Dear Ottawa hip-hop and R&B artists,
Over the past few years, I’ve done quite a bit in the Ottawa hip-hop community. I worked with King Kimbit and 4theworld in co-founding the Cap City Cyphers. I co-founded The Morning Shift on CHUO 89.1FM alongside my friend Vlad. I’ve managed artists. I’ve started a playlist. I’ve taken phone calls and had coffee meetings with some of you when you reached out. I’ve attended studio sessions. When I do speaking engagements or visit other cities, I talk about the local hip-hop and R&B scene. I send some of your music to my friends in the industry without you knowing. I also provide coverage through this online magazine.
Last April, I joined the board of directors of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition as a next step in trying to give back to the city. Other organizations represented on the board are Algonquin College, Folk Music Ontario, and Audio Valley Recording Studio. Part of the reason I joined the board was because I wanted the local hip-hop and R&B scene to be represented. The music you make competes with any city in the world and I wanted people know about it.
Last week, the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition hosted the first annual Capital Music Awards with funding from the City of Ottawa. It’s a big step in the city’s development. One of the knocks on Ottawa, and Canada in general, is that we don’t recognize our talent until they blow up outside of the city. These awards are one way to fix that.
Although the night was good, especially for a first try, I had a few takeaways.
The first thing was the lack of attendance from the hip-hop and R&B community. Of course, you guys aren’t obligated to attend, but urban music was probably the least represented genre that night. Four of you showed up and three were nominees. Some of you had other obligations which is completely understandable. Some of you were probably concerned about the Coronavirus. For some of you, you were frustrated about not being nominated, or for the lack of hip-hop acts that were nominated (it was the first year so it wasn’t perfect). For others, you were expecting a personal invitation. This event was an opportunity to network and get your name out there. Some of the people in the room were jurors for major national awards like the Junos and Polaris Prize. If you aspire to take your career to that level, these are the kinds of rooms to be in even if you’re not nominated.
The second takeaway from the awards was the amount of work artists from other genres in the city are putting in. When I first saw the nominees I was disappointed to see so few nominees from hip-hop and R&B. I knew nothing about local francophone acts like LGS, who won three of out the six awards, and are getting serious numbers; bigger than most hip-hop and R&B artists in the city. That night I talked to someone about local singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff who has toured North America and has had one of his songs featured on the NBC show “This Is Us”. I talked to someone else about the punk bands being signed to record labels in the U.S.
While I’ve been critical in the past of Ottawa and players like Bluesfest for not supporting local hip-hop and R&B when they are the most commercially viable genres in North America (and still think a better job needs to be done), the reality is these other local genres are poppin’ too and they’ve set the bar high; winning a Capital Music Award in the future isn’t going to be easy. If you just had an urban music awards the competition would be stiff enough, but when you consider the whole city, there’s a lot more talent than you think.
My final takeaway is the more I have one foot in the local hip-hop and R&B scene and one foot in the industry is the more I believe a lot of artists aren’t putting in the work required to be recognized for what they do. I say that with love.
When Bluesfest held its free open house late last year, very few hip-hop and R&B artists attended (I wasn’t in attendance but that’s what I was told). Apparently, among other things, they talked about their fear in booking hip-hop acts after having their property destroyed in previous years. That was an opportunity to get your face out there and shake the organizers’ hands to support your application to perform, and to quell some of their fears. The artists weren’t there.
In previous years, when I’ve gone to the Annual General Meeting for the House of Paint festival, there were very few Black people in the room let alone artists. Also, every month there are free Independent Music Business seminars put on by the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition and Edwards PC, Creative Law covering topics like media relations, touring or how to get your music licensed. They sometimes bring in industry experts from out of town. It’s an opportunity to network and get the knowledge you need to level up your career. Very few hip-hop and R&B artists ever attend.
Despite our frustrations about our lack of place in our city, our community doesn’t show up when it counts. We’ll attend our own events, like shows, but when it’s time to get out there on an industry level, we’re MIA. So many of us are studying the Drake/OVO playbook, but one thing we don’t replicate is his ability to navigate both being an artist and fixture in urban culture while being able to appeal to corporate and political Canada/America. Drake is as much a businessman and city-builder as he is an artist.
The more I sit in these meetings is the more I realize the reason our culture isn’t being recognized isn’t due to some malicious agenda. The same way I don’t know much about what’s happening in local folk, country or rock music, these people don’t know anything about what’s happening in local hip-hop and R&B. They literally don’t know we even exist and it’s hard to recognize someone that you don’t even know is there.
