Photo by Jess Stokes Photo by Jess Stokes Jess Stokes

In all my explorations of hip-hop culture, I had yet to see a break dance competition. Last Saturday I checked out the seventh annual Breaking the Cycle, an impressive b-boy battle organized by the UofT chapter of UNITY Charity. The event took place at the Innis Town Hall and having only seen movie screenings in the space, I wasn’t sure how the event would go down. With over 200 spectators the auditorium turned out to be the perfect venue for a tournament of epic proportions. Between the 38 two-man teams that competed for the $500 cash prize and the wide variety of musical and performance art acts that filled the space during judging decisions, I’d say the night was an overwhelming success.

UNITY is a unique organization that targets young people, primarily in high school, encouraging positive artistic expression through activities such as break dancing, slam poetry, and music. The group aims to help prevent drug use and violence in teens throughout Toronto by exposing them to positive forms of self-expression in hip-hop culture that promote self-esteem and confidence.

MC Testament, who’s been a member of UNITY for four years, directed the evening. He got involved with the group through a friend who encouraged him to join over a meeting at Fresh.

When asked about the role UNITY plays in the Toronto community, Testament says “I feel blessed to be around like minded people, we all have our personal stories that altered our lives. That’s why we chose so heavily to focus on the positive aspects [of the culture], because we see what a difference the transition can make in young peoples lives. So we make it a point to help young people not struggle with some of the steps that we had to struggle with and not do some of the foolish things that we did before we got to the point that we realized that we had a passion for dancing, drawing, or emceeing and using these as a vessel to transmit our message to the world… when you find a way to express yourself it helps you become better at every aspect of your life”.

One of the highlights of the evening was the youth slam poetry team BAM! Four members, Stephen, Shouly, Brian and Natasha preformed two pieces, which focused on empowering young women. Claiming to they their inspiration from experience, this uplifting group’s creative poetry was easily relatable to women of all ages and backgrounds. When asked about the negative side of hip-hop culture, such as misogynistic overtones, the group identified slam poetry as an outlet for emotions that primarily focused on speaking out against violence and human suffering.

The winners of the night were Filip Matovina (aka Fil Fury) and Mike Smith (aka Troublez). Together they were reppin’ the b-boy group FAM (Floor Assassins Militia) for the nights competition. These two are not to be messed with. Having won the last three Breaking the Cycle events, I’d wager they’re some of the hardest working b-boys in the city.

As a Serbian immigrant, Fil Fury attributes his acceptance of American culture in middle school to break dancing. “A lot of people don’t understand the culture to it’s fullest. They see what’s in the mainstream, what’s on BET, what’s seen on the news, and they associate negative images with certain hip-hop movements. But once you get into it you see it’s really built on positivity, love and unity… it just brings people together. That’s the whole essence.“

Troublez backs him up adding, “It’s about just expressing what’s in you’re heart really. The negativity, I guess, whatever people see the negative side of it is the yin and yang of it. Some people need to negatively express themselves, some people need to positively express themselves.”

It’s clear these two are on the same level, vibing off their mutual love for practice. When asked if they’re at their peak, they laugh. Troublez touches on the young age of the art form and how it’s just getting started in terms of its development.“We’re making history right now, it’s really dope”. The two go into battle with a winning mindset every time, suggesting b-boying helps people learn to deal with confrontation and build confidence.

Breaking dancing is an extension of hip-hop culture that I had little exposure to prior to this event. Through my interactions with artists over the course of the night it became clear to me that b-boying, as a type of artistic expression, is an integral part of the philosophy and face of hip-hop.

The artistic acts at this event are the aspects of hip-hop that in my opinion do not get enough exposure. MC Testament agrees saying “A lot of people don’t realize that hip-hop was started as positive vessel. It was all these youth from the ghetto that were told they’re too stupid to learn. All institutions, church institutions, government institutions, turned their backs on the generation that created hip-hop. So these hip-hoppers were looking for a way out of the drugs, away from the crime, away from the violence. Bring ourselves the present now you have hip-hop music permeating these things, promoting these things. But it started as a way to speak out against some of the thing we want to change in our communities… I respect all of the people affiliated with UNITY because it takes thought, it takes action, and it takes effort to move forward with the idea of promoting positivity.”

For more information on UofT UNITY, check out their Facebook page. Check out the FAM facebook group to catch up with the crew and get updates on upcoming events.

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  • Subtitle: U of T UNITY puts on a night of youthful creativity
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