The Urban Hip-Hop Union gets a facelift, starting with the Poetry Slam event

By Rachael D’Amore

On the brink of its 10th anniversary, the Urban Hip-Hop Union is bringing its mandate back to its origins. This year, the Ryerson student group, which is predominantly known for its hip-hop dance troupe, is shifting its focus toward educating students about the cultural and historical roots of hip hop.

“Nowadays, people are focused on the mainstream side of hip hop and what’s current,” says Violeta Martinez, the president of the Urban Hip-Hop Union (UHHU). “They don’t necessarily understand the background or history of the music.”

UHHU alumni: Violeta Martinez and Dan Cruz (Courtesy Sid Naidu)

The goal of the collective is to incorporate different elements of hip hop into their outreach, including MCing, DJing, graffiti arts, and b-boying.

The shift in focus is illustrated by its participation this year in a Ryerson event called Poetry Slam.

Poetry Slam, set for Oct. 27, is in collaboration with fellow Ryerson student group, The Poetic Exchange. Martinez says that the event will spread the word about the UHHU’s new framework by reaching out to different groups of students.

“MCing is a huge part of hip hop, so joining forces with another student group at Ryerson that focuses on spoken word and performance just made sense,” says Martinez.

Poetry Slams are competitive versions of open-mic poetry performances. Up to 12 poets compete and are judged by a select panel of experienced poets and an audience of their peers.

Olivia Amu, the president of The Poetic Exchange, says that the level of audience participation at Poetry Slam events is often surprising to new attendees because it goes against stereotypes about poetry.

“Usually when people think poetry, they think about quiet, concentrated, deep thoughts. But Poetry Slams have a lot of emotion and excitement,” she says. “We encourage people to clap and shout if they enjoy something.”

Collaborating with other Ryerson student groups isn’t new to The Poetic Exchange, which has joined Musicians@Ryerson for charity events in the past. But Amu says that their collaboration with the UHHU is a chance for both groups to demonstrate different sides of their respective subjects.

“The UHHU is not just dance and they want people to know that they’re not just dance. And for people who think that poetry is just English language formalities, we want to show that it can be more than that too,” says Amu. “I think members of both groups will really enjoy what each has to offer.”

Founded in 2006, the UHHU was created by Sid Naidu, a Ryerson alumnus. Under Naidu, the collective focused on regular open-mic nights and participated in Toronto-based hip-hop festivals and events with the help of the Ryerson Students’ Union. He says the hip-hop dance aspect came later, as new members brought new skills to the table. 

“When I came to Ryerson, hip hop was never in the mainstream eye like it is today,” says Naidu. “There was a lot of stigma attached to what hip hop represented: baggy clothes, gang culture, that was all associated with it.

“I wanted to break that stereotype and show how people could use it as a tool of empowerment and education. Hip hop gave people whose voices were opposed the power to speak.”

Naidu still acts as a mentor for the UHHU today. His work with the group has spurred his own community youth outreach program, Hard Knock Leadership, and a career in urban photography.

Martinez says the group’s dance team will still compete in the annual Bring Your Own Beat dance competition and the Ontario University Competition of Hip-Hop (OUCH) in Waterloo, where they placed fourth and fifth overall last year.   

“Our goal for the UHHU is to become educators not only within the Ryerson student community but within Toronto’s hip-hop community as a whole,” says Martinez. “Because we were so focused on dance, we weren’t well representative of the urban hip-hop community. We’re hoping to change that.”

Hip hop has certainly forayed into mainstream consciousness in recent years, with Drake’s surprise appearance at Ryerson Students’ Union’s annual Parade and Picnic concert perhaps being the tipping point in Toronto. But to Naidu, it was a long time coming.

“I was all smiles. People were hitting me up on my feed to show me what was happening. The energy at Ryerson is so strong nowadays. It’s beautiful to see how far it’s come.”

Poetry Slam will take place on Oct. 27 in Eric Palin Hall 207. Attendance is free.

This article was published in the print edition of the Ryersonian on Sept. 28, 2015.

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