Festival organizer says Daniel Caesar’s got next

While to many outside the city, Toronto is akin to rapper/singer Drake and his international success, the 6ix has a lavish archive of artists making waves beyond the border. Rappers like Tory Lanez, Jazz Cartier and Sean Leon continue to generate charismatic and vibrant works of unapologetic fire while the velvet voices of musicians River Tiber and Daniel Caesar are able to captivate anyone within earshot.

North by Northeast (NXNE) festival president and managing director Michael Hollett says Caesar, in particular, could be the next act to attain ‘6 God’ status, parallel to Drizzy and The Weeknd. His authentic skill with vocals and instruments blends to create a lustrous sound within the realm of neo soul, borrowing unique influences from church gospel and hip-hop. Caesar, who had the honour of being placed as a headliner alongside Ghostface Killah of the mighty Wu-Tang Clan and Top Dawg Entertainment’s ScHoolboy Q at this year’s NXNE, represents noteworthy talent that make the city’s urban music culture one worth endorsing.

“I think it’s a very supportive community and the artists that are having success here are nurturing other artists, which I think is great,” explains Hollett. “Starting with Drake, let’s be honest, it’s amazing what he’s been doing. I think you get influenced by the success you see around you and a lot of up and coming hip-hop artists in Toronto see that there’s a future for them and it’s not an impossible dream and I think that really matters.”

“Toronto is at the centre of the hip-hop universe right now.”

Considering the influx of hip-hop acts and related genres in recent years at Northby — the last few years the festival has closed out with a full-day of urban music at Yonge-Dundas Square — it’s clear that organizers and avid attendees are promptly recognizing the value of the thriving urban culture. Hollett says that it’s a big moment for all aspects of hip-hop in Toronto currently.

“You can say Toronto is at the centre of the hip-hop universe right now,” he explains. “In addition to all the great acts that we have in Toronto and the new ones that are coming up, Toronto producers and people who make beats are a part of a bunch of other songs that people don’t even realize that Toronto has an influence on.”

In addition to this year’s NXNE headliners, acts like local rappers Tasha the Amazon and Drew Howard, along with Ivory Coast reggae band Tikan Jah Fakoly, Chicago emcee Mick Jenkins and Las Vegas singer/songwriter Shamir, rounded out the day’s kick-ass line-up. The performances ensued across two stages inside a brand new venue, Toronto’s Port Lands, and featured sizable audiences either roaring rap lyrics or swaying to sweet serenades.

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“We want to see hip-hop and the culture of hip-hop start to spread even more to new communities.”

The inauguration of NXNE’s new blueprint comes after a controversial 2015 when over 40,000 Torontonians petitioned against headlining rapper Action Bronson, whose music they believed glorified violence towards women and should not be performed at the Yonge-Dundas Square — a city-owned open space. This year, with the new ticketed venue in place, NXNE organizers avoided getting the side-eye from the public.

NXNE curated this year’s full day of hip-hop and hip-hop related programming in partnership with non-profit organization Manifesto. Daniel Tal, director of operations and development for Manifesto, says he hopes this year’s festival reached new audiences and helped negate any misconceptions about hip-hop culture.

“We want to see a lot of young people being exposed to music that they love,” says Tal. “We want to see hip-hop and the culture of hip-hop start to spread even more to new communities [. . .] communities that aren’t entirely aware of the vibrancy and the amazing effect that hip-hop as a culture has on young people in general.”

“I’ve been doing NXNE, it’s going to be 23 years next year, and this represents such a huge change.”

Aside from a few minor pitfalls with the Port Lands layout — like the carpet of concrete stretched from the opening acts stage to the main stage and the seemingly endless travel time between them — the event concluded without any major hitches. The location allowed festivalgoers the opportunity to discover various forms of urban music from old school and new school hip-hop, to the slow jams of reggae, and the bliss of soul, all with the radiance of the city skyline in the background. In the future, Hollett plans to bring together even more genres, which in the past have been dispersed throughout the city, into one space for music lovers to enjoy.

“What was amazing to me was the city of Toronto, at every level, from the city council, to the mayor, to the Toronto Port Lands commission — everyone wanted this to work,” says Hollett. “That’s such a change. I’ve been doing NXNE, it’s going to be 23 years next year, and this represents such a huge change.”

Daniel Caesar is set to headline Manifesto on September 17 alongside Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals and Kaytranada at Toronto’s TD Echo Beach.

Photos © Sadé Powell + Urbanology Magazine