On Friday, Oct. 7, to culminate the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA) Freestyle V festival’s youth program, the Bulman Centre multi-purpose room was packed with rowdy, excited local kids from every ethnic or cultural background imaginable.
But rather than hovering around to stifle them, the adults in the room were the instructors who, over the course of a week, taught them the importance of speaking out.
“This was an opportunity for them to say whatever they want,” said Patrick Skene, the rap artist also known as Pip Skid, of the Oct. 7 concert.
The concert featured youth from the surrounding West End and downtown/inner-city communities performing self-created raps, dance numbers and DJ ensembles, which they had mastered over a week of workshops with gifted hip-hop instructors like Pip Skid and Elliott Walsh.
“We wanted it to be something where kids could come in and have all their creative needs met in the realm of hip hop,” said Walsh, who in addition to performing under the stage name Nestor Wynrush, has been working for years as a hip-hop instructor and radio personality for the University of Manitoba’s UMFM and the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW.
“The kids relate to it not just because it’s pop music, but because there are messages and there’s the spirit of having fun; ... they (rap artists) say a lot of things that they don’t say in most music.”
Since its inception five years ago, Freestyle has become a successful week-long festival, coupling hip-hop instruction in the four elements (rap, DJ skills, b-boy and b-girl dancing and graffiti art), with adult-oriented discussion about the role of hip hop in popular culture.
“Feeling safe and welcome in this building (the University of Winnipeg) is really important,” said Ted Turner, outreach and special projects co-ordinator for the UWSA and the primary organizer for Freestyle.
“For the youth, this is the music they are excited about; ... they don’t have to go out and buy a drum set, they can do it themselves.”
This year, for the adult program, the UWSA partnered with the The Uniter and the Mouseland Press Speaker series to host a talk by hip-hop historian and popular author Jeff Chang.
The students’ association also partnered with Gallery 1C03 to host a Freestyle-inspired Cinema Politica event, screening the film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which explores urban street art. The film was followed by a contentious local panel discussion on graffiti.
The UWSA also commissioned Winnipeg’s Graffiti Gallery to host Believe the Hype, an all-style urban dance battle to close the week-long adult program and Walsh managed to spearhead a hip-hop radio series on CKUW for the duration of the festival.
For Turner, who has worked tirelessly to develop Freestyle over the course of five years and has seen a big increase in attendance, the festival can only get bigger from here.
“Just to see the youth program develop as it has, it really makes me stop and think like, ‘Hey, where can this go?’” he said, adding that he could envision the festival running for two weeks or even four weeks a year.
Published in Volume 66, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 12, 2011)