Canadian hip-hop and music policy

Hip-hop, in its myriad forms (e.g., rap music, electronic dance music, graffiti art, break dancing, fashion, video art, slang, etc.), is a cultural phenomenon (Brook 2011; Mose 2013; Perry 2008). Hip-hop is a way of systematically understanding details of a particular culture through music. Every nation has its policies and regulations to protect and sustain the nation’s music industry (Etling 2002). However policies may not always work to maintain equality for marginalized groups in the music industry. Therefore, this blog talks about how hip hop can offer a voice to the black community or visible minorities in Canknaan-troubadorada, and how Canadian policy systems do not support the music industry for these marginalized groups. This post employs the work of local artists such as K’naan and Michie Mee to demonstrate how Canadian hip-hop artists engage with various cultural influences to voice issues, concerns, and values of their marginalized communities. It is possible to argue that Canadian media policies have not really opened up a lot of space for black representation or that of other visible minority groups.

Literature Review


            Hip-hop refers to the music, arts, media, and cultural movement and community developed by black and Latino youth in the mid-1970s on the East Coast of the United States (Morgan 177; Perry 2008; Price 2006). Hip-hop originated within marginalized subcultures that allowed self-expression surrounding social concerns that negatively affected them. Clothing and jewelry are also some main characteristics that have been mimicked to maintain the style of hip-hop around the world (Condry 33). The genre is more than its music and style, it is a method that creates space to voice marginalized groups’ opinions in an American capitalist society. Hip-hop was a combination of a rap or semi-autobiographical chant and an instrumental track, generally borrowed from reggae, rock, or rhythm and blues recording (Motley 245). Hip-hop was generally associated with slang language. Rap music is a powerful medium that combines cultural ideologies to make sense for a particular community. The mix of different music genres and the mix of different slang linguistic chants is a major part of hip-hop because it is an inferred way to show society that rappers/hip-hop artists do not follow mainstream notions in order to express themselves. Hip-hop has shaped and also borrowed from a number of other musical genres such as jazz, soul, Latin, Caribbean, and techno/dance, particularly as it has become a globalized genre (Brooks 4). Hip-hop has become a powerful method of self-expression through music because it is not only about globalized musical styles it is about sending a powerful message.

Global Hip-hop

            Hip-hop culture is transmitted outside and within the United States through film and the arts community (Motley 245). Early non-U.S. adopters experienced hip-hop in its original form, as it was made for the original intended audience. However, Motely states that the original audience probably listened to it in a different context, as recognized by their local socio-economic and geographic environments (Motley 248), which could alter the overall meaning of the music. Just like African American’s used rap to voice their activism towards their community, in Japan ECD, a Japanese hip-hop artist, was one of the early artists who addressed race issues in his song (Condry 35). Japanese society understood ECD’s political messaging through his songs that showed the power of popular culture. Condry’s ethnographic study on Japanese hip-hop culture illustrates that different societies employ hip-hop culture to voice their struggles to the masses. Hence, it demonstrates how hip-hop culture has a sharp insight into the global flows of cultural influence. Condry states that Japanese rappers are expected to respect the African American roots of the music while also producing unique and authentic music (27). Condry’s study demonstrates that transcultural influence in hip-hop is the key characteristic that creates authenticity for each community. The research is beneficial to this essay because it helps understand how diasporic communities use hip-hop to voice their struggles compared to other globalized hip-hop cultures.

            Perry examines hip-hop movements in Brazil, Cuba, and South Africa as examples of transnationally adapted identities of blackness in the making of diasporic subjects through the performative lens of hip-hop (Perry 636). Perry’s study gives insight into how the globalization of hip-hop adapts different cultural identities to express these cultures’ social concerns. On the other hand, Moose argues that despite the global nature, hip-hop gains its unique identity from one area to another because of the particular city within which it grows and develops worldwide (Moose107). Global flows of hip-hop have been picked up from different nations to fit into their own local identities and values. Furthermore, in this essay I examine how work by Canadian artists like K’naan intersect with the global flows of hip-hop, and how these are being picked up in a particular Canadian context. Hip-hop has benefited the most from its mass migration of cultural symbols to become arguably the most important artistic global force in the last three decades (Margolis 532).

