Kwende Kefentse
by Kwende Kefentse
Wed Feb 25th 2009 at 10:40am UTC

Musical Spikes: One of These Things Doesn’t Belong Here

There’s lots of good music emerging out of the T-Dot urban music scene right now, which seems to be indicating something interesting about the city’s profile with respect to talent, at least in that scene. Toronto has a notoriously coarse urban music culture, known internationally as “The Screwface Capital” – in the analogue world, we used to get the music early from our cousins in New York and play it out just so that we could be over it first. We can’t wait to be apathetic about your music. Especially if the artist is out of the GTA. Something about that metabolism has always devoured artists from the area before they could break international ground. And yet within the last few weeks or so:

K’naan released his hotly anticipated album Troubadour yesterday:


Drake has been generating quite a bit of buzz around the recent release of his “Mixtape” So Far Gone:


K-OS single called 4 3 2 1 from his forthcoming Yes! album has been picking up steam with the release of the video:


And Zaki Ibrahim’s recent EP Eclectica (Episodes in Purple) has just received a Juno nomination for R&B / Soul Recording of the Year – she’s making noise in the UK and other places around the world as well:


So here’s a question: How many of these artists, each of whom has been experiencing great success abroad, and represents Toronto not only on their MySpace pages but also in their lyrics and music, were born in the GTA or even the province?

The answer: Only K-OS.

And while K-OS represents something of the “old guard,” one of the last monuments to the early 90s scene, K’naan, Drake, and Zaki Ibrahim are arguably some of the strongest talent cultivating some of the strongest international buzz out of the city. And they are all imports – K’naan from Somalia, Drake from Tennessee, and Zaki from… well… all over, starting with Vancouver.

While each represent the city in their own way, they are unapologetically hybrid – much like Toronto itself. These artists have been able to come to the city, call it home and find the right people, layers of connectivity, and industry infrastructure to launch their careers into the national/international stratosphere.

So what is it about Toronto’s music scene – at least the urban music scene – that international talent has found so enabling? Why has it seemed to be less kind to its “native” artists?  Why haven’t we seen this kind of talent-spiking in Halifax, or Vancouver, or even Montreal? What is it about a city that gives it the capacity to not only attract and incubate such a diversity of talent, but the capacity to launch it as well?

I know there’s already enough music in this post, but here’s some more.

9 Responses to “Musical Spikes: One of These Things Doesn’t Belong Here”

  1. Fin Says:

    Don’t forget TO stole these ones from Mtl:

  2. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Tru ’nuff tru ’nuff – there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in the electro scene in Toronto. Significant spikes there too no doubt. I don’t know the “native” to “foreign” rate though.

    It’s hard to determine what that even means in a city like Toronto, but I think for the sake of argument we can say, native = “was born in a GTA hospital or went to either primary/middle/secondary school in a GTA school”. Foreign = “Everything else”? Even that is a weird differentiation.

    What’s interesting is that it seems like Toronto has very low barriers for entry – people are able to feel as if they are a a part of the city easily and relatively quickly. More tolerance maybe? But why?

  3. Alison Says:


    You bring up an excellent point…but that’s Toronto no? Even those of us who were born there often still consider ourselves to be some sort of hybrid, nuh true?

    I don’t know what it is about the city that welcomes people the way it does…and isn’t that ironic considering it’s also the Screwface capital?

    Thanks for the music…there could never be too much.

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    I get “This video is no longer available” on these links. Can you check and re-set?


  5. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Seems to be working fine…Maybe give your browser a refresh?

  6. mat Says:

    not available comes up for me too.
    even after i refresh in safari.

  7. sam Says:

    Kwende you raise good questions here. The stand out for me is how do local music scenes and sounds function in a world of globally-oriented cities? K’Naan, Drake and Zaki may simply choose to live in Toronto because of its relatively high quality of life (take Frank-n-Dank for example, were they in Toronto to launch their career or just on a vacation from The D?) and relatively big ‘cultural’ scene, but what does the greater international success of musical ‘transplants’ to the city say about the development of a local sound in the Toronto urban music scene?
    Toronto definitely has the cultural and media industries which a musician needs to launch their career. Toronto is also seemingly welcoming to new residents (e.g. people not born in the city) as seen with the recent demographic stats. Toronto also celebrates its cosmopolitanism almost to a fault. Is it simply these factors that make the city attractive?
    As you mentioned, early 1990s Toronto hip-hop was a real scene, there was definitely a ‘sound’ being nurtured (the Beatfactory RapEssentials comps being a great example). Maybe this sound was too idiosyncratic to touch a cord with a wider audience. Or maybe the screwface capital audience is too insecure to let its own music out for fear of it being got over too quickly.

  8. Sean Conforti Says:

    I think you’re onto something there at the end of your post Sam. As a nation, Canada has a serious identity crisis; we do seem to celebrate our diversity to a fault. The fault being that we don’t necessarily have a specific culture, and the worry runs rampant that we are just the little brother of the U.S., that what we have is nought but their left-overs – this idea is very prevalent in Canadian fiction. So perhaps it’s not so much a fear of letting our own stuff out and having it eaten up and gotten over too quickly, as it is an over-emphasis on foreign artists derived from the multicultural atmosphere of the nation – which is typified by Toronto. Perhaps we are so focused on our diversity that we inadvertantly (subconsciously as a culture) give credit where it’s due to foreign artists, while giving our own domestic talent a much harder time?

  9. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Good points all. I think there’s also something to be said for that “screwface” attitude in building a tough and rigorous, but sturdy music scene from which to launch.

    It’s strange though, when “foreign” artists find it more welcoming than the “native” artists who have built that scene. I like what Sam suggested in that artists from the city might be carrying around the albatross of being “Toronto’d”. Seems very likely.

    Here’s a great mix of music from that early 90’s Toronto scene from the Grand Groove blog: