Manifesto's closing party featured both strong performances and questionable organization.
The sixth edition of Manifesto’s Live at the Square was a distinctly mixed bag. The outdoor concert at Yonge-Dundas Square has traditionally been the highlight of and closing party for the annual urban arts festival. At its best, this year’s version was a series of strong, warmly received performances by an overwhelmingly local group of performers, proving that, after several bouts of false hope, Canadian hip-hop has finally reached maturity and is being embraced by a domestic audience. At its worst, it was weirdly disorganized and occasionally confusing.
On the plus side, none of the day’s performers stuck out as bad, and several of them were pretty great. While that may sound like damnation by faint praise, even five or six years ago it would have been a challenge to put on a day-long event consisting of nothing but Canadian hip-hop—save for headliner Pharoahe Monch and an odd surprise appearance by Alkaholiks/Beatnuts supergroup, The Liknuts—and not have a few obvious dogs.
Some of the younger acts on the bill were particularly impressive. Raz Fresco, a 17-year-old MC with a strong stage presence and a flow reminiscent of mid-’90s New York rap, had the crowd clapping in agreement when he yelled out “fuck you, my shit’s real nice.” Jelly Too Fly’s brand of slit-eyed menace took on a whole new dimension when performed live, and Tre Mission’s breathtakingly fast rhymes and dubstep-influenced beats managed to get the crowd moving. R&B singer Shi Wisdom showed why she’s become a critical darling in the past year-and-change, displaying both an impressive vocal range and a calm, mature stage demeanour that was almost like something from another era. Much-ballyhooed jazz-hop fusionists BadBadNotGood did an excellent job of acting as Monch’s backing band, adding twists to already rowdy classics like “Simon Says”
More established acts brought it as well. The Closers, a new trans-Canada collaboration between local hero Rich Kidd and Vancouver’s SonReal was a full-on party, complete with a confetti canon, a ton of Monopoly money thrown around stage and boundless energy from the two performers. Maestro Fresh Wes did a set consisting mostly of material from his new EP Black Tuxedo. The elder statesman of Canadian rap scarcely showed his age, looking every bit as energetic as performers half as old.
The energy on stage was largely matched by that of the crowd. In a city famous for ignoring its own talent, the local-heavy bill was warmly received. Sure, most of that love went to veterans like Maestro and Michie Mee, or else to acts like the Airplane Boys, who’ve received a fair bit of attention from the American music press, but the audience also let out rowdy cheers for Too Fly and fellow female hard rocker Lola Bunz.
All of this good energy was almost undermined by a persistent air of disorganization and a series of odd programming decisions. Having local stalwart and multiple-Juno-nominee D-Sisive perform a truncated set early in the afternoon was both stupid and disrespectful, both to the rapper and his fans, most of whom had yet to arrive when he took the stage. This was made worse by the fact that it was seemingly impossible to track down a schedule saying who was going to be on stage when. Similarly disrespectful was the almost constant time pressure put on artists. Far too many acts seemed to be led to believe that their sets were longer than they were. The Airplane Boys and Tre Mission both told the crowd they had more songs left, only to be informed that they were actually done. Maestro announced that he’d been told to wrap it up, then proceed to play for another ten minutes.
The on-stage hosts insisted that Live at the Square wasn’t “just a big rap concert,” and they were right. The event also featured dance battles, graffiti writers, and spoken-word performances. That said, such diversity may not be a strength at this point in Manifesto’s development. A man giving a poetry workshop was forced to yell over music, while the Airplane Boys were interrupted by music from a b-boy battle going on closer to Yonge Street. It’s possible that Live at the Square has reached a point where it should just be a “big rap concert.” At minimum, it’s almost certain that most of the non-music content should be wrapped up far earlier in the day. Non-music content was given a disproportionately high amount of prime stage time. After spending half-an-hour being pumped up by the Airplane Boys’ high-energy, poppy set, the crowd was then expected to switch gears to a remarkably serious spoken-word performance. The final round of the all-styles dance battle took place directly before Pharoahe Monch went on. These sorts of line-up decisions didn’t benefit anyone. The dancers and poets, all of whom were very talented, were forced to perform in front of a crowd that didn’t really want to see them, while the crowd stood shivering on an unseasonably cold night, grumbling about when the next rapper was coming out.
Manifesto is a great organization that strives to put a positive face on a culture that is often unfairly associated with gangsterism and violence. This edition of Live at the Square proved that, if nothing else, their work and the work of groups like them is starting to bear fruit. Toronto has hip-hop talent that stacks up to what’s on offer anywhere else in the world, and fans who will show up. But six years in, the minds behind Manifesto should be able to put on a more polished, professional show. Our artists deserve better.