Toronto’s hip-hop history runs deep. A new photo exhibition displays it

Outer Lining Toronto City Hall windows and walls are photographs of faces that have been the building blocks for the city’s most vibrant music culture, hip-hop.

The snapshots are part of ‘Project T Dot’, a love letter and celebration of The 6ix’s once-simmering and now explosive hip-hop scene by Toronto-based photographer Ajani Charles.

“Toronto’s hip-hop community and culture has slept in until recently,” Charles told The Star. “We’ve seen ourselves and other hip-hop members have seen us as underdogs, and maybe we’re missing the drive and talent that Toronto really has.”

Charles’s project is 16 years in the making. It all stemmed from his roots as a photographer. He had gone through an existential crisis while studying at Western University when he was invited to a rap battle in El Mocambo in 2006 by his lifelong friend DJ Docta, the DJ of King of the Dot.

“I started documenting the rap battle and was so inspired and stimulated by the images I captured. The rappers performing, there were break dancers there, and I got really excited to observe and record them,” Charles recalls.

Ajani Charles is a Toronto photographer with a new installation on display in Nathan Phillips Square.  Project T Dot is 16 years in the making.

Packed with many of the community’s greatest figures since the mid-2000s to the present, “Project T Dot” offers an outreach to the city hip hop that’s pre and early Drake a scope that is often overlooked worldwide.

The Toronto scene, now recognized as one of the capitals of hip-hop, included many people, according to Charles, figuring out how to create a sustainable ecosystem financially and otherwise.

“Many people have been instrumental in bringing Toronto’s hip-hop culture to the masses and audiences outside of Canada, such as Kardinal Offishall, Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and artists practicing through other mediums such as art, dance, and so on,” Charles added. “But it wasn’t until 2009 when Drake began his rise to superstardom that Toronto started to gain the recognition I believe it deserves as a hip-hop mecca.”

Charles stressed that the story of hip-hop from Toronto goes beyond rap music and that is shown in ‘Project T Dot’. Figures such as legendary graffiti artist Skam, Manifesto festival co-founder Che Kothari and even the insides of the Get Fresh store all make an appearance, underscoring just how extensive the culture was and is.

Shot in color and edited in black and white, Ajani Charles' Project T Dot xhibit draws on a level of nostalgia.  For many it is an eye-opener, but for some also a recorded memorial.

Shot in color and edited in black and white, Charles’ exhibition draws on a level of nostalgia. For many it is an eye-opener, but for some also a recorded memorial.

“There are so many locations that came up in the early 2000s that don’t exist today. For example, the entire entertainment area no longer exists,” he explains. “So there are so many nightclubs that just don’t exist anymore, like Tonic nightclub, Fluid nightclub, Cheval, et cetera. Lots of venues where members of Toronto’s hip-hop community gather.”

For Charles, the photo exhibition is just the beginning. “Project T Dot” will become a mini-documentary and book over the next two years, he said, explaining Toronto’s hip-hop from the perspective of the people he’s photographed.

“Toronto hip-hop represents the cultural diversity of Toronto, perhaps more than any other subculture in Toronto. There are so many different types of people who are part of Toronto’s hip-hop scene. I think Toronto’s hip-hop community has played an important role in creating or contributing to what we know about Toronto.”

“Project T Dot” will be on display outside of Toronto’s City Hall until June 30.

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