Earlier this week the Canadian Press reported that out of 43 musicians who received federal grants last year, only four were hip-hop artists. Is the system stacked against them? We asked a veteran rapper to share some wisdom.
Often described as music that dominates Canadian record sales and radio play, rap is a huge money-making genre ... for major music labels whose parent companies are based in the United States. For people trying to make music here, it's a different story. Being a Canadian rapper means never having to say you're rich.
But I don't speak from a place of bitterness (much); it's just reality. Under the name More Or Les, I've been a professional emcee since 1992 (the first time someone put cash in my hand for rhyming "material" with "cereal" in front of strangers), turning an afterschool activity into something that almost pays decently.
It's a challenge most Canadian artists face. With a smaller population than the U.S., a lack of infrastructure for urban music development and very few independent or major labels offering (or able to offer) monetary advances for music and video creation, the Canadian rapper must get crafty and create promotional, performance and financial opportunities for himself.
And crafty I have been; hip-hop creators often insist that the core of their culture is to do things differently from what mainstream society expects. I've performed at the World Cycling Championships, Second City, the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place and the North York Central Library as a part of well-attended, decent-paying shows where you would typically not expect to find a rapper.
Add to that being the only rapper on the zine-writers' Perpetual Motion Roadshow tour, and taking it upon myself to busk (read: me, mic, iPod, speaker, cash box, CDs, rapping) on the Queen St. W. sidewalk, and you have someone who has learned to find opportunities.
Enter: grants and loans. Offered by provincial, federal and private organizations, grant and loan programs differ almost as much as the music. You can find programs to cover costs for video-making, recording, production, touring and product duplication (CDs and vinyl), as well as items some rappers overlook, like marketing, promotions, travel to and attendance of music conferences, and writing. Imagine someone paying you to write lyrics! To some folks, that's getting paid before "getting paid."
Grant and loan bodies available to Toronto rappers include FACTOR (which assists on recording and video expenses) and its visual equivalent VideoFACT; the Ontario Arts Council; PromoFACT; and the Toronto Arts Council. They all have websites, occasionally have information seminars, and some even have staff available on the phone to answer any questions.
But I would not call this "free money." Even though I have received funding through the Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council and recently from FACTOR, it did not come easily.
It took me a while to discover, understand and apply for funding – several times. And there is work involved; it's more than just filling out a form. I've seen artists scoff at that, thinking they should be able to submit their music and get a cheque. But all of these organizations have criteria that must be met; all the Is must be dotted, all the Ts crossed; and most importantly, your project must be creative, professional and logical, regardless of genre. And this detail can work to an artist's advantage in other ways: you might get your work seen and/or heard by organizations not interested in funding rap specifically if you present it in a way that fits their criteria.
Just like artists, the people working in these organizations want to be proud of the product they're giving money to. In talking to members of some of the above-mentioned organizations, I have found them genuinely interested in the music they fund. As they should be: successful projects enable them to get more funding from their sources to give to you. So use the money for what you outline in your application as best you can – buying beers with your grant money hurts more than your liver.
What should be a bigger concern is that rappers are perhaps not aware these opportunities exist.
There's no guarantee that telling people to do their research and ask questions will generate results (especially since they become my competition if they succeed), but artists need to do just that to see what's available to them.
And if grant and loan bodies can reach out to the community more (for example, FACTOR has a monthly open mic and info session), they stand to increase their presence on the urban music landscape, perhaps get more high-quality clients and help to build the "hip hop community" often spoken about but hard to quantify in this country.