This weekend's Urban East conference is Saint John, New Brunswick’s very first conference focusing exclusively on urban music. And if you’re wondering what exactly that means, you’re not alone.
Urban music has a complicated history: there doesn’t seem to be any exact consensus on when it was coined (most reports say the mid 1970s), or what it encompasses. Some say it’s just hip hop and R&B, while others broaden that definition to include all traditionally black music, including jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and reggae.
But all the Urban East artists have two things in common: they don’t fit the stereotypical urban mold, and the communities they grew up in were often at odds with the kind of music they were passionate about.
Here are some of their stories.
Reeny Smith is an R&B singer from North Preston, Nova Scotia, a small, mostly black community where she grew up singing gospel music in her community church.
“It was a gradual progression of me taking what I learned in the church and adding it to stuff that I thought was cool, stuff that I thought was fun, and stuff that I liked to write,” Smith recently told Civilized.
The North Preston community supported her, but when it came time to move out of the small town and into Halifax, she found that there wasn’t much of an urban music scene where she could hone her craft.
“I always tell this story all the time,” she said. “Most of the gigs I had early on were shows that were mainly put on by the black community, so there was really no venue for us to perform outside of that small circle.”
Since then, Smith has compiled an impressive resume, winning the African Nova Scotia Music Association’s up-and-coming artist award in 2011, their rising star award in 2012, and their artist of the year award in 2016. She also represented Nova Scotia at the Canada Winter Games, and took part in Casino Nova Scotia’s artist in residence program.
Barbra Lica is another urban artist that defies stereotypes. While attending the University of Toronto, the singer studied jazz performance, a genre that had interested her from an early age, even though it wasn’t the genre of choice for her musician parents.
“I remember hearing Ella and Louis singing when I was a kid,” she told Civilized. “And I remember them just being so happy, and I wanted to kind of be where they were, in a better place.”
She added that the broad subject matter of jazz music particularly appeals to her.
“I find that in a lot of music in other genres, they just explore one topic like, ‘I love you, I really love you, you’re great. You have beautiful eyes’, you know. And jazz can sometimes be more stories that kind of unfold.”
Now, she performs consistently both in her home of Toronto and across the country. Her most recent album — 'I’m Still Learning' — was nominated for a Juno for best vocal jazz album, and she’s already working on her next project.
Coming to Saint John gives her an opportunity to share some of her music with an audience that might not normally hear it.
“As long as you can tell a story, and you can relate with people,” she said. “There’s a great market for any kind of music.”
M.A.R. is a rapper from Bridgeport, Connecticut, but he says his music defies description.
“You can categorize it as the rap genre,” he told Civilized, “but it’s mainly for everyone. Everyone relates to my music in every genre, so it’s really just an uptempo force that takes over me and everyone sees the love.”
Growing up in Bridgeport, he got involved in music from an early age, but in the small Connecticut city, it was difficult for him to make a name for himself.
“I come from a place where our story was never told,” he said. “There are no rappers, no industry for us out here. It’s a hard scene, but it’s getting better as time goes on.”
But he has flourished regardless, performing countless times to sold-out crowds and opening for acts like 2 Chainz and Lupe Fiasco. And he’s signed to the record label Ruff Ryders.
M.A.R. is looking forward to networking as well as performing at the conference this weekend.
“I’m coming to have a great time, first and foremost, and touch that stage, go crazy on that stage, light up that stage. That’s what I do best.”
Representing Saint John, the hip hop trio U.D.A. consists of Stay Puff (Stefan Wood), Rowe (Christian Rowe), and Benzie (Benjamin Boudreau). The three came together with influences from different genres, but a love of hip hop connected them.
“I’ve always been interested in pretty much every genre of music I can get a hold of,” Boudreau told Civilized. “Jazz was a huge influence with me growing up, and I listened to a lot of psychedelic music as well.”
That makes their particular brand of hip hop unusual but also ear-catching. Their unconventional style has driven them to the top of the Saint John scene, representing the city at Canadian Music Week in Toronto and garnering fans across the Maritimes.
For the three U.D.A. members, growing the hip hop scene in the city boils down to clearing up misconceptions about urban music.
“The stigma of that whole violence, that can be easily defeated,” Boudreau said. “I’ve played shows in Toronto, in a packed bar, and there wasn’t even so much as a push against each other. These dudes just want to express themselves and to push the message that they believe in.”
You can see these artists, and many more, at the Urban East Music Conference, taking place from Nov 9 to 11 at various venues across the city. Tickets are available here.