This spring, Drake will release his fourth studio album, Views From The 6. In interviews, he’s talked about his pride for Toronto: “I think it’s important for the city to feel like they have a real presence out there,” he told The FADER, in a cover story last year. “I’ve just become really adamant about leaving fragments in everything I do that belong strictly to my city.” The artwork for Views, which finds him perched, almost forlorn, on top of the CN Tower, suggests that what we’re about to get will be more of a ride-along perspective than mere traces. But there is so much more to Toronto than landmarks and slang; the city is gentrifying, embracing its status as a creative capital, and evolving beyond diversity as aesthetic. So we talked to 16 people about what it’s like to be a business owner, creative, and activist in Toronto in 2016.
Jonathan Ramos, concert promoter
“I’ve been a concert promoter for over 20 years. The first show I ever did was in 1993: the Pharcyde, with Bass Is Base as direct support and Russell Peters as the opening act. It’s hard to imagine now because hip-hop is mainstream, but back then there were a lot of stereotypes attached to its primary consumer demographic of young black males. It was hard to book shows. Sometimes we’d have to go into makeshift venues like community centres or banquet halls, or we’d have to go with the B-list venues and pay our dues [with less desirable nights]. That Pharcyde show was on a Monday night!
“I couldn’t foresee doing this for a living back then. There weren’t enough shows to book, or reputable venues, managers, agents to work with. Toronto never used to be a priority for tour agents and now, we’re a top five market in North America in terms of ticket sales. It’s radically different. Years ago the thing was that we had the largest West Indian community outside of the Caribbean, which informed the music of Michie Mee, Dream Warriors, Maestro, Kardi, and so on. That’s still there, but now a lot of the music coming out of Toronto isn’t just informed by that—it’s a little bit of everything. We’ve always known about the litany of artists here who are world class, but lacked the interest from the rest of the world. Now, there’s genuine excitement.”
Jus Reign, comedian
“Brampton is the South Asian sector of the Greater Toronto Area. On the streets you’ll see elderly Sikh men and women taking walks, or riding bikes. It’s nice to see that in Canada because that’s what Punjabi people do back home: after being out in the fields, you go for a walk. In Brampton, people are always cooking in garages so that the smell doesn’t linger in the house. You’ll see garage doors open, kids playing on the driveway, and you’ll get a whiff of the food: that’s thurka, its fried onions and garlic, being cooked with various sabzi. It’s that distinct smell. Driving around you’ll hear bhangra music blasting, and lots of hip-hop too. Girls might wear Indian suits to prom. Kids and teens aren’t embarrassed to play their music, or eat their food, or celebrate their culture in Brampton.
“My theory on why music from Toronto is making waves is because of the blend of cultures: that’s why I love Drake, the Weeknd, Roy Woods, Ramriddlz. Even the Punjabi kids who are rappers or singers: they’ll rap in Punjabi, or sing in English with a heavily Indian melody, to create a unique sound. That’s definitely a Brampton thing, and I think we’re going to see more and more of this, pushing forward the idea of a new urban, Canadian culture.”
Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio's Metro Morning
“Toronto is a big city with a number of different neighborhoods, different communities in those neighborhoods, and different stories in those neighborhood. Despite how much we celebrate the city and its diversity, people live in one little pocket and probably work pretty close to that area. Metro Morning works hard to get all those different voices and narratives onto our show. We want to really talk about the city as a whole, so we need to be out in the city. I spend much of my day—when I'm not working—hanging around, exploring different parts of Toronto so I can actually know what I am talking about.
“But I think we need to broaden the conversation when it comes to the diversity thing. Of those communities that we think are important here, are they really being represented in positions of power? Are they getting their opportunity to really help shape the city that they are in? Do we take them or that diversity for granted? Are we fully employing our mind muscle? People come here from all over the world, right? They choose to come to the city and they get here and the cliché is that they end up driving taxis or cleaning this building before I come in at 4 a.m. They have degrees. They have intelligence. They have skills. We need to figure out how to seize on that brain power.
“The women who are in the towers in Rexdale, trying to open little businesses so they can sell home-cooked food and connect with people who live in their building—what could we do to better make them part of the system? That's the kind of stuff we need to do. The cool thing now is that people believe there is possibility and potential in Toronto. There are all sorts of people who see this city as on the come up, and they’re ready to figure out a way to knock it up to the next level.”
