By Safy-Hallan Farah
When Drake talks about "running through the 6," he's giving a geography lesson. His preferred nickname for Toronto, originally coined by local rapper Jimmy Prime, alludes to the area's historical status as six distinct municipalities before 1998. The culture of those six districts – Toronto proper, Scarborough, North York, East York, York, and Etobicoke – is fluid, spanning ethnic communities and disparate neighborhoods. It's a diverse metropolis that has proven itself as fertile ground for music and art as well as struggle and conflict.
In recent years, violence in these communities has been linked to neighborhood rivalries. Prior to that, violence was blamed on historic gang disputes (Crips versus Bloods, Crips versus Crips, Sic Thugs versus Bloods and Crips) that spanned decades, as well as a period of intra-racial violence between Jamaicans and Somalis, which has largely passed. There is a discernible new era of pan-African solidarity in today's Toronto, a fuzzy, quixotic premise that often hinges on the feel-good aesthetics of determination and solidarity. It’s imbued with a compulsory sense of “doing it for the culture,” doing it for the sake of black art. It is an era that Drake, as well as artists like K-os, Kardinal Offishall, K’naan, and The Weeknd have all played a part in ushering in.
Largely second-generation Canadians, these new artists from “the 6” showcase their various black identities within their music, exhibiting a certain cultural fluency and familiarity. Somali kids reflexively slip in and out of Jamaican Patois; everyone says "walahi," a Somali corruption of the Arabic word walah; even Egyptian-Canadian artist Ramriddlz claims he’s “no saqajaan” (a saqajaan is the Somali equivalent of a scumbag). Black Toronto slang is a living, breathing reflection of the city's vibrant diasporic community.
When Drake speaks in a so-called accent in his 14-minute short film, Jungle or raps, “I know some Somalis that say we got it, walahi” on “Draft Day,” he’s not winking at Somalis, as the journalist Leon Neyfakh has characterized it; rather, Drake seems to be drawing from a deep, embodied knowledge of himself and the Toronto landscape.
Hawa Mire, a member of a group of scholars studying the Somali diaspora and territories known as Maandeeq Collective, sees what’s happening to the Somali language in Toronto as “a riff off of Somali orality” and “metaphoric ways of being and speaking.” In the same way wagwan – Jamaican Patois for “what’s going on?” – is now considered a Canadian phrase, the Somali language is being stripped of its origin as it enters wider use. Mire recalls recently hearing non-Somali people use the word kawaal (a term that’s recently been popularized by “Kawaalling,” a song by a rapper named $heed, as well as “Finesse & Kawaal” by rappers Huey and Apac). Surprised, Mire asked them how they know that word and they told her, with a bewildered look, “It’s just Toronto slang.”
As Toronto becomes increasingly influenced by Somali phraseology in particular, Mire doubts that Drake’s intentions are entirely pure: The star benefits from a proximity to the vibrancy and authenticity of local Somali culture. “A lot of Drake’s cultural capital right now is coming from Somali kids, and he doesn’t adequately compensate them for it,” Mire says. That point is bolstered, no doubt, by the fact that Drake is a talented actor and mimic. But for a people desperately starved for representation and the dollar value that comes with it, it could be, perhaps, that the 6 God is following a higher calling. “We see this every time there’s a new diaspora community,” says Mire. “They prove that they exist, that they’re present, and then they’re co-opted.”
Outside of the string of songs and videos that OVO Sound and Drake have lofted via social media, the cultural proof of Toronto Somali kids' existence is their hypervisibility in light of the crack scandal involving disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford. In recent years, according to writer (and my friend) Huda Hassan, the recognition of Somali male youths has often dovetailed with their criminalization. Even the first Somali Toronto rapper to break out, K’naan, is in the process of creating an HBO show in collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow centered around Somali jihadists.
