moves to concert-goers.

Next to perform on stage was Red Slam featuring Mahlikah Awe:Ri. Awe:Ri opened with a powerful spoken word about Colonialism 150 as she spoke about how Indigenous peoples were stripped away from their culture and placed into residential schools. She also referenced the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Making their debut in the Unity Festival Concert was the Samba Squad Youth Troupe with their groovy percussions. Breakdancers danced to the beat and rhythm of the drums.

Los Poetas, a Toronto Latino hip-hop collective, made their way to the stage to perform. The collective consists of Luis Segura (Louwop), Martin Cura (Che Uno), and Oscar Betancourt (DJ Grouch). Los Poetas released their second album this year titled Cartas Vol 1. The collective was also one of the acts that wowed the crowd, combining Spanglish with boom-bap. DJ Grouch paid tribute to the hip-hop artists who passed away including Prodigy from Mobb Deep. The group spoke about performing in this festival; especially Main Source headlining for their 25th anniversary of their first album titled Breaking Atoms. DJ Grouch said that Main Source was the soundtrack to his high school days.

Che Uno says that Main Source was the foundation of his upbringing in hip-hop.

Los Poetas was inspired by Ana Tijoux, a Chilean hip-hop artist. Segura told CJRU on how it began.

“I was in New York at the LAMC, which is the Latin Alternative Music Conference three years ago. Che and I were starting to talk about a Spanglish album and we had a song or two songs just kind of in the bank and I went out to this conference, got invited to go check out this show. I walked in and it was a live band and a DJ and people were just like vibin’ and it was a blend of Latin beats and hip-hop and it really inspired me to come back and get to work on the project,” said Segura. “Seeing Ana perform live was an inspiration and we came back finished the first album in no time. Everything happened organically and we’ve been growing since.”

Next to perform was Jayd Ink, a Toronto-based R&B artist. Following that was Lola Bunz, a Toronto-based rapper. Accompanied by dancers, Bunz remixed Drake’s Controlla, infusing English and Yoruba.

The Sorority was one of the artists that got the crowd amped up and energized. The Toronto-based female hip-hop collective consists of Keyha Freshh, Lex Leosis, Haviah Mighty and Phoenix Pagliacci.

Leosis says that performing with The Sorority is all about energy: “We know each other’s lyrics so we can take breaths and jump around - my sisters got my back.”

Pagliacci says that it’s going to be their last one performing for a while.

“I gave it everything and I know the crowd really came out. It’s hard sometimes with free events but they really showed out and they showed us love. So I just showed them back,” said Pagliacci.

Other acts that performed include Tobi and Zakisha Brown, who later introduced the headliner: legendary hip-hop group, Main Source. Main Source has a Canadian connection - Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie. The Godfather of Canadian hip-hop Maestro Fresh Wes made a surprise appearance during the concert.

The author

Sanjeev Wignarajah

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