ReFreshed Festival affects positive change through hip-hop

Let’s talk about the good old days. The noble time prior to rap’s absorption into the corporatocracy; back when participants cared and honoured the love/respect/unity/etc. mantra of the genre. That golden era before those Death Row assholes went and ruined a perfectly revolutionary force. Life was good.

Anyone who’s spent five minutes on Wikipedia could tell you that such a narrative is oversimplified whitewashed bullshit: hip-hop’s a wildly diverse movement birthed from über-oppressed kids who just wanted to party it up in a public park with Kool Herc. And while there’s always Lupe Fiasco-like characters wondering where “real hip-hop” wandered off to there’s also been plenty of people finding ways of respecting the actual history attempting to harness the fury excitement nihilism skill and confusion the genre uniquely represents.

ReFreshed a new Calgary-based hip-hop gathering is positioning itself in the latter slot. While the motto of the group sounds like it could’ve belonged on a Native Tongues record (liberation responsibility fulfilment) the participants aren’t just some suburban outsiders looking to shame a few more poor black kids for rhyming about stupid shit to rack up a bit of cultural capital. The few dozen folks involved in ReFreshed are veterans in the movement looking to promote the disciplines and bring more youth into the party.

Since May ReFreshed has been meeting weekly at The House Coffee Sanctuary to celebrate the complex contradictory movement of hip-hop with experienced emcees DJs producers breakers visual artists and graffiti writers representing an assortment of local crews (Original Rudes Grim Reminder Jazzlib Collective) all making appearances. Every evening there’s some teaching of skills and some cyphers. Youth many from low-income backgrounds come to participate. Which is most of the point.

“We’ve gained so much from hip-hop” says Nathan Lenet the founder of the group and a veteran Calgary emcee. “We thought it’d be good to give it back to those youth who it belongs to who in the beginning really created it. It’s about really recognizing that the power of hip-hop comes through the expression of all the elements. We try to really create an atmosphere where people are free to share ask questions to learn how to do whatever — freestyle emcee how to dance get behind the turntables and learn how to DJ.”

Lenet’s been hanging out with young aspiring hip-hoppers for quite some time but it’s not as if he’s been teaching pricey write-a-rhyme workshops to white teens in some swanky suburb. Rather these kids come from myriad scenarios ranging from incarcerated youth to teens on reserves. He’s certainly not naive about the violence misogyny and poverty that such individuals interact with. It’s bigger than hip-hop but hip-hop’s the outlet.

“Liberation really is the ongoing theme of where hip-hop is coming from from youth within ghettos needing some form of being heard of expressing themselves and using what they had to create this art form” says Lenet who facilitated the production of a rap album with residents of the Calgary Young Offender Centre a little while ago (while “conscious rap” fans might not think much of the tape there’s more emotion contained in it than a thousand Macklemore songs guaranteed).

Next on the agenda for ReFreshed is an all-day all-night public showcase of what the gathering is all about on October 27. Although it’s being held at the Amsterdam Rhino most of the day will be all-ages as hanging out and teaching youth is the gist of the regular weekly event. Spread throughout the day will be concerts (Chief Navaho Natural Ensemble and Nii Gyamfi) talks about hip-hop and community-building (B-Girl Lunacee Market Collective and Light and Soul) and cyphers aplenty.

Kevin Choo a member of the b-boy crew Grim Reminder and co-organizer of the upcoming festival notes that the reactions to the past weekly events have been positive: “Tons of people are very supportive and down to collaborate. Once more youth get involved it’ll only get bigger; it’s important the next generation are supported as that’s how everything lives on.”

Indeed. “Real hip-hop” hasn’t strayed far. Poverty and racism are still rampant in the world and some self-righteous “conscious” rhymer won’t solve that problem. But there is something to be said about the influence of a community that can be formed one that specifically seeks to include the most shit-on members of society.

“ReFreshed is really attempting to highlight the sense of what hip-hop’s always been building: it was about participation” says Lenet. “It wasn’t about one person under a spotlight but it was about a whole group of people being cast a vibe dancing getting on the mic. It wasn’t an exclusive star performer. You’d have those people leading the party but the idea was to get everybody involved. We wanted to create that feel and create an experience drawing a connection between what hip-hop is and what community and freedom within that is.”