In December 2011, I sat on a panel at the Drake Underground in Toronto to talk about the Polaris Music Prize and the perceived tetchiness of its relationship to Canadian hip-hop. For clarity, I’m not implying rap has been completely shafted by Polaris; K’naan and Shad have both been shortlisted, twice each. Then yesterday we learned Montreal-via-Edmonton's Cadence Weapon has been nominated for a second time for his latest album, Hope in Dirt City, and Take Care by Drake, a Toronto-bred artist worshipped the world over as one of hip-hop’s biggest and brightest stars, has made it to the short list for 2012 as well.
So, why this talk? There’s been a pervasive thread of discussion amongst the wider Polaris pool and select jurors who’ve made it to the grand jury that, even if a hip-hop record is shortlisted, it’ll never win. The reasons for this sentiment might manifest differently for each juror invested in a "niche" genre like hip-hop, R&B, metal or electronic/club music, but the root cause seems to be a shortage of diversity in the Canada-wide jury pool. Not a cultural or ethnic skewage – though that may also have an impact – but in a general lack of advocacy for non-indie rock forms and a lack of knowledge or interest amongst the pool for a variety of forms.
As a journalist who covers these fringe genres, serving on the grand jury last year helped me fully realize the scale of unfamiliarity and reluctance that exists. The Weeknd’s House of Balloons is as deft and fully realized a vision – of club kid life, magnified, surreal and torrid like everything is when you’re 20 years old – as Arcade Fire’s inverse examination of vast, existential boredom is on The Suburbs.
I’m happy to say that the Weeknd record was met with positive curiosity by most of my fellow grand jurors. Still, there was a lot of frustrating reluctance based on specific signifiers common to hip-hop and R&B: the unofficial mixtape release, heavy sampling, vocal effects like auto-tune, outside production and themes and language (specifically profanity). If we’re stacking rap, R&B or a club record against the parameters of authenticity-obsessed rock traditionalism (and even then, that’s subjective), what’s the point?
Polaris has been great about this by acknowledging the imbalance, being receptive to discussion and eager to remedy. My solution? Until there’s an attitude shift towards hip-hop (and R&B, metal and electronic) and it’s treated as a valid form of expression and not a frivolity, there needs to be an attempt to stack the jury pool with more advocates for these genres.
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on Jul 18, 2012