An Even-Handed Look at Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture

By Joe Pack, Contributor
May 2, 2013 8:26 pm Last Updated: May 2, 2013 8:30 pm

A sobering portrait of five marginalized Toronto-based Hip Hop artists, Michelle Latimer’s “Alias” (Streel Films, Canada) made its world premiere in Toronto at Hot Docs this week.

In her feature documentary debut, Latimer follows rappers/producers Alkatraz, Trench, Alias, Knia and Keon, offering a refreshingly honest and unromantic glimpse into the city’s poverty-stricken Hip Hop scene.

The first performance in the film is only made possible by the producer and event coordinator who pay out-of-pocket to hire the appointed police officers who patrol The Opera House in downtown Toronto. One rapper remarks that the officers will make far more for their time than any of the performers that night.

The director succeeds in withholding judgment and clearly has the trust of her subjects. Unlike other Canadian acts like Drake, K-OS, or Cadence Weapon who, according to the filmmaker, had relatively stable support systems, this is a look at Canadian artists who seek performance as a means of survival.

Though making it as a rapper is clearly the dream, the reality is that making music is also a means to avoid destructive alternatives.

The participants in this documentary, it’s clear, deal with elements of drugs and violence directly. The treatment of these subjects, however, is far from typical. Drugs are said to have come between friends, resulted in violence, and limited an artist’s travel options if etched on someone’s personal record, yet there is no judgment on the part of the filmmaker.

Misuse of drugs is always portrayed as a choice, not an inevitability, and the same can be said of the film’s discussion of violence. Rappers smoke marijuana while writing rhymes, arranging business plans, or watching television.

Drugs harm them when users resort to the unpredictable world of dealing, and while this has been a reality for some of this film’s subjects, they all make a strong distinction between use and misuse.

These artists can’t afford to rely on drug dealing. They all have children – some in their custody, some not – who are at risk of growing up in the same, limited environment. “I did a lot of living already,” says one father, “it’s time for me to live for someone else”.
The director pays deep respect to the importance of not only child care but of setting an example for a vulnerable, new generation.

One rapper explains how most youth in the area do not have the luxury of waiting until school is over to decide what kind of life they want to lead. Many must begin to make decisions about their future in their early teens.

Time is not a luxury for any of the film’s subjects and for both adults and youth, their gaze must always point towards the horizon. The sense of urgency is skillfully implemented by Latimer in various ways, as rappers are seen impatiently waiting for a turn on stage with little hope of much pay, being grounded by suspended driving licenses, or watching as their children inevitably reach their formative years.

What allows the film’s participants to get out of bed each day and successfully navigate this terrain is the choice to hold on to hope. Not hope that requires belief only, but more importantly, initiative. Here, dreams and reality are a fascinating dichotomy, illustrated in no simple terms. Rapping for a living is seen as the dream, while more destructive lifestyles are the more realistic alternative.

On the other hand, hope is expressed not as a dream but a necessary choice made in order to survive. Though their limited environment may be sobering, the pro-active steps these artists take make hope manifest. While tangible success may be difficult to pinpoint here, Latimer emphasizes how real progress starts with a conscious decision—a decision to rap rather than deal, to hold oneself accountable, or to provide options for oneself and one’s family.


Joe Pack is a film and sportswriter living in Toronto. He blogs at upperbodyinquiry.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoePack