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Discussing Gentrification and Media's Paternalism with Hip Hop Artist, Theo3

by Teru Ikeda

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            Only a select breed of hip-hop artists are renowned for their punch lines. I’ve long considered my favourites to be “cultural ethnographers” of the street, encapsulating an emotion or idea into a two bar rhyme scheme. I recently had the fortune to sit down with Theo3. He is from the Screwface Capital who’d “rather lift up people in a fragile mood//Than reinforce the confident masses that are tryin’ to grab the loot.” We joined forces as community workers, and discussed Parkdale’s gentrification and the media’s paternalistic attitudes of the poor.


            Theo has worked in the community since 2000, as both a facility-in-charge at Parkdale Rec Centre and program coordinator at Parkdale Youth Space. He said that “the community had all kinds of [homeless people and stragglers] before, but it was still functioning. And there wasn’t a safety issue either.” Through a narrow lens of a cost-benefit analysis, flipping a hood into a condo development may seem justifiable, but he questioned why “a whole swath of people” must be displaced when little is done to tackle systemic issues such as homeless. He mentioned that eradicating people with “dual diagnosis,” mental health, and addiction issues may “clean up” the street from the newcomer’s perspective, but it is merely a short-term solution; a problem merely shifts from one area to another.


            When the media paints a portrait of the poor as victims, Theo asserts, it gives an impression that “other cultures don’t understand the economic responsibility of a city and the fiscal issues”. Not only does this discourage dialogue, but validates why the poor need the apparent financial wizardry of the privileged for help. Framing the poor as powerless creates “a chasm that can’t be crossed.” As the income divide increases in Toronto, media’s portrayal of the poor – evident in Toronto Life’s #torontoisfailingme campaign – exaggerates poverty, and thus creates a pretext that it must be fixed, or pushed away, by the well-to-do.


            We also discussed how a similar paternalistic attitude exists, though subtly, in counter-cultural groups. Theo touched on how “hip hop is like a separate country” and echoed Chuck D’s phrase, “Hip Hop is the Black CNN.” Just like the audience of a nightly news channel, “backpackers” do not have to be “directly engaged” with poverty and violence. This allows fans to consume hip hop to satiate their own desire of belonging to a greater cause, without actually doing anything. He quipped that it’s easy to “raise your fist up and watch Selma. Then turn it off and forget about it.”


            We continued to explore the parallel between "backpack" hip hop and bohemian culture, which are prevalent in gentrified areas. While doing yoga or practicing Buddhism can expand one’s horizons, genuine interest in activism may be lacking because the subcultures are treated facetiously. Theo touched upon the importance of understanding the origins of a subculture – in this case, hip hop – in order to remain committed to progressive ideals.


           Theo is constantly engaged in the community. When dealing with systemic issues such as gentrification, a deep commitment to community is required for resistance. Theo put it succinctly in Epic – and it’s a motto we should live by: “They talk about community I’m in it//I sleep with it like fine linen.” It's a reminder that we must fully immerse ourselves in the causes concerning us, even if progress is piecemeal.

Check out Theo’s radio show, STYLISTIC ENDEAVOURS, every Friday night at 8 pm on CIUT 89.5 FM.  

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Teru (Teru Ikeda)
Mississauga, Ontario
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