The division that springs out of kids' departure from their parents' traditions is the space, place, and time that Halal Gang, made up of rappers Puffy L’z, Smoke Dawg, Mo-G, and SAFE, was formed. The use of the word halal, which means lawful in Arabic, is an homage to their Muslim roots. Halal Gang's members are residents of Regent Park, a Downtown neighborhood where many East Africans and Caribbean people reside. SAFE is Eritrean; Smoke Dawg is Jamaican; both Puffy and Mo are Somali; all are practicing Muslims. Mo-G and SAFE are the group’s most prominent members, the ones who can rightfully claim that they’ve been cosigned by Drake.
Born in Abu Dhabi to a Muslim family, SAFE, whose real name is Saif Musaad, immigrated to Toronto as a child. Last summer, he released a video for "Feel," a sleek trap-R&B song that diverges heavily from the sound of his fellow crew members’ music. The video features members of Halal Gang, as well as his close friend, Sudanese-Canadian artist Mustafa the Poet.
Mustafa has a rich, intimate understanding of the local scene. "I was raised there, in Regent Park, with Mo-G and all the other Regent kids," he tells me. It was an environment that lent itself to creative ferment and crew loyalty: “There were people rapping, [but] there weren’t many and there was scarce competition.”
That was then. Today, Mustafa believes that the competition inherent to a booming Toronto rap scene has forced Regent Park's artists to focus on what makes them distinctive and special, taking their music and art to a new level. “We’ve reached a point now where there are so many rappers and people are forced to tap into their stories,” Mustafa says.
There's social commentary to be found in these artists' work, notably in Mo-G’s “Still” and SAFE’s “Feel.” The music comes out of a specific context, one of loneliness and isolation felt by many East Africans who have struggled to integrate into Toronto culture at large. “It felt lonely growing up," Mustafa says. "We were forced to be close to each other. We couldn’t separate.”
Mustafa describes often feeling too Muslim for the black kids, and too black for the Muslim kids – a precarious situation complicated by the reality that there are black Muslims. “Somalis weren’t always cool," he says. "East Africans weren’t always cool. We weren’t always seen and respected.”
That's partly due to a simple fact that Mustafa acknowledges: A Jamaican community existed in Toronto first. It wasn’t until Somalis started taking ownership of spaces within Toronto that things started to improve and East Africans started to feel a sense of identity and confidence. “The loss of identity was the scariest thing we were facing," he says. "We didn’t know who we were, and everyone was denying us who we actually were. Through the music, now we’re seeing a reflection of who we are.”
But for Mustafa, who has singing ambitions and tells me he was in California recently making music with Kanye West mentor and Def Jam exec No I.D., there’s still a lot that isn’t being reflected in the music. “I wanna do it for the kids to see themselves," he says. "I wanna refine the narrative.” Refining the narrative, for Mustafa, looks like getting farther away from the present glamorization and romanticization of inner-city life. While things are looking up for everyone, Mustafa and his peers are far from rich; many of them, like Mustafa, still live in housing projects.
Layla Hendryx, a genre-blending Somali vocalist and MC tied to the downtown scene, deals with a different set of stigmas, including expectations about women who wear Western-style clothing like pants or make music. This explains why Hendryx’s first single, “Throwback & Leanin,” received backlash; some commenters on YouTube claim she’s “the devil’s daughter.” “There is a stigma, but that comes from something way beyond me," explains the poised Ottawa transplant. "The stigma was there for hundreds of years, [it comes from] the idea that girls should be in the home cooking and cleaning and catering their husbands." Yet, out of everyone in the downtown scene, Hendryx has enough pop accessibility and charm to suggest that her local come-up could easily build beyond Canada.
Growing up, Hendryx wasn’t allowed to listen to music with swear words, which meant she didn’t get exposed to a lot of hip-hop until her late teens. Instead, she primarily listened to Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani, and Sean Paul, whose music is a staple at Somali weddings. “I came from a somewhat strict background," she says. "My mom did everything that a typical Somali mom would do. We went to dugsi. I went to Islamic school.”
