The Exchange in Regina is packed, the crowd cheering loudly. They’re wearing backwards hats, gold chains and tattoos are everywhere. One rapper is as young as 15 and one of the DJs has grey hair.
I was there to write a story, but when I realized there were an uneven number of rap battlers registered, I signed up.
When I stepped on stage for my first battle, the crowd could not believe that I was going to rap. These are “freestyles,” meaning the verses and insults are improvised.
I was the only person wearing a dress shirt. I’m a 6’2 white man, clean-shaven with longish hair.
Many of these rappers want to make a career out of rapping. But applying for grants to further their promotion, recording and touring is often a luxury they can’t afford. It is a tremendous administrative undertaking. However, a group in Saskatchewan is changing that.
The inaugural One4All Emerging Indigenous Hip-Hop Artists Grant does away with lengthy application forms and asks for “sounds, sights, and stories” with a positive message. There is no application form or parameters set for submissions.
“Nobody has a more legitimate claim to Saskatchewan and the struggles of Saskatchewan and the real voice of the people here than Indigenous artists,” said Ivan “Kav the Bruce” Anderson, from the Queen City Stoop Kids hip-hop collective. Anderson is a manager for a local internet service provider and put forward the money for the grant.
“The grant system in Saskatchewan we have is touted as … this great social service,” Anderson said. “But there’s a lot of gatekeeping involved, it’s pretty colonial in its application. You have to jump through a million hoops, it’s not there to service people that come from struggle.”
I won my first battle against BG Lang, who won the last competition at The Exchange. People were jumping up on the stage and the crowd was going wild. In Round Two I beat T-Rhyme to more applause, stealing a line from legendary battler Eyedea.
“I’d give your album a weak review, you’re so short, if I looked straight I couldn’t even see you.”
Ultimately I lost in the finals to up-and-comer Luke Nuemann. He called me Mr. Rodgers and Bob Barker.
People from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds were there to appreciate verbal mixed martial arts. There was no violence, unless you count horrific insults said solely for the crowd’s reaction and amusement.
The One4All grant offers $500 toward instrumentals and mixing with producer Johnny Keys, $500 towards video production and editing with videographer Fremo, $400 for recording with Fremo, a guest verse appearance from Dakk’One, and promotion from Johnny Keys, Dakk’One, Fremo, Eekwol and others. All have strong reputations in the community.
“A lot of people can’t be their own accountant,” Anderson said. “They can’t be their own PR person. They can’t be everything that you need to be to live in the grant system we have here in Saskatchewan because writing these things is fricking crazy. It takes a university level education to do this so there’s barriers to entry.”
Anderson has used the traditional grant system himself.
“At the end of the day you’re getting money from the Sask Party, you’re getting money from a government that destroyed our other creative industries like the film industry for example in 2008,” said Anderson. “And there needs to be another alternative to that, if you want a little bit of assistance you shouldn’t have to constantly suck at the government’s teat.”
Shelby “Fremo” Kelly is heavily involved with the grant. He filmed the Freestyle Rap Battle Way to the Finale at The Exchange on Feb. 2.
“I always wanted to make music since I was young and there was just never any opportunities for the average person,” said Kelly. “Eventually we built our own studios and it’s just important to give opportunities to people that don’t have opportunity.”