Ronnice G, party promoter
“The first time I threw a party was in 2011, for my friend's rap show. We just turned up. The environment was multicultural, we listened to Dipset, Ja Rule, old 50, whatever we wanted. Basically how it is now, but a smaller pocket [of people]. I never went out. I was shy. When I started throwing parties I wanted to put on something that I wanted to see, as a man who didn’t drink or do drugs at that time. I really was trying to put my heart into something. And it was exciting.
“Now the parties are costly. I spend all this money getting there and in. People throwing the parties are cliquey, half the time they don’t even show up. They don’t follow through with the love. Right now it’s, like, wasteland-ish. Boothy, bottle service, that kind of thing: exclusivity, but everyone is using that format now. There used to be a nightlife scene people were excited about, a place where you could find and see everybody. The city’s fighting to make a name so I can see why we’re all clashing. I can see why we weren’t working together before; shit wasn’t that hot. But while it’s bubbling we might as well. We can’t shit on anyone else. You’re going to come to FETTI for FETTI, EFS for EFS, Wildflower for Wildflower. There’s gotta be coordination. A year from now I hope the nightlife scene is more open-minded. People are getting smarter, so you can teach them what’s good. [Otherwise] promoters get comfortable with the money they’re getting and what they’re producing.”
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“Toronto, to me, is a microcosm of a unique people who aren’t necessarily bound together by national identity, so we have to create our own along the way.”—Janaya Khan
Eugene Tam, record store owner
“Yonge Street was a pretty vibrant area. There were like six or seven record stores on the strip, but we were doing more underground stuff. We’d open the stores on public holidays and there would be lineups. The internet changed everything. There’s only one camera store on Yonge Street now. People change too. Outside of downtown Toronto, you have lots of big malls: people don’t [need to] come downtown anymore.
“Now there are condominiums all along Yonge Street. Prices go up and taxes go up, because the property value increases. It makes things difficult, especially in the music industry, so I moved to Spadina and College where it’s a little bit cheaper. I wasn’t emotional leaving, but a lot of customers were. We’ve been here for 26 years, so a lot of people grew up with us: DJs who are playing in clubs now, people who bought their first turntables here. There was one couple, the girlfriend was almost in tears because they started dating here in the ’90s. They met when all the DJs would come on Thursdays and talk about issues, new music, what’s going on with the clubs. It was a community. We had all the top house DJs: Chris Sheppard, Deadly Hedley, Starting From Scratch, Jester, Kenny Glasgow of The Art Department, Nick Holder, DJ Iron Mike, a lot of top DJs. Some of them worked here and met people in the industry. Me not being a DJ, I just wanted to get the music out there as fast as I could and break underground artists. Now the internet does it all for you, and Play De Record tries to grow with it.”
Benjamin Boles, writer and former NOW Magazine music editor
“In the early ‘00s Toronto had the Broken Social Scene moment and all these indie musicians were thrust into a worldwide spotlight, but every scene has representation here and always has. Right now, you can’t ignore that Toronto hip-hop is being paid attention to in a [new] way. I don’t know if I see a lot of local hip-hop shows downtown happening on the scale that people from outside Toronto might think. That’s probably the traditional reluctance of bookers because the shows I see are well-attended—there’s a fanbase. That’s just the usual racism. It’s not like the world changes overnight.
“The late-night, last-call thing has become accepted in Toronto. Last call used to be 1 a.m., and it created this whole after-hours scene, but the law has been slowly loosening over time. As the city allows more stuff to happen in a legitimate way, it almost has a negative effect on the underground because there’s no necessity for underground activity. And the real estate boom means there are no spaces for people to do things off the radar. Clubland is not what it once was, and that might be a good thing. When you’re reading a book like Denise Benson’s Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History, a lot of that stuff started off in legally gray areas. Variations still exist but there’s no longer the need for it because people have spaces online. That’s why there are less clubs: needs change—and the rent. Real estate puts way more pressure on venues than people realize because if you have the profit margin you can work your way around [city] regulations. I mean, that’s why bottle service happened: because there is so much money you can make. So, maybe Scarborough or Etobicoke could become ‘the new Brooklyn’ of Toronto—if there was better transit support."
