Toronto rapper Smiley’s welcoming energy precedes him.
Standing outside his trailer handing out cups and drinks, he takes the time to ask his team if they need anything moments before he hit the main stage at Rolling Loud, an international hip-hop festival held in Canada for the first time last weekend.
Smiley was grateful for the change to perform an entire set before a large crowd gathered at Toronto’s Ontario Place for the three-day festival.
“I hope the crowd is excited today. I hope they come with that energy,” he said before his performance.
“This means a lot of growth, ’cause it’s never happened. So I just hope everyone does good so it happens again and it keeps happening.”
Canada has a long — albeit complicated — history with rap music and hip-hop culture.
In the ’80s, Canadian rappers Michee Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes and Bobby Deemo first began to gain traction in the U.S.
But even after decades of success from top Canadian artists like Drake and Nav, it can be an uphill battle for others to find adequate space to showcase their talents and cultivate support.
Some women in the industry say it’s even harder for them.
Women in industry say support needed
Rolling Loud’s lineup over the weekend included Future, Dave, Wizkid, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Rae Sremmurd, Roddy Ricch, Trippie Redd and Canadian talents like Baka Not Nice, Killy, Nav, Pressa, DJ Charlie B and Haviah Mighty.
Earlier this year, some critics called out the lack of women headliners in the lineup.
And for their part, women in the industry say opportunities to gain notoriety as rappers are few and far between.
Toronto rapper Paris Richards says she has been dreaming of moments like the one when she took the stage with Canadian R&B legend Jully Black on Saturday to perform their heartfelt song I Got You from her latest album Queen of the 6ix.
“Everything I ever wished for in this music field all came together and it was just amazing,” she told CBC News, while also acknowledging the difficulties she experiences as an independent artist in a male-dominated scene.
“I don’t get love on radio and the blogs, but I love my music,” she said.
“I think it’s really important to empower females because we’re the minority when it comes to hip-hop culture. We can do everything the men do and even better.”
Richards worked closely with producer Dub J, who says he sees why the scene is different for women rappers, noting that music blogs and social media sites often feature men who are involved in politics within the industry.
For him, seeing Richards preform with Black was historic.
“Seeing Paris and Jully out there was a year in the making. We made that happen,” he said. “Getting that co-sign from the Queen of R&B.”
Montreal’s SLM (pronounced slim) also took to the stage at Rolling Loud in Toronto Sunday, expressing her eagerness to tap into the Toronto market.
“I definitely do not get radio play in Montreal because my music is considered provocative and it’s English, so they aren’t rocking with that,” the rapper said.
Triumphs and complications
An important aspect of getting ahead in the industry is also having a chance to perform for new audiences. Rolling Loud offered space for both up-and-coming artists and household names to take the stage, and for some artists, it became a career first.
Although Drake’s OVO Fest made history when the multi-day Toronto-based hip-hop festival launched in 2010, Rolling Loud brought a multitude of artists to three separate stages.
But putting on a festival featuring dozens of artists and three days of concerts is not without complications.
Some artists saw set times changed or delayed, Toronto rapper Chromazz was harshly booed during her Sunday set, overcrowding was common near the stage and some artists did not show up for their sets.
On Saturday, Toronto police said on Twitter that they responded to reports of gunshots at the festival. Police issued a statement Sunday confirming that a firearm had been discharged and that a weapon had been recovered in the area, but no injuries were reported.
Growing Canada’s hip-hop community
But for artists who got the chance to take the stage, the festival’s impact is long-lasting.
Toronto rapper TV Gucci, another rapper closely affiliated with Drake’s OVO camp, remembers a time when a festival like Rolling Loud would have been unimaginable for local rappers.
“It’s getting better. The notoriety is crazy. Now I’m introducing myself and people know who you are,” he said, noting that social media has allowed Canadian artists to manage and grow their own careers.
Both Richards and SLM are heavily invested in promoting their music on social media, but to further the careers of Canadian rappers, SLM says the industry in this country needs to continue to create these spaces.
“Allowing artists to have stages to showcase their talent when it’s deserved, especially when they’ve done the work underground to get to that point. It’s a lot to sustain yourself in this game, especially as a woman,” she said.
“Support local talent. If you believe in someone, tell a friend to tell a friend.”