Arts charity UNITY kicks off four-day festival with beatbox battle.
The city’s best young beatbox teams battled for prizes and bragging rights at the Annex Wreck Room last night to kick off the four-day UNITY Festival.
UNITY is a Toronto-based arts charity that teaches young people to express themselves through outlets like beatboxing, breakdancing, and spoken word, and introduces them to established artists who both teach them skills and act as mentors. Michael “Bboy Piecez” Prosserman founded UNITY in his early 20s. He says that while he was growing up, breakdancing helped him channel his frustrations into something positive.
“I always used dancing as an outlet for some of the anger I felt inside,” said Prosserman. “I decided to give that back to other young people.”
The four-day UNITY Festival, now in its fourth year, includes a breakdancing competition and poetry slam, and will culminate in a free concert at Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday, headlined by Kardinal Offishall. Prosserman says the festival is a celebration of all the work that everyone involved in Unity has done over the past year.
Last night’s contest was the first two-on-two beatbox battle in Canada. Teams were judged based on technical skills, crowd response, and teamwork. The competition was divided into two divisions, one for under-18s, the other for those 18 and over. Competitors used their mouths to replicate everything from hip-hop and dubstep to complex drum-and-bass rythyms and pounding electro-house beats, and included oral reinterpretations of artists like Chris Brown and Skrillex.
Missisauga’s Word of Mouth took the over-18 title, wowing the judges as well as the crowd—which consisted of everyone from young teens to people well into their 40s—using a mixture of technical skills and polished stage presence. The under-18 title, meanwhile, went to the Brampton-based team of 16-year-old Suluxan “Naxulus” Mohanraj and 17-year-old Nassar “Enkaye” Khan. According to Khan, the pair relied on teamwork to beat out the other competitors.
“I’m more technical and he’s more loud and strong, so I think we complement each other really well,” Khan said.
Khan, who’s been beatboxing for two and a half years, adds that he tried and failed to play several instruments before taking up beatboxing. He says he has stuck with beatboxing because there is no excuse not to practice.
“I tried five or six different instruments, but this, once you start, you can’t stop,” Khan said. “When you wake up, when you’re washing your face, when you’re eating breakfast, you’re always doing it. It gets into you.”
The five-person judges’ panel included Philadelphia’s Scratch, best known as a member of the Roots, and local stand-out Terry “KRNFX” Im, whose stage name is pronounced “Korean Effects.” KRNFX is the two-time Canadian Beatbox Champion and was a finalist on last year’s edition of Canada’s Got Talent. He’s also been working with UNITY for several years.
“Me and Piecez chopped it up a few years ago and he asked me to be part of the team, so every so often I come and do a workshop and work with them,” he said. “It’s a dope event and a dope cause.”
The reigning champ was impressed with the quality of the competitors at Thursday night’s event, and says that this is indicative of the quality of beatboxing in the city as a whole.
“Everything was dope,” he said. “Beatboxing is on the come-up in Toronto and Canada. I’m just happy to be part of the scene.”
Prosserman says that while things like the beatbox battle may be fun, the spirit of friendly competition speaks to UNITY’s larger goals of using hip-hop-related artforms to help young people find themselves.
“There are so many kids who, four or five years ago, were just lost, who are not only amazing artists but are also employed now through UNITY,” Prosserman said. “You see kids who aren’t really university-bound saying, ‘Hey, I want to get my grades up and go to college and get an education.’”