The truth is it’s nobody’s responsibility to do the digging to find out who you are; it’s your responsibility as an artist to make yourself known, tell your story, connect with people, and let people know why they should care.
That involves keeping your Factor and SOCAN updated, performing regularly and touring, booking interviews and generating press, joining industry associations, going out to community and industry events (even outside of music or your particular genre), running social media and radio ads, sending out your radio edits to radio stations, starting an email list, putting together a video reel of your previous performances, building an engaged fan base on social media, having a roll out strategy for new music, having a listening party (and inviting decision-makers and not just your friends) and then sending out press releases so people are aware of your successes. That’s on top of putting out good music and getting playlisted which is just the starting point. If you’re doing all that and still not being recognized, nominated for awards or booked for festivals like Bluesfest, you have a right to be upset. But if you’re just making music, putting it up on streaming services, and sharing it on social media, you’re only doing the bare minimum. Most artists today don’t even have an EPK which is basic for getting booked or engaging with the media. Most artists I know have never sent out a press release but expect press.
Every day at SHIFTER we receive phone calls, press releases, interview requests and other emails from Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Toronto, whether it’s from PR companies or the talent themselves. People who have been featured on MTV and other major American media. People who have been on major shows like Masterchef Junior. People who are hungry. Some artists email us three times before we actually notice them. If I don’t respond, they’ll email someone else at SHIFTER until we finally listen to their music. That’s hunger. Some of the artists we featured on The Morning Shift or our website came about because an artist was persistent. On the other hand, we barely receive any press releases or emails from Ottawa talent. We get some DMs on social media, but when I’ve asked some local artists to send me a press release (which makes it easier for the media to tell your story) the response I’ve sometimes received is, “Why should I have to do all that?”
Throughout our time hosting The Morning Shift, we asked for radio edits from artists. We barely received any. Out of our passion to share the local music we love, Quest and I took it upon ourselves to find your music on YouTube and do the edits ourselves. Afterwards I’d send some of you the edits so you’d have it to submit to other stations. It was a lot of work, but it was all love. I haven’t been involved with The Morning Shift for a while now, but I can imagine there’s a lot of new music that’s not being played because artists got used to it being done for them. The responsibility of putting together radio edits and sending them out to radio stations is yours as an artist.
Most of you are grinding hard in the studio and putting out high quality music (which I’ve seen firsthand), but if you look at the hip-hop and R&B artists who were finalists at the Capital Music Awards, they’re out hustling everybody else on the business side which is why they’re getting recognized. They’re doing most of the things I’ve listed above. You can’t get pissed off at people who are putting in more work than you. For many artists, they believe their music (or numbers) should speak for themselves, but that’s not how the industry works.
Despite my contributions to the city, I have artists who still think I don’t do enough for them. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past year of hosting a radio show, managing artists, being a board member, and wracking my brain about how to get this Ottawa hip-hop and R&B out there, is that responsibility starts with the artists. If you want urban music to have the place that it should in the city, it’s up to you to go out there and get in front of the right people. If you want to be an award-winning artist (including a Capital Music Award), you, your team and your fanbase will have to make that happen. If you feel people are sleeping on you as an artist, only you can fix that. Do the right things and the industry will take notice.
As you look around the city, you see signs that Ottawa is growing up, from LRT and taller buildings, to the new film studio that’s on the way. A few years ago, we were missing the creative infrastructure artists needed to succeed in Ottawa. Today, I see the City of Ottawa and businesses coming around you to fix that.
We have a proper battle rap league in Capital Rap Battles. We have two hip-hop festivals in Cranium and House of Paint. There’s a hip-hop morning radio show. There are new podcasts popping up all the time. There are quality engineers, producers and private studios in every part of the city. We have promoters like Small World and Diamond Mine. There’s organized rap cyphers in Cap City Cyphers. There’s a music industry association in the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition that offers programs and support for artists. There are websites like Hip Hop Canada, Capcity Hip Hop and SHIFTER. There are proper music video production, PR, and entertainment law firms. There are affordable small venues like the Origin Arts & Community Centre, Cinqhole, and Club Saw. There’s now an awards ceremony with another one on the way in the Highlight Awards. There are free music industry seminars every month. Also, there are Canada’s two largest cities on either side of us.
Ottawa artists have never had as much infrastructure and support available to them as they do now, and most artists aren’t fully taking advantage of it. So the ball is in your court as artists. Ottawa’s not a small town anymore. It’s time to level up.