Manifesto Festival: Volunteer-run fest pushes the boundaries of hip-hop in new directions

Published in the Sept. 15-22 issue of NOW Magazine

By Anupa Mistry

In early 2007, 20 idealistic hip-hop heads had a crazy idea: to create a community and culture festival on a par with the biggest in the world. This week, Manifesto celebrates its fifth year as the largest event of its kind in Canada. It’s also the most inclusive.

Current Canadian chart-toppers Shad, k-os, K’naan and D-Sisive have performed at the festival, along with global stars like Talib Kweli and Jay Electronica. Headlining the September 25 mainstage are foundational deities Rakim and Kid Capri, California avant-rap team Blu & Exile, Phonte and 9th Wonder, Michie Mee and DJ X.

The fest gives the public a big, free, annual outdoor rap show, which moved in 2010 from Nathan Phillips Square to Yonge-Dundas, but its efforts to link community-building with the camaraderie and fellowship of hip-hop culture happen all year round.

“We’re trying to push the definition of hip-hop,” explains Che Kothari, executive director of parent organization Manifesto Community Projects. “Our aim is to create a sort of meeting place where people get inspired and then create their own reality and vibe.”

Five years in, the volunteer-run event has finally caught up to its incipient dreams of being wholly inclusive. “Creating a space for wrongfully marginalized people is part of hip-hop’s story,” Kothari says. New programming includes women and trans-friendly events like Wombmanifesto on Sunday (September 18) at Revival and an indigenous showcase, Origins: The Firekeepers, Tuesday (September 20) at the Great Hall, featuring Juno-nominated Kinnie Starr.

Canadian hip-hop pioneer and long-time Manifesto participant Michie Mee helped conceive Wombmanifesto, a name borrowed from Toronto dub poet and playwright d’bi.young. Panels on body representation, new feminism and identity during the day build to an evening showcase headlined by rapper Eternia. Michie, who’ll be honoured at the event, says it’s an attempt to acknowledge every person who “reps hip-hop in the city, the different artists out there and untold stories that need to be heard.”

While Kothari says Wombmanifesto is not a response to last year’s mainstage fracas over Jay Electronica’s misogynistic remarks to a full Yonge-Dundas Square audience, he acknowledges that the incident was a crucial learning opportunity.

“That artist didn’t understand what the festival is about, and it made us check the way we run it,” he explains, adding that one-on-ones with headlining artists are now part of his checklist. “The musicians need to understand the safe space we’re trying to provide – especially in public squares where we’re reaching an intergenerational audience.”

Young people are crucial to the organization’s future. Kothari is proud of fighting for and winning 16-plus admittance to Culture Clash (September 22 at Echo Beach), headlined by Afrika Bambaataa, Just Blaze, Hudson Mohawke, Boi1da, South Rakkas Crew and others. But he’s even prouder of a newly implemented mentorship program, the Manifesto School of Community and Culture, in which programmers and directors take on assistants.

“It’s beautiful to see young people come in and take ownership of the festival. Letting this thing live on beyond anything we’ve created is so important.”