Kaytranada at Echo Beach. All photos by Tse Daniel
Last week, in his review of Manifesto's Summit, Chart Attack writer Michael Rancic remarked on how well the Toronto festival and arts & culture non-profit avoided the nostalgia trap. In focusing on the issues that plague the music scene today, Manifesto used its 10th anniversary to reaffirm its commitment to youth initiatives and the local scene instead of reminiscing about big-name artists it helped incubate.
That look-forward, not-back philosophy was especially poignant this year. While the gulf between hip-hop's old and new guard continues to widen, there's a counter-movement brewing. So-called "real" rap is in danger of calcifying into classic rock conservatism under its self-appointed guardians, while many of the hot new rookies haven't heard the golden age stuff and don't really give a shit.
The marquee concerts of this year's Manifesto exploded that generation gap by welcoming everyone in and reminding us of the early days of hip-hop, not as a genre but as a philosophy: everything fits if you make it fit.
The headlining acts, A Tribe Called Red, Anderson .Paak and Kaytranada all reflected Manifesto's main tenets: unity and community. Now, a day after Kaytranada celebrates his Polaris Prize victory (becoming the first winner you could even remotely classify as hip-hop in a country that created the biggest rapper in the world), that message seems even more on-point.
In this beautifully illuminating profile in The Fader, Kaytranada jokingly called his music "black tropical house," an acknowledgement of his strange place within both the hip-hop and electronic music communities. DJ culture arose out of hip-hop, but most of the big-ticket, money-raking EDM headliners are white. This is not to mention the institutional Canadian music industry which, if the Juno nomination given to Kaytranada and then rescinded is any indication about its relationship with the kinds of music Kaytranada produces, has been either unsupportive, out of touch, or both.
Meanwhile, the trendy Toronto sound of hip-hop and R&B production — chilly, downbeat, and sparse — is miles away from the bouncy house, disco, R&B stew that has propelled the Haitian-born, Montreal-based artist off SoundCloud (where he initially gained notice for his viral remixes), out of his parents' basement, and right onto the stage of a gala where he was handed a $50,000 cheque. He might not get cushy placements on Drake or Kanye records, but that didn't stop him from creating the best Canadian album of the year (now Polaris-certified) in a genre that isn't even album-oriented.
This is no small feat, but it still feels secondary to what makes him such a great artist: his superhuman ability to ignite just about any dance floor he comes across.
Kaytranada did not perform at the Polaris Prize gala last night, but he did play Manifesto's Echo Beach party on Saturday night in Toronto, and his appeal was evident right away. A post-rain outdoor set in late-September isn't necessarily an easy room, but he worked the slow-starting crowd into a frenzy. His set included bits of Michael Jackson, some Rihanna and Janet Jackson, all still very recognizably him. But more remarkable were the songs off 99.9%. The songs flirt with the global pop sounds that artists like Drake are making trendy, but in an open-hearted way that doesn't feel cynical or appropriative. It's un-self-conscious music made for dancing, and it just feels good. That's both universal and timeless.
Strangely, there are only a handful of current rappers who comfortably fit that vibe, but one is the artist who followed Kaytranada on Saturday: Anderson .Paak. The Oxnard singer/MC joined the DJ for their collaboration "Glowed Up," hinting at the infectious energy he'd bring to his own set with his band The Free Nationals right after. .Paak has actually been one of the guys lecturing at kids like Lil Yachty to "know your history," but the fellow rookie evokes a spirit that could be described as both proto and post-hip-hop. You could call it straight-up funk or R&B and few people would object.
As much a bandleader as an MC, he jumps between drumming and dancing, and spends as much time singing as rapping. I'm still not quite sure how easily he's able to keep the rhythm of rapping and drumming simultaneously (I can't even pat my head and rub my stomach). He was such a hit that that the crowd encored him back to perform his Kaytranada-produced "Glowed Up"... again.
Not that this kind of music lacks bite. A Tribe Called Red proved that at Manifesto's free block party the next night.
A Tribe Called Red at Yonge-Dundas Square
The indigenous DJ trio has been proving for years that you can united diverse crowds of people in both partying and politics, but their new album We Are The Halluci Nation is their most incisive project yet. While the electric pow wow of their last album Nation 2 Nation was basically a genre of one, they've exploded out of it to incorporate a roster of collaborators diverse in sound but united in wokeness. It's a mix of rap, throat singing, cumbria, poetry, and about a thousand subgenres of dance music that you couldn't even try to pigeonhole into a label, unless you wanted to call it something like Halluci Nation.
Almost all of the bigger name collaborators reprised their roles at Yonge-Dundas Square, in the heart of Toronto. Tanya Tagaq's growls met their match in the heavy whirr of ATCR's beats, Shad did his Shad thing, Narcy did double-duty also filling in for Yasiin Bey, while Lido Pimienta stole the show with a slow-build that started more moody and atmospheric than ATCR usually get, then grew to a full on scream. First Nations dancers periodically came onstage, alternating with youth from a local hip-hop academy. In between all this, the group kept the crowd energized, even mixing in bits of Snow, because why not?
Lido Pimienta and A Tribe Called Red
The politics, which have always been noticeable in Bear Witness' video projections re-framing stereotypical Hollywood representations of "Indians," were front and centre here. With a diverse, united crowd, A Tribe Called Red used their encore not for a song, but for a message. Inviting the folks in the front row protesting the Dakota Access pipeline with signs that read #NoDAPL, the trio led the audience in raising their fists and chanting "We are the Halluci Nation and we stand with Standing Rock."
A Tribe Called Red were already leading an important movement, but it's clear they've hit another gear in terms of both their music and the galvanizing expression of their politics. Like Kaytranada, they're creating music that's accessible and likeable for any audience, even as it challenges expectations and shatters boundaries. Don't be surprised to see them accepting next year's Polaris Prize for We Are The Halluci Nation. Calling it now.