Director X, music video director and filmmaker
"A West Indian restaurant is a perfect example of the melting pot of Toronto. You walk in, and it’s everybody. Everyone’s getting a patty or a roti, everyone knows what jerk chicken is like, everyone has a dish they want to get. It’s a United Nations inside a Toronto West Indian restaurant. We all grew up connected to that culture through the school cafeteria, or someone that you know—somehow you’ve experienced that food. That’s a great example of how we get along here, because of those school years when we’re all in the same building together. There’s some racism here, but it chops down to misunderstanding as opposed to good old fashioned fear. There’s still a larger culture of some folks telling you black men are scary, and black men being told they’re scary. There’s all these things at play. But it’s nowhere near a community that hasn’t seen white people for a century."
“Toronto’s home. It’s a difficult home. It’s the kind of place where you can do really, really well and then have to start over again.”—Amanda Parris
Susan Blight, artist, activist, University of Toronto staff
“I’m originally from Couchiching First Nation, of Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty No. 3. I’ve lived in Toronto for five years. I find Toronto to be a place of hope and inspiration. People come here from all over Canada and the world to start or build a life. What’s happened [because] we live in a settler colonialist system is that, at times, Toronto has celebrated that multiculturalism—which is great and beautiful—to the detriment of the visibility of Indigenous people and our histories, and the fact that we’ve been here for 15,000 years before this place was ever known as Toronto. Sometimes I think that’s consciously erased to celebrate multiculturalism. It’s changing due to the work of Indigenous activists and allies working really hard to reclaim histories and present them to people. For me, Toronto really represents a place of hope for people of all different backgrounds to live together in a reciprocal relationship with each other and the land, and to come to a different kind understanding of how we do that respectfully, with generosity and kindness. It’s a huge city—you have potential to be anonymous, but at the same time, its a neighbourhood and community-driven place. To build community as quickly as I did in Toronto was surprising and a beautiful thing for me.”
Amanda Parris, host of CBC’s Exhibitionists
“I was born in London, England, and I moved here when I was 10 years old. It was a really difficult transition because I moved from the heart of London—a concrete jungle in the best and worst ways that it can be—to Malvern, which, in my eyes, were the suburbs. It was the first time that I’d heard that I came from a single-parent household. I’d never heard that terminology growing up in London—not that it doesn’t exist, but it wasn’t something I heard or thought about. Toronto’s home. It’s a difficult home. It’s the kind of place where you can do really, really well and then have to start over again. There are people I know who keep being called emerging artists, who’ve been doing this work for so long. It feels like once you begin, there’s nowhere to go. There’s no middle ground to continue your ascension. But I’m very invested in helping to build spaces and platforms for people, particularly creative people, to grow, be recognized and acknowledged. Our city has a short term memory. There’s a certain energy that can be depressing and nihilistic here, but there’s a shift that’s happening now: it’s becoming the cool place to be. Toronto’s magical; there are so many people coming from places and because of the lack of strong, Canadian culture, it allows for the opportunity to create, experiment, remix. It’s really cool. I haven’t experienced that anywhere else, really. I feel like that’s a gift.”
Janaya Khan, Black Lives Matter TO
“I think Toronto elicits a type of warmth. I think of its smells. My Caribbean roots are really deep, deep in Toronto; I think of the food, I think of the dope people, I think of the sort of pan-Africanists that exists here. When I think of Toronto I think of, like, a hard city. It’s not an easy city. It’s a city where you have to hustle, but it’s not a hustle where you necessarily have to lose your soul. Toronto, to me, is a microcosm of a unique people who aren’t necessarily bound together by national identity, so we have to create our own along the way.
“I’m born and raised in Toronto. Outside of a tiny stint, I’ve stayed locked in Toronto ever since. Now, we’re seeing gentrification in a massive way. In that gentrification, we’re seeing the erasure of people. We’re seeing the erasure of poor people, of black people and racialized people from the downtown core. You know, back in the day, people used to talk about Regent Park, Moss Park, Esplanade, Flemingdon. There were beefs between those communities, and the language around them has changed but not for the people in it. You know, I feel like in a lot of ways, you’re supposed to grow up out of the hood; it’s something that you reflect on, and you don’t think about the people who grew up in the hood and never left.”
