WORDS: ALYSSA TRUDEAU
In 2016, Ontario Culture Days launched a new initiative called the Youth Arts Ambassadors Program (YAAP). The program, aimed at fostering and supporting the next generation of community-engaged artists, commissions professional artists up to 30 years of age to create new works of art in their respective regions. The artworks and corresponding public programs are unveiled over the Culture Days weekend. The program also offers the public a behind-the-scenes look into the artists’ creative processes by sharing images, video footage, and written coverage of the artists at work throughout the duration of their YAAP residency.
Culture Days had the chance to speak with Thunder Bay hip-hop artist and YAAP collaborator, Ben Murray, about the creative processes behind – and personal connection to – his latest youth hip hop music project. The song and corresponding music video will be created in advance and premiered at a public program during the Culture Days weekend.
The roots of hip-hop began in New York City’s south Bronx in the 1970s. As the culture grew and spread across the U.S., and then the world, it became a vital creative outlet and a platform for speaking out about social issues and personal experiences. Growing up in one of Thunder Bay’s poorer communities, Ben Murray is intimately familiar with the voice that hip-hop can offer to vulnerable and underrepresented youth.
As a Culture Days Youth Arts Ambassador and hip-hop artist, Murray is organizing a program that fuses hip-hop culture with the arts to give teens the opportunity to discover hidden talents, forge positive friendships, and boost self-esteem. “I hope they find the outlet they need, and some meaningful interaction,” he affirms. Murray will be providing an opportunity for Thunder Bay youth to develop their own music through collaborative songwriting and music video production workshops. Murray has built a career in the music business, working with and producing for multiple platinum-selling artists while using his lived experience to inspire positive change in his local community. Earlier this year, he was the recipient of the 2018 City of Thunder Bay Respect Award, created to recognize individuals, businesses and organizations that recognize human dignity and demonstrate leadership to foster respect for others.
Designed as weekly meet-ups between himself and the participating teens, Murray’s workshops often take place at local, accessible spots around town. “During the first session we try to get to know each other,” Murray explains, “we find out what everyone’s interests are, and work together to assign project roles and make sure everyone is working on something that excites them.” The dynamic and inclusive elements of hip-hop is one aspect of the art-form that Murray admires most: “Hip-hop is not restrictive – it doesn’t require the mastery of an instrument, or the need for additional supplies,” he notes. There’s room in Murray’s songwriting and music video production workshops for writers, poets, performers, rappers, and those interested in the technical side of film and music production.
One major facet of Murray’s work, both with YAAP and throughout his own community outreach initiatives, is the role of mentorship. Creating partnerships with mutual trust, respect, and understanding is important when working with teens facing adversity, addiction, and mental health disorders. This type of partnership is one in which Murray found solace himself, after years of following a troubled path. “I sought help from an old friend who quickly became a mentor,” Murray comments while detailing his teenage years, which were mostly consumed by addiction. Ron Kanutski, a local comedian and youth outreach worker, took an interest in helping Murray and invited him to participate in youth outreach trips throughout Thunder Bay and the surrounding area. Not long after, Kanutski encouraged Murray to develop his own youth-based workshop after seeing how quickly Murray connected with the teens. This mentorship, along with the support and guidance he received from his father, Darryl Murray, served as a catalyst for Murray’s new perspective and a tenacious desire to change his path and help others in need.
Looking forward, Murray’s major goal is to one day open a permanent location in the city where youth can come to feel safe, included, and seek the support or treatment that they need. He intends for the space to serve not only youth from the North, but fully welcome any and all who need help.
Join Murray at the Magnus Theatre on September 29, 2018 for the music video premiere and special Artist Talk. The event begins at 1:30 PM. Click here for more details about Murray’s Culture Days program.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Kayla Aylott, Keegan Richards, Sara Kanutski.
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