Hip Hop in Canada

            Rap was introduced in Canada by black communities with Caribbean backgrounds in Toronto, Halifax and Montreal. This was where the first rappers emerged (Mitchell 309). Hip-hop artist such as Brother A., Sunshine, and Ebony Crew performed successfully only in the local scene. Then Dream Warrior’s formed and became successful internationally for their seductive and eclectic music and lyrics (Mitchell 310). These hip-hop artists adapt styles from global flows and alter it to make sense for the local audience. However, with internationally successful Canadian hip-hop artists it was about attracting non-local tastes with Canadian tastes to their music. Mitchell states that Canadian rap has great difficulty creating its own market because of its lack of confidence in the music industry (Mitchell 313). Having the American rappers success right next to Canada could have intimidated the early Canadian hip-hop community. Another reason for the slow development of rap music in Canada is the fact that the ghetto is rare even in the largest Canadian cities, where Canadian rap was born (Mitchell 134). When rap started to become popular in Canada, unlike American rap, it did not stay very long only in black communities; soon it was picked up by ethnic communities and white-middle-class youth groups (Mitchell 309).

            Margolis (2011) disuses the integration between Klezmer and hip hop in Canada.

The identity of Jewish-Canadians’ authenticity in music lies in expressing their experiences. Margolis states that the Jewish artist Dolgin expresses himself not through his own intimate contact with the culture, but also through music (530). Hence he raps about his authentic personal experiences growing up in Canada. Margolis’s study illustrates that hip-hop authenticity is rooted in the concept of staying true to oneself and honestly representing one’s own experience. Policies ought to respect the authenticity of the music instead of overprotecting them. In fact, Malone (2010) refers to hip-hop as an organic globalizer, which means that hip-hop itself is more than just the transmission of symbolic expression of a particular culture or tradition (532). Hip-hop possesses an organic quality, which creates a space for addressing social and political issues at the local level.

It is time to add talent while protecting nation identity

            Racial group identity is important for group mobilization of social issues, which become framed as important for the black community or visible minorities, locally and globally (Saucier and Silva 298). Hip-hop allows the black community or visible minorities to define the world as they see it. Hip-hop is a genre of music that allows artists to talk about almost anything (Motley 245). Musically, it allows artists to play and create poetry to the beat of music. Hip-hop can be highly controversial, but that is how hip-hop artists attain their avant-garde approach to society.

            K’naan was born and brought up in Somalia, then moved to New York for less than a year before he settled in Toronto, Ontario (“K’naan”). He learned English with the help of hip-hop lyrics, in particular, the U.S. rap duo Eric B. & Rakim were a major influence for him. Now he is a songwriter of poetry and rap verses (“K’naan”). His songs associate African and Western instrumentation with traditional Somali melodies featured in them. Some of his lyrics, which are written in the Somali language, are known for their political commentary, and comment on Somalia’s economic and social conflicts. Even his songs in English tend to shed light on social issues around the world. For example, K’naan’s song “Somalia” is an example of where he expresses the dark sides of the country but also shows pride for those hardships. In particular, this song talks about how one can get successful even without knowing proper English. However, he learned English in order to express himself and talk about his hardships. This song directly associates with his life because he learnt English through rap, and now he wants the world to know about Somalia. He also states that institutions like schools and authorities surrounding immigration are in operation for pointless reasons. Even when there are so many unsettling and bloody situations going on in Somalia, other countries are not helpful to refugees. Now that he is well known and even invited to the Grammy ceremonies he does not need to fear for his life but there are others who are suffering with fear.

Do you see why it’s amazing
When someone comes out of such a dire situation
And learns the English language
Just to share his observation?