Mustafa Ahmed, poet
“I’m born and raised in Regent Park, right on Regent Street. All things undergo change, and with Regent Park, people started moving, people started coming in. It just felt bigger. It felt like I had to grow with the revitalization to stay alive, and for my art to stay alive. Most of my work is a reflection of my community, a reflection of everything that I see. It’s hard to find your voice; it’s not too many people tapping into any of those narratives and there’s so much to be said here. The revitalization altered a lot of us in the community. We were trying to refine ourselves. With inner-city communities, especially in Toronto, it’s really tight knit. People don’t really familiarize with much more than their communities, so to watch it transform in real-time had a subtle effect on a lot of the youth, even the elders and how they now cope with it.
“There are countless sub-communities in Regent Park: it’s huge, it’s the largest housing community. The Caribbean community, the East African community—the Somalis, Ethiopians, Bengalis in north Regent, the Afghans. There are over 70 languages spoken here, and the intersections and collaborations of that is great. It’s what makes Regent Park. I’m trying to continue to make my mark on my community, to continue to preserve the old, you know? To preserve what once existed. I just don’t want people to forget what once existed and the people that were once there.”
Joel Zola, activist
“I was born in Swaziland and came to Canada when I was 2 years old. I traveled all across Canada with my family and got kicked out of my house at 15. I traveled to Edmonton and Vancouver, and came to Toronto when I was 17 or 18. My impression of Toronto and the shelter systems, compared to out west, is there are a lot more services, diversity, culture, and energy. The shelter system in Calgary pays for a place for you to rest your head, and then they kick you out—even on a snowy day. Here in Toronto, they don’t. The street kids are inside a building, figuring things out. Also, the shelter system in Toronto gives you money. That shocked me. There are a lot of free services, like where we’re doing this interview, at Artscape. Downstairs there’s SKETCH, a community centre for street-involved youth. They have a recording studio. I did a one-year paid training program where I learned about the non-profit sector, workshop facilitation and grant writing, and basically the community side of business. [My magazine] Street Voices would have been a lot harder to do in other cities because Toronto has a lot of funding for arts organizations, the urban population is stronger, and there’s more of a socially conscious perspective than out west.
“[The shelter system] is like a hidden world, so we need to raise awareness. There are regular people in it. The stereotype is an old panhandler, but there are a lot of people that are homeless. Street Voices has been out for a year and a half, and I’ve been out of the shelter system for only three months. I launched five issues of a magazine while I was homeless. People become homeless for a lot of different reasons. They get kicked out of the house, they run away. I’ve seen scenarios where people’s families die, and that’s why they’re in the system, or left difficult situations from outside Canada. Anyone can be in the system. People get left behind all the time. When you live in the shelter system, you have an extra obstacle that everybody else doesn’t have.”
Bryan Espiritu, designer
“The whole Screwface Capital mentality, that was a real thing. I remember when I first saw Kardi's 'Bakardi Slang' video on Much Music. In my mind I was like, ‘This is it. We’re breaking out and our Caribbean influences will be heard.’ There were even rumours that Boot Camp Clik didn’t start using patois 'til they came to Toronto one time. But I don’t think people in Toronto were really riding for Kardinal like that. Even though he was out there doing his thing, I don’t think it was really embraced that much. It was almost an impossibility because there was no industry at that time in Toronto to really push you to those numbers. FLOW 93.5 wasn’t really a thing yet, it was all college radio. Even if someone was dope, there wasn’t a machine there to help you rise. People weren’t looking at you like you could make it, because it felt impossible. The Screwface thing is always going to exist, and I think that’s a positive thing. It’s not hater shit, it’s looking at an artist and saying, ‘It’s good, but it’s not quite there yet.’
“I met Drake at a hip-hop weekly that used to happen at a bar called Reilly’s. A producer told me about him and said, ‘Yo, you need to do design work for him.’ That’s how small the community was. There were like three designers to choose from, and I was one of them. The community’s definitely grown, but things changed a lot with social media. I don’t really feel that sense of community. It’s like a high school mentality, very cliquey. When I started [my clothing line] Legends League in 2007, there was no room for vulnerability in the streetwear game so I built one. It was nowhere near as acceptable to be open about your emotions as it is now. I did that because it felt true to me, and that authenticity and the fact that I have my feet rooted in where the city was before without adopting the complain-y OG mentality, that’s what’s made it work from Pickering to Brampton.”
