How Ryerson Alumni Created Canada’s Biggest Hip Hop Celebration
Toronto rapper Big Lean has one foot on a speaker at the front of the stage. Bent over, he catches his breath. After a few seconds he raises his head, brings the mic to his mouth and yells to the sold out crowd packed into the Mod Club: “What’s up Toronto?! This is my first show and I’m happy as fuck!”
Somewhere in the building, Che Kothari is smiling. As he explains a few days later, “The vibe felt as far as you could get from the Screwface Capital, where people would come to shows and pout.” This show, as Manifesto organizer Erin Ashley tweeted, was all love. The opening spot belonged to North York rapper Meika Holiday, and throughout the set Lean brought out fellow Toronto artists Baka and Full Circle (the recent amalgamation of Prime Boys and Halal Gang).
One could only dream about these types of moments in Toronto 10 years ago. Now, thanks to groups like Manifesto, they’re a reality.
Kothari moved to Toronto at 17 and enrolled in Ryerson’s photography program at the School of Image Arts, where he eventually linked up with Ryan Paterson, a fellow Image Arts student studying New Media. The two became close friends, living together in second year, running Function Magazine in their final one, and starting HighTop Studio together after graduation.
Over time, the pair built a large network of artists in the city, and they started hearing the same conversations over and over again. Many artists in Toronto were frustrated for a number of similar reasons: a lack of showcase opportunities and mainstream support infrastructure, insufficient income generating opportunities, systemic under-resourcing of marginalized communities and a lack of understanding of hip hop culture.
Kothari and Paterson wanted to change the conversations, and hoped by bringing them together into one room, they could find some solutions. Around the same time, Kothari was invited to speak to the Toronto Youth Cabinet at city hall. When he walked into the council chamber, he realized this was where the city’s artists needed to meet.
“My dad was part of the rotary club, so that’s how I pitched this meeting to people — this could be the rotary club of our generation,” he explains. “I started by inviting 20 of the real changemakers I knew, and asking them to invite one more person, then asking those people to do the same.” The projected attendance kept growing until, according to Kothari, around 600 people took over the council chamber on a dreary Tuesday in February 2007. “From there, the tone started to change, from a frustrated conversation to a more hopeful one.”
Discussions like this kept happening, and over the next few months, a roadmap was created to build a platform for artist support and empowerment in Toronto — which eventually became Manifesto.
Seven months later, the first Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture took place. It was a four day event, featuring an art show, dance competition, park party and concert at Nathan Phillips Square featuring some of the pioneers of Toronto — and Canadian — hip hop.
Throughout the next decade, Manifesto would put on some of the best concerts in the city, placing up and comers on the same bill as hip hop legends like Black Thought, 9th Wonder and Raekwon. This year might have featured the most stacked lineup yet, with Daniel Caesar, Anderson .Paak, Polaris Prize winner Kaytranada, A Tribe Called Red and BJ the Chicago Kid all gracing various stages.
But the festival is about more than just concerts. Manifesto brands itself as a platform of empowerment, through which people can change their communities. Open discussions on the state of entertainment, Toronto and barriers facing creators are an important part of this. At this year’s Summit, attendees delved into topics such as playing Black music in queer spaces and working as a women in media. Sessions were hosted by Director X, Desmond Cole and Stacey McKenzie, who didn’t just speak to the audience, but challenged them to contribute. The annual art exhibition was curated by and featured only women. “We’re trying to show people what hip hop is really about,” says Kothari. “People power and diverse storytelling.”
Manifesto’s “About” section on its website states the organization is a “youth-powered platform designed to put local artists on the map and unite, inspire and empower diverse communities of young people through arts and culture.” “Empowerment” is almost a buzzword today, but Kothari feels Manifesto has taken its mantra literally. In the last ten years, Manifesto has paid over $1 million to artists and organizers and created over 1,200 jobs. Kothari also says they’ve made an impact on the city. “NXNE has it’s own hip hop day, Luminato has full representation of the culture. I’ve curated a space at Nuit Blanche and this year Director X is doing so. Even more importantly, we’ve helped instill a sense of pride in this artform and in this city — it’s fully transforming.”
Toronto may no longer be the Screwface Capital, but it’s not the #TOMusicCity many imagine it could be. Today, there’s organizations across the city working to showcase different cultures and artists, just like Manifesto. Kothari believes what could take the city to the next stage is finding ways for these organizations to collaborate: “We’re in conversation right now with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Imagine a hip hop showcase with them!” he says, throwing his arms up in excitement.
Kothari and Paterson’s personal values bleed into Manifesto’s pillars: incubate, elevate, generate. Incubate artists, elevate them to stages and showcases, then help them generate income. “To me, it’s all about opening up doors and creating opportunity. Opportunity is the greatest thing we can provide someone,” says Kothari. “And this is always earned opportunity. It’s not like we’re giving it out to people. These people put the work in, we just help raise them up.”
Manifesto helps raise artists up, but it needs to be lifted too. It can’t afford to be another niche festival that hits the same crowd each year. Just like Manifesto finds artists already putting in work, it needs the city to do the same, and increase funding for large projects that can have a longer term impact than an annual festival. After 10 years, Manifesto’s earned it.