Hendryx laments the label of “Somali artist” on the grounds that occupations like “singer” and “artist” are a novelty for Somalis. Even so, she admits that, for whatever reason, Somali artists happen to have “the sauce” right now. Her track “B.T.W” was featured on Drake's Beats 1 show OVO Sound last fall, and she says she hopes to build a sustainable career in music – one where she doesn’t feel boxed in or pigeonholed, one where she can live her truth.
I meet Robin Banks – another fixture in Toronto's music scene, and a friend of Hendryx’s who made a song with her called “FWM (Fuck With Me)” – at the door of another friend's home in the Driftwood neighborhood. I ask Banks, in Somali, if he’s well; he answers that he is, and poses the question back to me, fluently. “My grandma raised me," he explains, "so I had no choice but to learn how to speak Somali.”
Banks, whose real name is Liban Randall, is soft-spoken. This is surprising – not because he’s a rapper, but because he’s Somali. We’re typically a loud bunch. But then again, he’s only half Somali on his mother's side; his other half, his father, is Jamaican. After we walk to the basement of the home, I ask Banks if he speaks Jamaican Patois like his song “Mixed With Jamaican” would suggest. He laughs, taking a drag of his cigarette, and says, “I understand, but no.”
Banks had a modest hit last year with the party song “Up Next,” but his most lasting innovation to date has been a phrase he coined: "TT right now," short for "too turnt right now." For a hot minute, “TT right now” was a buzzphrase in Toronto, and the term eventually found its way to Drake, who captioned a selfie with the phrase a few months ago and deployed the phrase again a few weeks ago.
Banks finds this flattering, but he'd prefer a credit, or at least some acknowledgement that he’s the progenitor. Drake never tags or mentions him by name; that kind of soft recognition doesn’t equal followers or music streams and downloads, and Banks can’t eat off recognition, anyhow. Even so, the impact trickles back down to Banks when he gets to say he’s that guy. It adds up to its own kind of prestige: hood clout. This is murky terrain for an artist from Driftwood, a neighborhood rattled by gun violence. While Banks has been exposed to some of the violence, he’s kept a safe, wary distance from the chaos, first as a soccer player in his teen years and now as a rapper.
In the basement where we're sitting, the video for a local hit called “Deadmihana” plays on loop. It's by a rapper named Pressa, a friend of Banks'; they both appeared on a song called “Wass Gang,” dedicated to their late friend Kwasi Skene-Peters. Banks and his entire crew know all the lyrics to "Deadmihana." At one point, Banks passes me a cellphone so I can FaceTime with Pressa. It feels like Pressa’s in the room with us.
The day after I meet with Hendryx and Banks and his extended crew, I am given a tour of the Jungle – the neighborhood for which Drake has a well-documented affinity – by Hassan “Top 5” Ali, a.k.a. Shirt Off Shawty. Ali, who is 16 years old, managed to squeeze me in during his school hours. With over 15 friends in tow, he walked me and the MTV film crew through his neighborhood. It’s cold outside, but Ali, whose gimmick is taking his shirt off “on any block,” insists on taking his OVO sweatshirt off to uphold his brand.
There was a point, while crossing a bridge in the neighborhood, when all the guys started running because they saw someone they thought was an undercover cop. The Jungle is one of those neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone, so the guy – regardless of whether he was actually a cop – set off alarms simply for being unrecognizable to them.
Ali's come-up started off as a combination of hilarious bare-belly selfies with celebrities on his Instagram and myth-making in the form of harmless exaggeration. He used to claim to be the younger brother of a girl from the Jungle with whom Drake was romantically involved (neither of Hassan’s sisters have ever dated Drake). Later on, Hassan suggests he has a song coming out with Drake. When I ask how he got a Drake feature, he reveals to me that he’s still working on it – but he’s positive Drake will go for it. All he has to do, he says, is shoot Drake a text. Even though Drake’s recording history does not include any songs with up-and-coming teen rappers, to Ali there’s hope that he could be the first. To a local artist like Ali, Drake is still accessible – a friend, or at least a point of entry into a forbidding industry.