Probably get a Grammy without a grammar education
So fuck you school and fuck you immigration
And all of you who thought I wouldn’t amount to constipation
And now I’m here without the slightest fear and reservation

This example illustrates that hip-hop has become an expression of choice for those who feel alienated, oppressed, and frustrated. Hip-hop can be combined with unlimited factors to create culture and community (Motley 244). K’naan’s rap appears to talk to communities from disadvantaged nations who are struggling to get a better life in another nation just like he did. When people relate to and identify with others perceived to be like them (marginalities), there is the potential for a united voice. This is evident in Black-hip-hop conscious rap marked as expressions of anger and pride by those who were faced with racial and social discrimination (Motley 247). The blackness that hip-hop evokes is a form of resistance. This notion of resistance is about contemporary elitist cultural politics that speak to some kind of authentic identity. Hip-hop music can be the voice of global ethnic minority and allied youth who protest against discrimination anywhere in the world (Motley 248).

            Marginalized hip-hop artists seem to tap into the bitter truth of their community, so there should more support from the policy side because it is about reflecting their reality. According to Henderson, Canadian policies appear to be more protective of the industry than promoting it (308). Protecting national identity in the music industry while performing little promotion for the industry leaves very little space for artists’ creativity. Cancon (Canadian content regulation) is established and updated by the CRTC for radio and television broadcasting, which does not seem to have regulations to promote local hip-hop artists. The MAPL system is designed to satisfy two objectives, the first is to increase exposure of Canadian musical performers, lyricists, and composers to Canadian audiences. The second objective is to strengthen the Canadian music industry, including creative and production components. The MAPL system operates to give a place only for so-called “Canadian” songs. But the CRTC does not seem to have regulations for the content and context of songs that truly reflect local talents. The Broadcasting Act (Section 3.1 (d)(ii)) acknowledges that the Canadian broadcasting system ought to encourage the development of Canadian expression (“Our Mandate for Canadian Content”). It further explains that providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity is a key objective of the Canadian broadcasting system. The problem here is that the Canadian-ness seems to overtake artists’ creativity. In fact, there are no policies that support the black community or visible minorities in the music industry. These regulations are more interested in celebrating national hegemony by frequently promoting Canadian-ness in the music industry (Henderson 311). Another regulation around the Equitable Portrayal Code is to maintain equality in the Canadian broadcasting. The objective of the code is to recognize identifiable groups in broadcasting, who consider that the portrayal of such groups shall be comparable to, and reflective of, their actual social and professional achievements, contributions, interests, and activities (“Equitable Portrayal Code”). The Equitable Portrayal Code does not have standard codes on opening opportunities for marginalized groups in Canada that can sustain the music industry. The problem with Canadian polices is that the success for Canadian popular music industry is debatable because cultural objectives are measured (Henderson 310). The policies seem to have a formulaic process that might not always understand the voice of marginalized groups through hip-hop culture. Canada has often been viewed as a leader in music industry policy; many Canadian policies in this field, such as the Canadian content broadcast quotas for commercial radio or the Sound Recording Development Program and its successor, the Canada Music Fund, are held up as models to sustain the music industry (Sutherland 367). However, there seem to be a lack of policies that help artists from marginalized groups to thrive in the Canadian music industry, not for satisfying the MAPL system, but rather recognizing them for the context and content of the music. Black communities and visible minority groups are often excluded from arenas of power, work, and leisure. Thus, these groups construct spaces of socialization whose function is to express their differences. Hip-hop allows them to clearly say what they feel but unfortunately Canadian music policies are more focused on preserving nationalism. It is time to add talent and creativity on top of conserving nationalism.

Global flows of hip-hop and Canadian hip-hop

            Hip-hop gives voice to the black community or visible minorities in Canada because hip-hop intersects with the global flow that offers space for many multicultural communities to express themselves musically. As hip-hop has grown in global popularity, its rebellious and self-defining voice have been both multiplied and improved as they challenge conventional concepts of identity and nationhood (Morgan 177). Every nation adapts its own way of expressing in order to attract local audiences. Rap music in hip-hop culture is about storytelling and the information that imprints struggles of African-Americans. Now, rap around the world is about tapping into its history, identity, and expressions. In fact, global hip-hop began to take on a character of its own, reflecting culture, creativity, and local styles of the youth who embraced and produced it (Morgan 179). Similarly, Canadian hip-hop artists from similar black communities and visible minority groups see the commonalities of the hip-hop style to express their values and struggles. Canada is known for its diversified ethnic communities. Therefore, rappers tend to use “ethnic hip hop” to express alternative repetitions of denial and controversial topics of ethnicity (Sharma 41). Michie Mee’s song “Jamaican Funk Canadian Style” is an example of how a Canadian hip-hop artist adapts global hip-hop to express her self. This song is about Jamaicans, their ghetto lifestyle, and Jamaican women’s attitudes. Michie Mee also uses Jamaican Patois at different points of the song. She was born in Jamaica and relocated to Toronto, Ontario as a child. So this song seems to add values and identities from both Jamaica and Canada, which makes it an authentic piece of music. A global race illustrates the artists’ negotiations and identifications as non-Whites in North America and as non-Blacks within hip-hop worlds to enhance a diasporic sensibility (Sharma 4). Using their own ethnic words, beats, and samples, they criticize conservative interpretations of “proper” ethnicity. Ethnic hip-hop artists’ expressions of ethnic loyalties and commitments are about representing inclusiveness and commonality across differences in the society they live in.

