Backstage at the Rivoli, J Hoodi is nervous. The 18-year-old rapper is about to perform live for the first time. The crowd of about 75 waiting on the other side of the stage isn’t sure what to expect from Hoodi and he doesn’t know what he’s going to give them. He had been working all summer on the songs he was about to perform, but had passed on earlier opportunities to try them live. He spent his time backstage talking with friends, trying to figure out how to react when he got up there.

As he grabs the mic from the DJ, he’s looking down, with the hood from his sweatshirt over his head. He’s silent for a few moments, then looks up: “I’m gonna need ya’ll to throw some ones in the air for me like this,” he says, waving his outstretched arm one finger back and forth in the air. Instantly, dozens of fingers shoot up, and the crowd bounces along with him through his short set, cheering as he spit bar after bar, seemingly without a breath in between. By the end, he’s got a big smile across his face, thanking the crowd for their time.

“It felt pretty good,” he says after the show, still smiling. “I was trying hard to break out of my shell, and I think I got my nerves out.”

J Hoodi is one of 14 musicians who performed at the Rivoli as part of the Beats Mind Movement program showcase — the final act capping off a summer of work for these young artists honing their craft. Beats Mind Movement is a free initiative offered through UrbanArts Community Arts Council, in which young artists learn how to record and engineer audio, gain insight into the music business and record their own original songs.

Originally founded in 2007, the program ran as a drop in for many years, until it was redesigned this year by H. Ricki Bekzadeh, Director of Programming at The Remix Project and road manager for Majid Jordan, who brought in Toronto hip hop legend Rich Kidd as the facilitator. They kept the program free, but limited the number of participants, and made each applicant audition to prove they were serious, and bought equipment needed for a professional studio at UrbanArts’ Mount Dennis location. The philosophy is that by placing more focus on specific needs of fewer, but more committed youth, they’ll have a better shot at creating lucrative careers in music.

“We formalized the program to benefit those who were pursuing music in a serious way,” explains Rich Kidd. “I want to help youths who are trying but may be a bit lost, I’m here to help them on a few steps in their journey.”

This is what attracted J Hoodi. He has long been passionate about rapping, but was lacking confidence. “I didn’t know if I was any good,” he says.

“When [J Hoodi] came in to audition, he didn’t have any songs, so he had to freestyle for me,” explains Rich Kidd. “When I heard him, I was like ‘Damn, you need to be in the program.’”

“This was an amazing experience for me. Where I live, there’s not a lot of ways to help yourself,” says Hoodi, who lives a ten minute walk from the studio. “Helping people find ways to express themselves is important. Beats Mind Movement gave me lots of opportunities to do that, and has shown me how I can take music seriously”

Another key element added to the program this year was seminars hosted by industry leaders. Throughout the summer, students and other applications who weren’t accepted into the program had the opportunity to learn from music veterans like Kardinal Offishall and SOCAN’s Rodney Murphy, and Mad Ruk Entertainment Executive Producer Mauricio Ruiz.

This was the most beneficial part of the program for singer-songwriter Juvon Taylor. At 24 years old, he’s a little farther along than some of the youth in the program who are trying to find their sound. “I’ve been making music. I need to figure out my business side,” he says. “For these people to come in and not only bless us with some knowledge, but give you their contact info and help point you in some directions is invaluable.”

For Taylor, Beats Mind Movement was a chance to connect with fellow artists and find some new promotion strategies. “When my EP came out a year ago, I sent Rich Kidd a few emails asking him to listen. He never responded. This was my chance to show him and others in this industry that I should be taken seriously.”

While this cohort of Beats Mind Movement is ending, Rich Kidd is determined to keep alumni engaged. He’s opening up Fridays as a day for alumni to come into the studio and work on whatever they need to.

For most of the graduates, that means continuing to record and release music. “The program is a great base, but what matters now is what we go home and do with it,” says Taylor.

“A paycheque is important,” says Rich Kidd. “But these participants were chosen because their motives aren’t only materialistic. They want to be impactful with their music, to eventually be in a position where they can help others. They’re the ones who are ultimately going to make this industry better.”

 

A new cohort of Beats Mind Movement is starting in November. If you’re interested in applying, watch for the application at the UrbanArts website or Rich Kidd’s Twitter.