UNITY Festival's main event showcases "true hip-hop" at Yonge-Dundas Square.
Local hip-hop youth outreach charity UNITY celebrated its achievements at Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday, with a nine-hour party that saw performances by the teens who’ve participated in the program as well as artists like Canadian beatbox champion KRNFX, Roots member Scratch, and local hero Kardinal Offishall. The showcase was the highlight of the four-day UNITY Festival, which also included a breakdance battle, a beatbox battle, and a poetry slam.
UNITY brings artists into high schools to teach young people life skills and leadership, using art forms that include breakdancing, graffiti writing, beatboxing, rapping, and spoken word. The Toronto-based charity started off partnering with schools in Toronto, as well as Peel and York regions, but has since expanded and now runs programs in Alberta and Nova Scotia.
UNITY founder Michael “Bboy Piecez” Prosserman says that in addition to being a raging good time, the event at Yonge-Dundas was fantastic in terms of raising the organization’s profile in the community.
“We were on CP24 every 30 minutes, we were on CTV, we got into Maclean’s—things that never would have happened otherwise,” he said. “It was positive exposure to thousands and thousands of people who now understand what UNITY is about, who are outside what I guess you’d call our regular sphere of influence.”
He added that the young people who have been participating in UNITY programs over the last several years also saw a new side to the organization.
“The kids all had this kind of wide-eyed look, looking at UNITY like it was type of organization they hadn’t imagined before,” he said. “They always thought it was a cool program, but now they realize they’re part of something bigger. Like six of our kids wound up being interviewed for TV.”
An unexpected highlight of the event was the three-round high school breakdance battle, which saw teams from various area schools engage in what turned out to be a tightly fought contest. The athletic crew from Mississauga’s Rick Hansen SS wound up taking the crown, but were pushed to the limit by a showy, technical team from Scarborough’s Mary Ward CSS.
Montreal breaker Luca “Lazylegz” Patuelli hosted the event. Patuelli was born with Arthrogryposis, a muscle disorder that affected his legs. When he was born, doctors said he would likely be wheelchair bound. Instead, he’s become an award winning b-boy, winning breakdance competitions in Canada and the United States, touring the world, performing at the 2010 Paralympic Games, and founding the ILL-Abilities Crew, a group of breakdancers who have managed to excel in spite of their physical challenges. He’s also been involved with UNITY for a number of years, and says that the level of breakdancing talent on display at this year’s event was lightyears ahead of what he saw even two years ago.
“The level has improved so much,” he said. “Some of those kids could definitely compete at a professional level. Not at an international level yet, but Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver—they could definitely compete professionally. It’s amazing to see. I wish I could have talked more about it on stage, but I’m so impressed with UNITY and the youth who are putting themselves out there.”
Patuelli adds that things like UNITY help propagate what he calls “true hip-hop culture,” counteracting some of the negative images of hip-hop that are often the popular face of the culture.
“There are a lot of misconceptions as to what hip-hop is, and the stereotype is really negative,” he says. “But true hip-hop is extremely positive. It’s all about peace, love, unity, and having fun. The media tends to make it negative…. UNITY is giving a voice to the positive aspect of it, and these kids who are experiencing have an outlet to express themselves.”