            Furthermore, global hip-hop scenes sometimes can be described as translocal because they often represent complex cultural, artistic, and political views between local innovations of diverse hip-hop art forms. Since hip-hop is most often described as a product of African-American or Black culture within the United States (Price 55), ethnic hip-hop in other nations adapts its styles to express their views and struggles with ethnic beats, ethnic languages, and ethnic styles to enhance authenticity. It appears that members of the global hip-hop culture rebel against the dominant culture to make themselves powerful. According to Motley youth seem to rebel against the traditional connection of their countries and dominant cultures (individualistic behavior), while seeking involvement and identification with both the global hip-hop culture and their local hip-hop subcultures (collectivist behavior) (248).

Ethnic radio

            Global hip-hop culture has influenced Canadian hip-hop artists where there should be more opportunities for ethnic hip-hop artists. It is interesting how CRTC seems to proudly announce that there is only one station serving Toronto’s Caribbean and African communities (The CRTC awards a license for an ethnic radio station in Toronto). In order to provide a true reflection of these communities, the Commission requires that the majority of songs played fall under the world beat and international music category and that a minimum of 10% of programming deal with subjects of interest to local communities (the CRTC awards a license for an ethnic radio station in Toronto). It is true it is better to have at least one station, but it should be something to be ashamed of because Toronto is one of Canada’s largest cities with many multicultural communities. In fact, section 3 of the Broadcasting Act requires the Canadian broadcasting system to encourage maximum use of the country’s creativity. This section does not seem perform as it sounds like it should perform because making maximum use of the country’s creativity does not seem to get that much attention. Just as the CRTC has loosened its regulations regarding the type of programming that could appear on Much Music (Etling 135), the CRTC should allow more space to develop the music industry not to restrict artists from expressing their talents. Etling states that the CRTC have tried to maintain Canadian identity in broadcasting through legislation and programs overseen by the federal government (Etling 137), which does not give recognition for musicians. If the CRTC only wants to celebrate and sustain national identity in its music industry, talented Canadian artist will never want to purse their careers in Canada. Instead, they will seek opportunities elsewhere that recognize their originality.

Hip-hop as an imagined community

            According to Morgan, hip-hop serves as an imagined cultural community (177). Morgan believes that it functions as a community of imagination or an imagined community (Morgan 177). Canadian hip-hop culture can certainly be a community of imagination or an imagined community because local hip-hop artists’ have one thing in common: they comment on certain issues in society. Many hip-hop artists rebel against the mainstream systems of operations where they create a sense of community to support one another. Hence why hip-hop culture allows black communities and visible minorities to express their struggles and concerns. Hip-hop artists’ imagined cultural community is constructed based on their cultural views on issues such as racism, economic struggles, national politics, and other relevant social concerns.

