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The Real Toronto?

26 Nov 2005

One of the many unfortunate burdens of being a visible minority is to always have to be aware of what the other members of your group are up to, because sooner or later you will run into one of those ignorant individuals (and there are many in this city) who will demand an explanation from you, in very diplomatic terms in some cases, for the acts of one of those members of your group somewhere in Toronto or North America. The underlying assumption of these demands is that you have some inside knowledge, or share some genetic trait with the others that can help explain their behavior.

So it is with this maxim in mind that I came across an article in the October 15th edition of The Globe & Mail describing a new underground DVD called: The Real Toronto.

The DVD was made over the summer by a 22-year old white kid, originally from southern Russia who goes by the street name of The Madd Russian. The Toronto Star quotes him as saying that “he fell in love with Hip Hop before he could speak English and got the idea for the video while listening to "Where I''m From," a song about living in the projects by Toronto rapper Black Eye.”

I have not seen the DVD, nor do I have an interest in seen it. What I will narrate in the next few lines is based on the stills that accompanied the Globe & Mail article and the reviews I read in many newspapers and websites.

The Real Toronto is broken down into nine chapters covering the neighbourhoods of Jane & Finch, Black Creek, Chalkfarm and Parkdale. It features many young Black men, sporting Phat Farm, Sean John and “R.I.P so-and-so” T-shirts, mostly drinking, showboating and parading their guns for the camera. This is how Gabe Gonda of the Star describes the DVD chapter on Jane & Finch: “At Jane and Finch in North York, though, real-life street violence merges with the stylized glamour of gangster rap videos. Half-dozen young men gather in a semi-circle inside an apartment building, bandanas covering their faces, as each takes turns showing off his gun. One flashes what looks like an Uzi submachine gun while another brags about his 40 caliber pistol from underneath a maple leaf do-rag. “

There is also a lot of bragging about keeping tabs on snitches. “We’re so real, we take you to the snitch’s door. We check his house every hour on the hour to make sure that nigga stays there,” The Globe quotes one of the young men as saying.

The Madd Russian apparently views his work as a documentary, a presentation of the dark side of our city that we rarely get to see up close unless we happen to inhabit the depicted neighbourhoods. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the depictions since I have not lived in the vicinity of any of the featured areas. What I can say with a significant amount of certainty is that there is nothing positive that a production of this kind can generate for these communities. After all, the recent wave of killings has already highlighted the issues of gun violence and poverty in Toronto; many solution proposals have been tabled and are being analyzed at various government levels. What will be the benefit of additional footage of a few Black men advertising their ignorance?

The DVD is apparently selling in huge numbers and as word reaches other cities, demand will certainly rise, further increasing The Madd Russian’s profit margins at the expense of another group of young Black men, flaunting negativity as “realness”. Their realness it seems only comes in a violent, arrogant, self-deprecating form.

There are many issues that The Real Toronto DVD touches on: the code of street life, the power of Hip Hop music and videos on vulnerable young minds, the responsibilities of governments and parents in the overall well-being of children, etc. But the basic thread that almost always runs underneath all the empty macho-rhetoric is: poverty.

Poverty leads to hopelessness for some. And hopelessness can turn human beings into desperate beasts, reduced to the satisfaction of basic desires and incapable of seeing beyond today. As Jay-Z rapped in “Where I’m From” about his own experience in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn, “f*ck tomorrow, as long as the night before was sweet.” But hopelessness can also be a fuel for the great engine of success if handled carefully. Many of today’s most celebrated entertainers are clear examples of that.

The Real Toronto captures one consequence of poverty in our city. There is work to be done in rehabilitating those neighbourhoods and we should all participate in our own ways to that task. But the more important work lies in the rescue of the young men featured in this DVD and others like them. This is a momentous, long-term project whose results will affect us all. If nothing else, in a not-too-distant future, some of those ignorant individuals I alluded to in the first paragraph will be asking us to justify these young men’s behavior. As Black people we''ll have the option of telling off the ignorant fools. As human beings we’ll probably have nothing reasonable to say.


Eloi Minka is one of the founders of AfroToronto.com.

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