The Artists' Tribune

Shan Vincent de Paul: “There’s a brown artist renaissance happening in Toronto”

October 11, 2017

The Sri Lankan-Canadian rapper talks about his experiences and tells us about his favourite up and coming brown artists.

Artists should be involved in the conversation, not just the subjects of it. That’s where The Artists’ Tribune comes in — we’re giving your favourite singers, songwriters and rappers the platform to talk about whatever they want, however they want, completely unfiltered.

No matter how many musical or artistic accomplishments I can rack up, I’m 100% sure my mom will still continue to ask me when I’m getting my masters degree. Being successful in the arts doesn’t have the same bragging rights in most brown communities. It didn’t come with the same aura of financial success and societal respectability as doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Growing up in a first generation immigrant house in Toronto, art was a luxury my folks couldn’t afford. There were no vast record collections in the house, no paintings on the walls or literature on the shelves… just a crackly radio with a hanger antenna blurting out Tamil news and classic Sri Lankan songs in their full distorted glory.  That radio was the only thing that connected my parents to home.  They had given up everything they built and left everything they’d known (due to the civil war) just so that my four brothers and I could have opportunities that weren’t offered to them. So obviously telling them I was going to be making rap music for the rest of my life didn’t go over too smoothly. But after a couple of albums and a ton of tours, they eventually came around.

Growing up on American/Canadian arts and entertainment culture we rarely had any brown icons to look up to, none that were taken seriously anyway. So when a friend told me about Mathangi Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A, and showed me her “Sunshowers” video, I was in disbelief.  A young Tamil girl singing “I salt and pepper my mango” on a tree top with a slew of Tamil people in her video being accepted by a mass white audience?  How?! That moment was a beacon of light for me; M.I.A was a sign of hope for brown artists around the world.

While I might have been a bit naïve in thinking that the larger mass audience in the U.S., U.K. and Canada were ready to fully accept the brown perspective, I was still taken aback to see an artist proudly repping her origin; she continues to be a trailblazer for the South Asian community to this day.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been some significant progress within the arts and entertainment world. Household names like Riz Ahmed, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and M. Night Shyamalan, among many others, are constantly putting out competitive content that demands the attention of the larger western audience.

Despite the propaganda that we hear about Canada being this ultra-diverse, progressive country, many of our institutions and industries still function under covert racism and white supremacist ideologies.

Fortunately for me, Toronto is home to a massive South Asian population, so finding talented brown artists is never difficult. However, despite the propaganda that we hear about Canada being this ultra-diverse, progressive country, many of our institutions and industries still function under covert racism and white supremacist ideologies.  I’ve given up on these institutions to represent the brown voice; instead I’m excited about artists, creatives and thinkers taking matters into their own hands and creating their own platforms. Compared to our white counterparts, navigating through our infrastructure as brown artists is a different ballgame.

After years of trying to have our experiences heard and shared, there’s a quiet brown renaissance happening in the Toronto art community, and it’s fucking beautiful.  Watching the opening performance of the 2017 Junos with A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq was an emotional and proud moment for me as a Sri Lankan man. Watching indigenous artists represent their community to the fullest with a breathtaking performance—but the performance itself wasn’t asking for attention or acceptance, it demanded it with the highest caliber of art this country has to offer. I dream of a moment like that for brown artists in this country. We’re not far though. If you zoom closer inside Toronto’s already rich music and art scene, you’ll find some undeniable talent ready to compete on a global scale.

I’ve rounded up a few of my favourite South Asian artists from the city here:

Rajni Perera

Sri Lankan born mixed media artist that creates stunning visual masterpieces. Her art twists traditional south Asian imagery with a surreal, sci-fi, futuristic touch. Her works are always a beautiful mind fuck.

Yanchan

An up and coming artist that fuses contemporary trap-based production with classic South Asian samples with the distinct vocal tonality to match.  It’s like A.R. Rahman meets Metro Boomin meets Majid Jordan. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Yanchan on a song this year. He’s got an EP dropping in the fall.

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Maria Qamar makes beautiful and striking pop art that references Desi culture.  She just dropped her book “Trust No Aunty,” a tongue-and-cheek guide to dodging bad advice from our elders and balancing two different cultures.

NorBlack NorWhite

Founded by Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar, NorBlackNoWhite is one of the freshest fashion labels in Toronto (via Indian).  They design beautiful vibrant clothing for men and women that perfectly fuse various cultures into undeniable magic.  I make it a point to include at least one NorBlack NorWhite  piece in every music video I direct.

Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya is a multidisciplinary trans artist who’s making a serious wave in the Toronto art scene. She just released her new record, Part-Time Woman, and is always releasing engaging, thought provoking content whether through music or her writing.  One of my favorites from Vivek is her children’s book The Boy and The Bindi  — a magical story of a boy wanting to wear a bindi (which Rajni Perera also happened to illustrate.)

Hey Thambi

Creator Vino Gunasingham has created a hilarious YouTube series with a puppet cast of Thambi and his family.  It follows Thambi going through his therapy sessions while he shares hilarious stories about his immigrant family. The series goes through all too familiar topics such as “How Immigrants Name Their Kids” and “Chicken Curry or Curry Chicken.”

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