A few weeks ago I read an article that addressed a statement made by Drake in a short promotional documentary which features the Toronto rapper. In the commercial Drake confidently encourages emerging artists to “do it from where you’re at!” This statement grabbed my attention, partly because I think it’s an important one, and partly because I am an rapper born and raised in Toronto. Although the statement has some merit to it, it isn’t totally true. Yes, the Internet has changed the music industry completely by providing an opportunity for international exposure where at one point there was nothing. Artists like Shi Wisdom, Jazz Cartier and Daniel Caesar (currently some of my favorites from Toronto) have all used the Internet to build their audience locally and internationally. However, Drake’s statement is oversimplified and doesn’t take into account the labyrinth of gatekeepers, relationships, and power dynamics in the music industry as a whole, and the lack of accessible music infrastructure in Canada specifically.
As pointed out in his piece; Aubrey’s success has not yet made Toronto easier for most artists though his situation has brought plenty of attention to our city, specifically to OVO Sound artistsPARTYNEXTDOOR, Majid Jordan, and Roy Woods. OVO Fest has just wrapped its sixth year brings tens of thousands of fans through the gates of the Molson Amphitheatre every year, and what other artist could bring a full Kanye West set to Toronto? Hip-hop as a culture is arguably the most location specific art form, and Drake’s consistent praise of and work for our city has put Toronto in the minds of pop culture in a way that it simply wasn’t before. His rise has lifted the international profile of Toronto producers Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1da, T-Minus, and Mike Zombie, who have helped to craft a sound that is now widely understood to be a “Toronto sound.” His support of The Weeknd is also well documented, but Drake and his team should not have to bare the full burden of the entire hip-hop and R&B scene in Toronto. For a new artist, if you’re not going through OVO directly (or indirectly), it is no easier than it was pre-Drake to be heard. So when Drake proclaims that going stateside isn’t necessary anymore, he’s doing artists from Toronto a disservice—even though the sentiment is honorable.
The fact is that doing it from where you’re at requires that what you’re doing is valued where you’re from, and I believe that this discussion is fundamentally about the ways in which Toronto’s local hip-hop scene is undervalued by private media, public media, and business entities that curate and profit from Toronto’s local music economy. I am an independent artist, born in Toronto and raised in Esplanade, a neighborhood in the heart of the city where I’ve lived for three decades, I pay attention to Jimmy Johnson, I was also around for Concrete Mob, I greet Yasmine Warsame when I see her; all Esplanade. My parents, Claire Prieto and Roger McTair, came to Toronto in 1970 from Trinidad and would become the first black filmmakers in the country; I was raised in the black arts community in Toronto. I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) that a consistent and coordinated structure is necessary to support art; certain art forms and certain personalities will jolt that structure into action more than others. Art, like any other product that enters a market, requires a strong, clear pathway to reach an audience; it requires a system for promotion, a system for distribution, and a system for some kind of exchange. When Drake speaks of “doing it” he is talking about doing it big, so the phrases “do it the way I did it!” and “do it from where you’re at” are actually in conflict with the documented reality of his career; Drake technically did not do it from where he was at, he became a star in America.
The key statement that is made in the article is a statement about “access.” As most artists know directly or indirectly, opportunity has little correlation to access; a door does not necessarily allow you to pass through its threshold, it has to first be unlocked. Toronto has the infrastructure needed for a career in music, more than most other cities in Canada, but it is limited and surrounded by barriers that limit access. Canada has 11% of the population of the U.S.A but its landmass is 1.6% larger, making us one of the world’s most sparsely populated nations (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, 2013). Ontario, one province in the country, the province that boasts the country’s largest city, Toronto, generates 82% of Canada’s music industry revenues (OMDC, 2014). These might seem like a random statistics but they illustrate one reason why Canadian music companies don’t generate as much income as American companies, there is much less audience spread out over a very large area, which means less profit (Read More).