At Queen’s, the rap and hip-hop scene has created a platform for students to discuss their university experience, specifically from the perspective of racialized students.
Rap music hit mainstream culture in the late 70s and has evolved from a genre based on simple and fun lyricism to appeal to a broad demographic. It has since sprouted to include ‘gangster’ old-school rap that characterized the 90s ‘conscious,’ where a heavier focus is given to the power of lyrics and ‘trap’ and ‘mumble’ rap, generally entertained in party settings with a focus on stronger production.
In today’s politically-charged rap era, notable artists like Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$ and Chance the Rapper have produced albums that speak directly to social and political issues like institutional racism, Trump’s presidency and personal hardship.
On campus, increased engagement with the genre and national news attention to social issues like racism at Queen’s have inspired students. Events such as Queen’s Native Student Association’s (QNSA) ‘Inspiring a Generation Poetry and Hip-Hop Night’ at The Mansion and performances on stage at Clark Hall Pub give student rappers an opportunity to share their art and skills.
The Journal sat down with local rappers Steven Wu, ConEd ’18, Sateya Defreitas, ArtSci ’20, and Ale House DJ Kenny Fuentes, Kin ’17, for a roundtable discussion about rap on campus, its reception from the student body and the implications it has with respect to student issues.
When looking at her music, Defreitas said themes of racial issues are present in the majority of her songs. Not only is this a product of her personal life, but also her experience as a Black woman on campus. In her song ‘I’m Still Me,’ she raps “mix determination, a little bit of segregation, got the power to run the nation.”
Defreitas told The Journal that rap has always been an important form of expression for her.
“It was kind of just to get my emotions out,” she said. “I was a hostile kid and it was just a way of telling people [about] me.”
By engaging with rap, Defreitas said she’s found a space where she can explore herself and release any frustrations she has.
“For me, I feel like it’s a step outside of my identity because when people see me, they see me as this cute girl, but when they hear my lyrics, I have a lot of punchlines and disses,” she said.
Similar to Defreitas, local rapper Steven Wu cites one of his major inspirations for engaging in rap as being the racial issues and experiences he’s had on Queen’s campus. His interest in rap music began as a teenager, but seriously sprouted upon entering university.
“In the beginning, I thought this wasn’t a big deal, but after a while you hear more of these stories,” he said, speaking directly to a Journal story published three weeks ago titled “Getting Jumped at Queen’s for being Asian.” “It starts to make you feel like you aren’t a part of the community and you have to do your own thing.”
Describing his transition into rap, Wu said his “anger then manifested into rap but has now become about loving the music and expressing [himself].”
Not only has Wu had his own experiences with racist micro-aggressions on campus, but he’s also heard increasingly disturbing stories from friends of racialized communities on campus during his time at Queen’s.
“My friends who are minorities tell me stories too, and tell me they don’t like how administration is dealing with the issues around racism. I feel like it’s an issue that’s not talked about and if they can, they’ll push it to the side. It’s like, even this council [Queen’s University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity (UCARE)] that was made — I haven’t heard of what they’re doing at all.”
For Wu, the raw aspect of rap as a form of expression makes it a powerful mechanism in mainstream culture.
“The biggest topics right now being racism, police brutality and Trump, I feel like through rap it’s easier to express yourself. Some people don’t even listen to the lyrics initially, but end up spreading the message after having listened a couple of times and learned the lyrics,” he said.
Speaking to rap’s power to influence the social climate, Kenny Fuentes said songs like American rapper and songwriter Logic’s powerful song “1-800-273-8255”, can catch listeners off-guard with their deeper implications. From him, songs like this can promote positive messages to the student body by allowing “people to find comfort through how relatable the artists’ struggles and emotions are.”
As a DJ for Ale House’s ‘Hip-Hop Night’, Fuentes told the group he’d come to see a visible change in the way students interacted with the genre.
“I’m seeing that people are more engaged,” he said. “And sometimes I’ll mute the music and let people sing or rap along, so with Nelly you hear the ‘hey!’, and with Drake’s ‘God’s Plan,’ everyone is rapping along. Definitely since I’ve started [DJing at Ale], you can see a huge wave of people engaging and listening to the music.”
Fuentes said rap is everwhere. “You can’t go anywhere without it being what someone is listening to or being part of what they wear,” he said. “The biggest thing you’ll see is people wearing [Kanye West’s] shoes and embracing sneaker culture, because that is part of hip-hop culture too. You can’t step away without the brands following you.”
As rap continues to gain prominence at Queen’s, campus groups like QNSA have supported open mic nights to generate more attention to student rappers and their distinct messages. But outside the confines of campus, two Queen’s students channelled the power of rap music to kick off Black History Month at Ale House.
On the eve of Feb. 1, Ale hosted its first ‘For the Culture’ event to initiate a month of history, triumph and celebration. Organized by Nelkas Kwemo, Sci ’18, and Marquis Richards, ArtSci ’19, the event sought to create a space for Black culture to be celebrated in an accessible way.
“This was an event to celebrate the start of Black History Month. We were saying we’re going to have music that represents Black culture and we’re going to have some images displayed on the wall during the event that activists are in,” Kwemo said. “Anything that represents Black people.”
The event featured rap and hip-hop music from prominent Black artists to celebrate Black culture and recognize the issues facing Black students today.
“I had the opportunity to succeed in the academic realm, but not everybody from the Black community has that opportunity,” Richards said. “We want to see more Black individuals in institutions like this pursuing their academic goals and be able to accomplish what they want not limited by their lack of resources.”
According to adjunct lecturer at Queen’s School of Music, Robb MacKay, the use of rap and hip-hop to support racialized communities on campus aligns with the power music genres have to speak to social issues.
“We’ve seen hip-hop address race, gender, homophobia, social justice, addiction, domestic violence, and fighting for one’s ‘right to party,’” MacKay wrote in an email to The Journal. “There are those trying to use the music as a social vehicle and there are those who use it as an escapist vehicle. And, of course, there are many artists who do all of those things at once.”
He also wrote the “progression of maturity” that rap has followed has allowed it to “come from relative obscurity, in the streets of Manhattan, to become a worldwide phenomenon.”
“Any genre to which people pay attention can have effects. Whether an artist’s intention is about social change or simply about entertainment, or some combination of both, we know that these intentions exist in many, many musical forms,” he said.
“Music can be a catalyst for change. Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have released music in the era of ‘Black Lives Matter’ that has reinforced the social justice push from hip-hop.”
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