Bad rap, or too cool?

February 18, 2005
Toronto Sun
By Thane Burnett

Here's a dramatic image. A young child is playing ball in the Jane and Finch area.

Two teens approach, take the basketball and push the youngster to the ground. Afraid, the boy runs under a nearby playground slide and calls his older brother on a cellphone.

In short order, the furious brother -- and carloads of his friends -- appear. They cross the basketball court, cornering the two bullies. The group, pulling knives and guns, pounce on the pair, who are trying to flee over a fence.

Fade to black. Set it all to music. Send it out to the world.

And now repeat the image 1,000 or more times a day.

This is the controversial way video director Paul Nguyen is praising the community he grew up in. And some of his neighbours are not happy about his vision of love.

Nguyen, a 24-year-old honours student with a community "respect and integrity" commendation from Toronto Police, a degree from York University and a letter of support from Joe Clark, for "Helping shape Canada into a better place for us all to live," runs jane-finch.com.

Nguyen grew up around Jane and Finch -- a once notorious intersection dubbed Canada's worst community, but now, thanks to hard work by those who live and work there, a far better place to call home.

Nguyen started the free site last March -- to apparently put a positive, hip spin on an area that's still the object of slurs. It features community resources, local art, poetry, stories on mentoring and how to get along with neighbours.

When it started, the site attracted 20 to 30 visit a day.

Then came Chuckie Akenz -- a young, local rapper.

Last July, the site posted a slick Nguyen-made music video called You Got Beef, featuring Chuckie, in the roll of the rescuing brother, coming to the aid of his picked-on sibling. Suddenly, the site was getting 3,000 hits each day. Now, several videos featured on it have become hugely popular -- reaching into the U.K. and Australia.

You Got Beef has apparently become something of a national anthem for some young Vietnamese-Canadians -- "We were born to f---in fight, n we'll leave u in a mess, the minute u talk u get machetes to ur chest," the lyrics read.

The number of people logging onto the site even doubled after a recent mention on a national newscast.

Featuring other rappers, the videos talk about love and loss, but it's the guns and violence and heavy thug images -- the song Soldier rhymes about sniping from the trees -- which have created uncomfortable stirs among community leaders. "It doesn't scare or anger us, but it's a concern that it glorifies a subculture," says one Toronto Police street crime veteran, adding he doesn't know how violent images help sell a neighbourhood's positive qualities.

Stephnie Payne, a long-time Jane and Finch activist and head of the San Romanoway Revitalization Association -- a highly successful Jane and Finch community association -- first saw the site after it was pointed out by area police.

She was not impressed by the tough images of a Jane and Finch locals have worked hard to dispel, saying: "I don't believe in pop culture ... it cultivates a negativity. It's derogatory to the community. It shows our youth as hoodsy."

Nguyen, who's heard the criticism that he's feeding the violent lore, says the videos are simply a way to attract people to link to other Jane and Finch resources. A "necessary evil."

"I think ... if the viewers do not interpret them in biblical terms and just accept them on mere entertainment value, I think the videos give Jane-Finch a fantastic image," he says. "As for the people who are offended, most of them interpret the material too literally. These would be the same people put off by (rappers) Tupac, 50 Cent, Eminem, Puff Daddy. The difference here is that those guys are making tons of money. Our desire is different from money, where I am using my music videos to entice the audience to pay attention to what's going on in Jane and Finch."

Videos have been shot all around the community, including inside the Jane-Finch Mall, where I meet with rapper Chuckie. As we sit down, a group of young kids at a nearby table excitedly point to Chuckie -- devotees of the site.

He's a street-smart 19-year-old artist, with bleached bangs, a habit of spitting, a troubled past, loyal fans and a promise that: "I'm not trying to glorify violence.

"Look at me, I'm back at school. That's my message (to fans) -- stay in school. I hope kids grow up knowing it's not just about violence and gangs."

If it weren't for the popularity of the edgy videos featuring urban artists like Chuckie, Nguyen says his site would likely log only a few hundred hits each day. Now Jane and Finch is being noticed around the world, he adds.

There's no doubt Nguyen is creating a much larger impression of his neighbourhood. But bruised and battered, and only now recovering from old scars, the question is whether Jane and Finch deserves his kind of praise. Because community leaders say the image he's offering is badly out of focus.