Toronto’s hip-hop history runs deep. A new photo exhibition showcases it

Dress the exterior the windows and walls of Toronto City Hall are photos of faces that have been the cornerstones of the city’s most vibrant musical culture, hip hop.

The snapshots are part of “Project T Dot,” a love letter and celebration of The 6ix’s once simmering and now explosive hip-hop scene by Toronto photographer Ajani Charles.

“Until very recently, Toronto’s hip-hop community and culture has been dormant,” Charles told The Star. “We viewed ourselves and other members of hip-hop as underdogs, and perhaps lacking the drive and talent that Toronto truly possesses.”

Charles’ project lasted 16 years. It all stemmed from where he came from as a photographer. He was suffering from an existential crisis while attending Western University when he was invited to a rap battle in El Mocambo in 2006 by his lifelong friend DJ Docta, the DJ of King of the Dot.

“I started documenting the rap battle and was so inspired and energized by the footage I captured. The rappers performing, there were breakdancers there, and I was very excited observing them and capturing them,” recalls Charles.

Filled with many of the biggest figures in the community from the mid-2000s until now, “Project T Dot” offers city scope hip hop that’s pre- and early Drake a scope that is often overlooked globally.

The Toronto scene, now recognized as one of the capitals of hip hop, involved many people who were looking to create a financially and otherwise sustainable ecosystem, according to Charles.

“Many people have helped bring Toronto hip-hop culture to the masses and audiences outside of Canada, like Kardinal Offishall, Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and artists who practice through other mediums like art, dance, etc.”, Charles added. “But it wasn’t until 2009, when Drake began his rise to stardom (that) Toronto began to get the recognition I believe it deserves as a mecca of hip-hop.”

Charles pointed out that the history of Toronto hip-hop goes beyond rap music and is featured in “Project T Dot.” The likes of legendary graffiti artist Skam, Emmy-nominated choreographer Luther Brown, Manifesto festival co-founder Che Kothari, and even inside the Get Fresh store all make an appearance, highlighting just how expansive the culture was and is. .

Shot in color and edited in black and white, Ajani Charles' Project T Dot exhibition taps into nostalgia.  It's a revelation to many, but also a captured memorial to some.

Shot in color and edited in black and white, Charles’ exhibition draws on nostalgia. It’s a revelation to many, but also a captured memorial to some.

“There are so many rooms that flourished in the early 2000s that no longer exist today. For example, the whole entertainment district no longer exists,” he explained. “So there are so many nightclubs that just don’t exist anymore, like a Tonic nightclub, a Fluid nightclub, Cheval, etc. Many places where members of the Toronto hip-hop community were gathering.

For Charles, the photo exhibit is just the beginning. “Project T Dot” is set to become a mini-documentary and a book within the next two years, he said, through which he will explain Toronto hip hop from the perspective of the people he photographed.

“Toronto hip-hop represents Toronto’s cultural diversity, perhaps more than any other Toronto subculture. There are so many different types of people that make up the Toronto hip-hop scene. I think the Toronto hip-hop community was instrumental in creating or contributing to what we know as Toronto.

“Project T Dot” will be on display outside Toronto City Hall until June 30.


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