Princess Nokia. Nitty Scott. Lizzo. Junglepussy. Janelle Monae. It is no doubt that there is a charge of badass activist energy running through the rap and hip-hop scene right now, led predominantly by queer women and femmes of color. The intersection of social justice and music obviously has a long history. Woven within the very frameworks of hip-hop are the essence of defiance, resistance, and solidarity within oppressed groups. In Montreal, even within the enclosed radius surrounding the McGill campus, the city has carved out its own spaces that intertwine social justice with hip-hop and rap music.
Rooted in Black history and struggle, hip-hop and rap music are not just cohesive with messages of social justice, but are also direct products of the fight against injustice.
“Rap Battles Against Sexual Violence,” an event organized by Rap Battles for Social Justice, took place on September 28. Rap Battles for Social Justice is an organization founded in 2015 by Dan Parker. The event served as a fundraiser, and a platform to have conversations about sexual violence with an intersectional perspective. The event tried to centre voices that are usually marginalized in public events and emphasized accessibility. There was a designated wheelchair-accessible area in the front row, and listeners prepared to support those who may need to process trauma or any kind of emotional stress present at the venue. Performers with all different backgrounds, life experiences, and messages were encouraged to bring their individual musical vibes to the event. Having only lived in Montreal for a little over a month, I could tell that there was something special going on, for even I could already recognize some artists. In fact, Rap Battles Against Sexual Violence is an active part of the grassroots network of activists doubling as rappers and hip-hop artists in Montreal.
A few days after the show, I had the opportunity to sit down with two performers from the event, Shades Lawrence and Ashanti “Backxwash” Mutinta, as well as two coordinators for Rap Battles for Social Justice, V-shan Charamis and Taliba Maude. From each conversation, I discovered similar themes that encompass the local rap-activist scene: the importance of Montreal as the setting for this movement, the mandate of inclusivity in the community, and the nature of hip-hop and rap being complementary to the cause.
“Music, when done right, connects to people’s hearts in a way that academic talk doesn’t always do.” – Shades Lawrence
On Montreal being an important setting for social change, Lawrence said, “one thing that I think makes [the Montreal hip-hop scene] really unique is our social justice consciousness. I think a lot of artists here talk about causes and issues that are incredibly close to their hearts.” Whether you believe this is a feature specific to Montreal’s music, or generally the case for most city-based rap scenes, Lawrence’s statement holds true. If you look at some of the city’s biggest rappers, their lyrics and messages are largely both socially conscious and extremely personal. Lawrence herself explores themes of globalization, colonialism, and the right to water in her song “Formidable Time.” She raps, “I was bought and sold/auction blocked and told/to forget my name/I was brought to the fold.”
Montreal itself boasts cultural, social, and economic diversity. In a study conducted by Nestpick, Montreal was ranked 12th in the world for “Best LGBT Cities in 2017.” Backxwash compliments Montreal’s appreciation of diversity, explaining that “a lot of people here use what everyone else would see as a disadvantage, as an advantage.” She used herself as an example, explaining how being a trans Black woman brings societal disadvantages, but is an important asset to creating her art. Montreal’s diversity of experience brings both a complex system of oppression, as well as pockets of extremely supportive communities working to fight that oppression. This struggle is the heart of Montreal-based music. As Charamis said, “it only makes sense that [Rap Battles for Social Justice] started here in Montreal.”
Another key aspect of organizations like Rap Battles for Social Justice and its counterparts is its openness to collaboration. The Rap Battles Against Sexual Violence show was a collective effort that included Urban Science, LOTUS Collective, and the Concordia Student Union. Lawrence also discussed the overlap between the activist rap scene and the Montreal poetry scene, referencing the group SistersInMotion, a local poetry group which supports and celebrates women and femmes of color. Often musical artists are involved in more than one collective or project, thus solidifying the network of local artists and activists. Backxwash explained, “when you end up working with somebody in one community, it can introduce you to four more people there.”
In Montreal, even within the enclosed radius surrounding the McGill campus, the city has carved out its own spaces that intertwine social justice with hip-hop and rap music.
These groups not only aim to be inclusive for all performers, but also accessible to the public. When describing their mission, Rap Battles for Social Justice uses the phrase “popular education.” Charamis explained it as “for the people and by the people,” where social issues are discussed freely and comprehensively so that it is understandable and useful to the public. The organization offers free hip-hop writing workshops at community centres, prisons, and universities, using music as a vehicle to get messages of inclusivity to the public in accessible ways. Lawrence said, “music, when done right, connects to people’s hearts in a way that academic talk doesn’t always do.”
Rooted in Black history and struggle, hip-hop and rap music are not just cohesive with messages of social justice, but are also direct products of the fight against injustice. Backxwash stated it perfectly: “hip-hop is rebel music,” referencing artists like Public Enemy and Queen Latifah. Beyond rebellion against oppressive systems, music is an important vehicle for change, for education, and for community-building. As Maude said, “it starts out as protest, but through the music, through the creation, it brings you somewhere else. It unifies people.”
The Rap Battles for Social Justice can be found on Facebook. You can find both Shades Lawrence and Backxwash on their respective websites, or look for them on Spotify.