Radio — Hip-hop and social justice in Montreal

Vishan Charamis and Maud Nevoret are part of a collective that organizes a series of social justice-focused hip-hop workshops and shows in Montreal. Scott Neigh interviews them about their experiences with hip-hop and with struggles for social change, and about the Rap Battles for Social Justice.

Maud Nevoret grew up in France in a very political home. She left school at 18 and rather than going on to university, she and a crew of about a dozen friends – all of whom identified politically as marxists – decided that they would make their own autonomous, grassroots university. They read, they learned, they discussed, they did grassroots political things together. Nevoret also loved rap music, and it just felt like a natural thing to bring that together with the radical ideas she and her friends were filling their days with, as a way to help learn, to help teach, and to share in the broader community.

About five years ago, she moved to Montreal. At some point, she ended up at a hip-hop show billing itself as the Rap Battles for Social Justice. And she loved it. In fact, she loved it so much that she tracked down the folks who had organized it and insisted that she needed to get involved. Initially the brainchild of a guy named Dan Parker, by this point the Rap Battles for Social Justice events were being organized by a small collective, which soon enough Nevoret joined.

Vishan Charamis’ path was a little different. His first exposure to social justice issues was through his mother, who is very involved in activism related to the healthcare system. Then when he was in high school, he got into some trouble and ended up in an anti-violence program where he learned way more about issues. And that eventually led him to get politically involved himself.

And he first got involved in hip hop as a teenager too. He and his buddies would have a few drinks, do some freestyling. They weren’t all that good at it, but they liked it. As he got a little older and developed his skills, he started participating in a major open mic event that’s a regular feature of Montreal’s hip-hop scene. At these events, he would rap a lot about social issues. Another rapper who heard him perform there invited him to come out to, you guessed it, the Rap Battles for Social Justice. Charamis was a participant a few times and then got involved as an organizer.

The model for the Rap Battles for Social Justice is simple. They try to do two projects per year. Each one starts out with the organizing group choosing a focus. In the early days, it was often connected to climate justice, but more recently they have done events focused on police brutality, gender struggles, sexual violence, consumerism, Black history, and more. Each project consists of a workshop and a show.

The workshop is usually held at Concordia University, as the group is funded in part by the Concordia Student Union and the student-driven Sustainability Action Fund. The first half of the workshop is about the issue – it is generally led by an organizer or someone who otherwise knows a great deal about the issue for that project. The second half is a writing workshop, where games, exercises, and activities are used to teach people how to write raps. Almost everyone who participates comes out of it having written at least one verse.

The other component is the show. It generally involves artists from across Montreal’s hip-hop scene, and can also include an opportunity for participants from the workshop to perform. The goal is to put on a good show, to raise awareness about the issue in question, and to raise money for a grassroots group or project involved in the issue. Sometimes, they give some space for an activist to share a few words. They always ensure that the venue is accessible. And in recruiting artists to participate, they put a strong emphasis on seeking out and amplifying marginalized voices.

They are currently putting the finishing touches on the organizing for a project related to climate justice – in particular, this one will focus on Indigenous frontline struggles against resource extraction projects. It will be to raise funds to support the Unist’ot’en Camp and the Wet’suwet’en land defenders fighting against the Coastal Gas Link pipeline out west. The workshop will be taking place on March 11 and the show on March 29.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: PXHere

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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