            The concept of imagined communities was coined by Benedict Anderson to be used for nationalist notions. However, the concept perfectly aligns with hip-hop culture since Anderson believes that imagined communities are imagined because its members will never know most of their fellow members, would never meet them, or even hear them, but still in the minds of all those members there is an image of their communion (49). For example, Canadian artists K’naan, Michie Mee, and D-Pryde might have never met English-Sri Lankan artist M.I.A but they all seem to follow the style of hip-hop to voice their opinions. Communities are to be distinguished not by their genuineness or authenticity but by the style in which they are imagined (Anderson 49). Canadian hip-hop artists of black communities and/or visible minorities embrace hip-hop culture as a way to illustrate their troubles living in a white dominated place. According to Anderson, imagined communities are imagined because regardless of the actual inequality and mistreatments in a society, these communities may succeed because they satisfy their objectives as a team (50). This notion applies to the hip-hop community in Canada because looking at K’naan’s music, he has thrived as a hip-hop artist by expressing his struggle as a marginalized immigrant in a Western country just has how the pioneers of hip-hop (African-Americans) produced their songs with similar morals. For example, K’Naan’s song “America” is a mix between Somali and English, where he expresses the frustration with being a visible minority and the corrupted nature of North American culture. Hip-hop culture is a diaspora spanning ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries (Motley 243). So Canadian hip-hop culture seems to revolve around diasporic values and identities.

            Hip-hop has transformed from marginalized to mainstream over the years (Motley 243) because of strong imagined communities around the word. This hip-hop community is united by not only understanding the elements of hip-hop and consumption of these elements, but also because it shares a sense of marginality and oppression, both real and imagined. Hip-hop culture is based on a democratizing creativity and its aesthetic ethos (Morgan 178). Therefore, hip-hop seems to allow any individual who combines authentic self-presentation with highly developed artistic skills in his or her hip-hop medium to become a legitimate hip-hop artist. This is why the imagined community of hip-hop benefits artists to express themselves with the flow of its style.

Policies create an imagined community that does not give space for marginalized groups

            Canadian policy systems do not give enough space for marginalized groups (black communities and visible minorities) because it is too focused on sustaining nationalism in the music industry. Cancon regulations seem to disregard opening doors for the marginalized groups to not only self-sustain but also to develop the Canadian music industry. Federal cultural policy in Canada has generally concerned itself with national sovereignty and unity. However, these concerns are by their nature not always effectively standardized to local conditions and expressions of culture, which hinders the success of the local music industry. Nationalism has been an awkward fit with popular music analysis in English Canada (Sutherland 369) because popular music is not always about national identity. In popular music, more than nationalism, what should be important is the context of music and creating space for local artists to attract their intended audience to increase local audiences. According to Henderson, for the Canadian music industry, national identity and protecting it has been the most critical task since the beginning (307). Canadian policy systems seem to create an imagined community that exists only for the artists who wants to celebrate Canadian national identity.

            Regulations, policies, and codes that affect the Canadian music industry illustrate that the dominant culture has the power to include and exclude groups of people to give meaning to Canada as a nation. However, even though Canadian policy systems do not want to give meaning to marginalized local music artists (especially hip-hop artists), they can thrive globally because internet technology allows Canadian local artists to go viral with their work. It is unfortunate that the Canadian music industry does not put their regulations into action. For example, Section 3 (i) of the Broadcasting Act says that the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should give opportunity for the local sources, provide a balance of sources, and comment on public concerns with different viewpoints, but these does not seem to apply for popular music. This shows that policies not only are imagined, but also have to create their own interpretations of themselves to exclude marginalized groups. It is not the qualities of these policies that are at issue here but their narrow scope and their practice (Sutherland 396). Interpretation of music policies seems to segregate marginalized groups through its practice.


            This opinion piece demonstrates how hip-hop offers a voice to marginalized groups in Canada, and how Canadian policy systems do not give enough space for these groups to thrive in the Canadian music industry. Canadian hip-hop artists from black communities pull from different cultural influences to express their issues, concerns, and struggles. Blackness also seems to represent a certain set of core values and principles, namely equality, justice, tolerance, peace, and antiracism that identify themselves through hip-hop as an imagined cultural community. Canadian media policies have not really opened up a lot of space for black representation, instead it seem to celebrate nationalism over promoting the creative aspect of the music industry. It is certain that hip-hop is a way of understanding particular culture music. At the same time, the way in which policies are practiced also shows how a nation desires to segregate visible minorities from the music industry. Every nation has its policies and regulations to protect and sustain the nation’s music industry, but it also should step forward to promote and protect.

Works Cited

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 Tinu Silva