“The ‘Screwface Capital’ thing is always going to exist, and I think that’s a positive thing. It’s not hater shit, it’s looking at an artist and saying, ‘It’s good, but it’s not quite there yet.’”—Bryan Espiritu
Rich Kidd, rapper and producer
"People call Toronto ‘the Screwface Capital’ but I don’t know why. I get so much love here. Every city is hard to break, until you break it. I feel like Toronto is a happy city compared to other places I’ve been, you know? Everybody says ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and ‘sorry,’ even when they're not supposed to.
“My Toronto is the hip-hop scene, and it’s very diverse. You got your street dudes. You got your pop-rappers—guys that are trying to make hits. At one time, it was separate: rappers didn't really sing, and singers didn't really try to rap. That's the Toronto I watched growing up. Today, most of the kids are rapping and singing. They’re not afraid to be vulnerable in rap, to be somewhat soft and hard at the same time. Drake was the first of a new generation: the first to really blow up from here, so he defined the sound for the rest of the people coming up after him.
“I like that guys like PARTYNEXTDOOR are repping Mississauga because now I feel like I'm not the only one, you know? I’m from 'Sauga, but for me there isn’t much of a distinction between 'Sauga and Toronto. We all kind of move the same, we're all still using Toronto lingo, we're all performing in Toronto. We all have to go through Toronto to get our stripes or whatever. Where you're from is important—it's validation in hip-hop—but where you're at speaks more about you.”
“The developers have bought our location, so it’s just a matter of time. After 42 years, we’ll go. I don’t have any say, I’m just a small person. I cannot fight with the developers.”—Ruth Sawh
Ruth Sawh, restaurant owner
“We first opened Island Foods in Dufferin Mall in 1974. In 1986, they were renovating and so we opened our King and Dufferin location. There was nothing particularly good about the area, it was just close to the mall so we wouldn’t lose our customers. Thirty years ago there was absolutely nothing—there was no Liberty Village, there was no community until ten to fifteen years ago when development picked up. My husband begged me to close the restaurant, but business picked up in 1998. Now it’s become the hub of the city where everybody wants to live and work. Liberty Village has enhanced the Parkdale area. It’s brought a lot of business.
“It’s turned out to be an excellent location, but we’re going to go. The developers have bought our location, so it’s just a matter of time. After 42 years, we’ll go. I don’t have any say, I’m just a small person. I cannot fight with the developers. The signs are already up all over the place. They’re supposed to give us one year notice, but that hasn’t happened yet. Our customers have signed petitions and had a number of things on the internet saying this is a landmark for the community, but we haven’t heard anything. When you see condominiums popping up all over the city and pushing people out, as a business you worry. Anything that happens next door can happen to you. When neighbourhoods get gentrified, they lose something and can never get it back.”
Kristyn Wong-Tam, city councillor for Ward 27
“We have a citizenship who are more engaged and connected to their neighbourhoods, communities, and elected officials than back in 2010 when I first got elected. I think some of this is because of an unpredictable and controversial mayor by the name of Rob Ford. He was very polarizing; you either really liked his policies and his politics, or you hated them. When Ford decided he wasn’t going to raise the rainbow flag at City Hall, and by refusing to participate in Pride marches, he gave permission to people to ignore and vilify the LGBT community. This is a community that has been subjected to discrimination and violence. So I think it sent a very clear message, that our rights were being eroded. There was a message of indifference, and then active homophobia that motivated Rob Ford: he was caught on video making homophobic comments about Justin Trudeau, and using homophobic language in Jamaican patois. I was the only ‘out’ sitting council member, and all of a sudden I was receiving death threats based on my sexuality. Toronto is still the greatest city in the world, but until we tackle the social inequalities and social exclusion in our great city, we’ll continue to have people left behind.
“Black Lives Matter is the manifestation of a community that feels frustrated and excluded from the system. I am not black, so I haven’t experienced anti-black racism, but I do acknowledge that it is a real thing. There are very legitimate concerns with how authorities interact with racialized people, and how their bodies are valued differently than white bodies. I would recommend to Mayor Tory that we need to find a way to communicate and get a fuller understanding of what these young activists are looking for. And if the language is messy—meaning it’s not in the language of policy—then so be it. Because we have to engage with communities in the way they need to be engaged. We’re going to have these difficult conversations to make our imperfect democracy better. It means dealing with racism, it means dealing with sexism, and mental illness. The mayor needs to know that we are all working within a system that’s constantly evolving to be responsive to communities.”