Flippin’ the Script

Reviewed by Prasad Bidaye

For a long time, Canadian hip hop culture has been obsessed with the idea of arrival: the dream of local rappers getting signed, achieving commercial success, and moving crowds globally. Drake’s current stardom is the key indicator not only that this culture has arrived, but also that it has come a long way in the thirty-plus years since the videos of Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and the Dream Warriors were in rotation on MuchMusic. On the surface, the publication of We Still Here: Hip Hop North of the 49th Parallel echoes this history of arrival in the parallel universe of hip hop scholarship. The declarative tone of its title marks an important moment in the field, when an entire book can be devoted to the study of Canadian hip hop culture.

Let’s be clear: this book is not about the usual players. Drake is only mentioned a handful of times, and, while the aforementioned icons of the early nineties receive a lot more shout-outs, they are not at the centre of the discussion. To any self-proclaimed hardcore hip hop purist, the fact that kid-friendly K’naan (of “Waving Flag” fame) receives an entire chapter of study might spark the kind of “screw face” response that Montreal rapper True Daley references in her reflections on Toronto, the metropolitan centre of Canadian hip hop culture.

Let’s be even more clear: such editorial decisions are what makes We Still Here an energizing collection of hip hop scholarship. The eleven articles edited by Charity Marsh and Mark V. Campbell are not historical so much as historiographic, which means they are not tied to a grand narrative of Canadian hip hop history, one that usually begins and ends in the 6ix. Instead, they document stories and engage in analysis that pushes all of us—scholarly and non-scholarly—to rethink Canadian hip hop, just as the plurality of our national culture might stimulate us to rethink Canada.

At different points, We Still Here invokes the concept of knowledge as “hip hop’s fifth element,” following the quadrivium of lyrical, turntablist, dance, and aerosol arts, and it pursues this element by repeatedly embodying the other adage of “flippin’ the script.” For example, while the first essay by Campbell focuses a great deal on Toronto, it is chiefly concerned with the architecture of a virtual 6ix that exists online in the Northside Hip Hop Archive. Campbell’s approach also shifts the focus away from memorializing T-dot rap to theorizing acts of memory-making and the construction of an archival environment that is as participatory and non-finite as the Internet itself.

The most important script that is flipped in the eleven essays of We Still Here is around Indigenous hip hop scenes. The studies of community arts projects like Beat Nation in Vancouver and Crossing Communities in Winnipeg as well as rappers like Samian and JB the First Lady are not merely included; they are at the forefront of this collection. This inversion of Canada’s settler-Indigenous dynamic signals an extension of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action by addressing the need for mainstream hip hop’s reconciliation with Indigenous hip hop artists, audiences, and activists.

Through this intervention, we learn about how aspects of hip hop are used to achieve more than a sense of voice and agency for Indigenous youth, just as they have for Black and other racialized youth since the culture’s early beginnings in the Bronx. In her study of Crossing Communities, Charlotte Fillmore-Handlon highlights how collaborative hip hop performances have transformed a group of youths’ sensibilities around the gender stereotyping of rap as male and of dance as female. Liz Pryzbylski presents a bifocal close reading of Samian’s “Plan Nord,” examining both how the song employs Inuit throat singing in ways that challenge ethnomusicological analyses of transcultural, fusion music, and how its lyrics voice critiques of extractivist projects in Northern Quebec.

What is really interesting about this particular set of discussions within We Still Here is how they engage the complexity of Indigenous identities, particularly at a time when the discourse of Indigenous Ways of Knowing and Being is becoming increasingly visible in Canadian institutions. As essays by Marsh and Margaret Robinson show, hip hop is indeed a tool used by Indigenous youth for reconnection with ancestral traditions and therefore as a weapon against the long history of cultural genocide. However, it is also a tool used to authenticate experiences of and struggles with urban life—ironically through an art form that the corporate music industry has categorized as “urban,” but one that nevertheless enables a critical dialogue with elders who may have “fears that hip hop is a sign of assimilation.”

While those invested in settler concepts of Canadian identity may be inclined to interpret these studies of Indigenous hip hop as a reflection of the country’s multiculturalist ethos, I read them as signposts to a new sense of the hip hop underground, and I think we would be naively nationalistic to assume that this underground is confined within Canadian borders. In this way, We Still Here pushes global hip hop scholars to consider Indigenous contributions in Australia, Asia, and Africa, let alone the United States.

Yet, the script is flipped here too because Indigenous hip hop is clearly not presented as a pure or hardcore form. Rather, it is part of the larger discursive explosion in We Still Here, where the peripheries of Canadian hip hop are revealed but never contained, and where each study opens up a new possibility. For example, when the narrative of the collection returns back to Toronto in Mary Fogarty’s “Following the Thread,” it is with a focus on breakdancing, rather than rap, and when Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier and Laurent K. Blais discuss the art of beat producers in Montreal, the descriptions of sound take us close to the blurry edge of electronic music. And when Campbell interviews rapper True Daley about her artistic journey through the music industry, the orality of her narrative is playfully digressive like a freestyle rhyme, reminding us that raw anecdote can hold an important place in scholarly discussions of any kind.

Ultimately, We Still Here goes beyond the fifth element of knowledge production and takes a subjective turn back to the reader, who may be a scholar, but is more likely a hip hop fan. I would never describe myself as the most hardcore listener, but reading through these essays, I found my lived experiences represented multiples times: in the paragraphs on CHRY (where I once worked), the interview with Gizmo (who went to my high school), and the brief discussion of Sikh Knowledge (with whom I once DJed a wedding). This is not about bragging points; it is my conviction that anyone’s experience of reading this collection from cover-to-cover (which I highly recommend) will inspire the kind of memory-making that proliferates throughout We Still Here and will most definitely not end here.


This review “Flippin’ the Script” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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