Founded in 2022, FILLTHEBLNK has quickly become the go-to source of community for those in Toronto’s growing hip-hop scene.
I have a confession to make. As an Arts & Culture journalist, I’ve fallen out of love with writing about music. I’m not sure when it happened, or even how, but it has. For at least the past year, it’s been hard for me to write about music. If you’ve reached out to me to write an article about your latest single or music video, even submitted a press release, and I didn’t get back to you, I’m sorry. It may sound a little cliché, but it’s not you, it’s me.
I’ve been trying to figure out why someone who was so passionate about music, now has to psyche himself up to cover something I used to love. I mean, sometimes I’d write up to five music pieces in a day.
I finally got my answer attending FILLTHEBLNK, a Toronto-based hip-hop community which brings artists together for showcases, connection, panel discussions and live performances. It has been generating buzz among those in Toronto’s hip-hop scene, and with Toronto hip-hop going global with the success of Drake, Tory Lanez, and up and coming acts like Pressa and Duvy gaining popularity and those in the scene complaining about the lack of infrastructure for young talent, FILLTHEBLNK may very well be helping to groom Toronto’s next musical exports.
What is FILLTHEBLNK?
Their programming is divided into two experiences—FILLTHEBLNK COMMUNITY, the daytime experience, and FILLTHEBLNK LIVE, the nighttime experience.
This Saturday, I pulled up to Studio AM, which is quickly becoming a go-to spot for shows and album release parties, for Session 8 of FILLTHEBLNK COMMUNITY.
Entering Studio AM, you realize the reputation FILLTHEBLNK has generated, both by word of mouth and on Instagram, isn’t just hype. The organizers have quickly built a platform that has become the place to be for anyone in the Toronto hip-hop scene. In the crowd, there were up and coming local talent, Juno Award winners in Savannah Ré, Haviah Mighty and TÖME, as well as DJs, radio programmers, tour managers, and more. Immediately, you feel at home at FILLTHEBLNK, but I’ll get into that later.
Human connection, community and culture
It wasn’t very long before I realized what I’ve been missing for the past few years. During a break in between artists sharing their music, Joel Naga, one of the co-founders, spoke about the human connection lacking in artist development. Just like that I realized the major reason why I fell out of love with writing about music—the human connection was gone, at least for me.
I remember the days of going to HMV when your favourite artist was dropping a new album. There was a collective excitement and connection as you ran into other fans picking up the same album. There was sitting around with your friends in your garage or basement for hours hanging out, talking and listening to your favourite album, letting it play from beginning to end. There were the basement jams where you would dance with your friends for hours and felt like it was the night of your life. There was finding a new artist that you loved and feeling like you were a part of some secret society of fans who knew about this artist before they were on the radar of the masses.
Hip-hop went from being a culture to an industry, which allowed some to make a living making music, but also killed the sense of community that hip-hop was built on.
FILLTHEBLANK gave me that familiar feeling again. It was hip-hop; not the corporatized brand of hip-hop we see today but the culture. It was a reminder of why I fell in love with hip-hop in the first place. It was the community—the familiar faces you see at all the events and the new faces that will soon become friends. Not to be dramatic, but at times I got the feeling that this could be history in the making—like the Dungeon Family in the dungeon in Atlanta, Woodstock, or the Fresh Arts Program that gave rise to Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, Jully Black, Director X and Baby Blue Soundcrew. There are certain gatherings, big and small, that you can look back at as being defining moments in a city or culture’s history. FILLTHEBLANK gives off that feeling that something culturally important is happening.
Passion and love
The next thing I noticed was the passion for the music. I receive a lot of submissions from artists, PR and companies all over the world every day, so much so that music feels less special than it used to. With the power of the internet, streaming services and music producing software, the world is oversupplied with music, and there’s a lot that isn’t that good if we’re being honest. Among the artists who are good, a lot of them sound the same, like they’re following a formula.
In listening to the artists share their their music at FILLTHEBLNK, no two artists sounded the same. In fact, most of them didn’t sound like anyone I could pinpoint in music today. They had their own styles. The were original. There was the effortless and soulful vocals of Bodeen. There was the 90’s, Queen Latifah and MC Light inspired flow of Sarah Itamah with a modern twist. There was the soul and versatility of TÖME. There was Apollo who has a polished modern melodic sound that still sounds like his own. There was CYOKILO, an Indian R&B artist from Scarborough. There was Ona Dema with her airy and refreshing Nigerian-pop music fusion. And Osé from Brampton. Wow! Not only was the level of talent high, but you could hear the level of care they put into their music (something I don’t hear a lot in the music I receive).
There was something so rewarding about seeing TÖME preview upcoming music and get feedback from the crowd in real time. The community agreed the third track she played was the big track and just like that she had the intel she needed. Back in the 90’s, the clubs were the place to test a record to see if it was a hit. Today, the strip clubs in Atlanta are the place to see if you have a big record. Where do you go in Toronto? FILLTHEBLNK is becoming one of those places.
In hindsight, the problem with being a music journalist is after a while music became my job. I go to shows I don’t really want to go to. I listen to music I don’t really want to listen to. Along the way, I stopped being a fan, but after a few hours at FILLTHEBLNK I started to become a fan again. It was that feeling of being among a small group of people discovering an artist together for the first time.
Every once in a while I’d look around at the people around me as if to say, “Are you hearing this?!” I felt like I wanted to find these artists on Spotify and dive deeper into their catalogues. I felt like I wanted to write again. I felt inspired.
Home and family
The final thing I noticed about FILLTHEBLNK is that it felt like home and the people around me felt like family. I felt so comfortable. Even though I didn’t know everyone, I was around my people, unified around our enjoyment of music and community. Usually when I go out I introduce myself as “KB The Boss” or “KB” from SHIFTER, but this Saturday I was Kevin. Some artists came in sweatpants with no makeup, and there was no judgment. It was that kind of vibe.
Toronto is often labelled as a place where the hip-hop community is unable to come together because of street politics and crab mentalities where people don’t want to support each other. In that sense, FILLTHEBLNK is counter culture. It’s what people have saying they wanted from the Toronto hip-hop scene, but nothing existed to fill that gap (or blank) until now. This isn’t just something hip-hop needs; the city needs it.