This year’s edition of UNITY Festival is a little flashier than those in years past.
The annual festival is put on by UNITY Charity, which works in communities across the country to help at-risk young people channel their anger and frustration into the arts. The festival is a four-day celebration of the organization’s work. This year, UNITY participants will get to both open for and perform in front of some of their heroes, including MC Talib Kweli, who will be playing a free show at Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday night, and beatboxing legends Rahzel and Scratch.
“There are a lot of out-of-towners who are going to do their things, but there’s also a ton of local artists. It’s a step up in terms of level of talent,” says UNITY founder Michael “Bboy Piecez” Prosserman. “That’s not just headliners; the youth who are performing have really stepped their game up.”
Prosserman says he founded UNITY because dance helped him deal with his own difficulties while growing up.
“We want them to use the art to let go of their anger,” he says. “From there, they can develop plans, goals, figure out what they want to do. But it’s hard to do that when you’re dealing with a ton of craziness.”
Matthew “Testament” Jones also believes in the transformational power of art. Jones is the co-host of Sunday night’s all-styles lyricists event, during which MCs and spoken-word artists will perform at the Daniels Spectrum Theatre, in Regent Park. Jones works with UNITY throughout the year. He says that while schools give kids plenty of chances to get their frustrations out through sports, there are fewer opportunities to do that in the arts.
“When I was in high school, there was nothing like UNITY for me to gravitate towards,” he says. “Nothing that used art and hip-hop specifically. This resonates with the youth in a different way. I’m coming to them as an artist, not just some guy trying to tell them about their lives.”
He adds that he’s always impressed to see how UNITY changes its participants.
“I’ve seen kids transform in front of my eyes,” he says.
Gary “Goudini” Mananquil is in charge of Thursday’s two-person Free Your Sound beatbox battle, which will see mouth-percussion duos battle for supremacy. (A video from last year’s beatbox battle is above.) He says that the event is great not only for the performers, but for team beatboxing as a whole.
“We’re trying to grow the whole artform,” he says. “Last year, they didn’t know how hard to go, how to work as a team. This year, they’ll have the hang of it.”
Having beatbox heroes Rahzel and Scratch on hand will only make the stakes that much higher.
“Having these headliners is going to hype up all the beatboxers,” Mananquil says. “I think the energy is going to be so much stronger than last year.”
He adds that ultimately, the festival’s job is to draw attention to the work UNITY does all year in schools and communities, and to help grow the organization.
“We’re just trying to unite the youth and empower them,” he says. “Then it can translate into real-life situations. You can grow as a person and as an artist from jamming with other people with the same vision.”