Q & A: Toronto councillor Norm Kelly on hip hop and politics
Kelly shared his thoughts on being called 'Dad' by strangers on Twitter, Drake, and his ability to connect with millennials.
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In another bizarre clash of worlds involving Norm Kelly, the 74-year-old city councillor inserted himself further into Toronto’s hip hop scene last weekend with a surprise appearance at a battle rap tournament.
Hosted by King of the Dot, a now world-renowned league that was launched in an alleyway near Yonge and Shuter Sts. in 2008, Kelly was a hit with the crowd, emerging beside Toronto battler Alex Larsen, a.k.a. Kid Twist, right after his opponent, Philadelphia native Rone, took jabs at the councillor in an attack on Larsen’s hometown.
Kelly’s attendance at the event was met online with a mix of glee and bewilderment.
His well-documented involvement in a feud between Drake and Meek Mill via snarky, clever tweets took the Internet by storm, drastically boosting his follower count.
In an interview with Torstar News Service, Kelly shared his thoughts on being called “Dad” by strangers on Twitter, the intersection of hip hop and politics, and his ability to connect with millennials.
Q: You seem to have a special interest in hip hop culture. Is it recent events, or are you actually interested?
A: I haven’t listened to the music that often. But I’ll tell you where the genesis of my interest lies. Last year, when I was deputy mayor/mayor of the city, I held a series of deputy mayor roundtables (with) the Toronto business community in all its diversity… What struck me as I participated in those roundtables is the talent that’s out there in this city, and Drake is a part of that. There’s one round I enjoyed more than the others, and that was the IT roundtable. There are lots of people in that field who are bursting with ideas and energy. These guys are at the frontier of innovation in Toronto, and the rappers are artistically as important to Toronto as the IT guys are. It’s just another source of energy that’s pounding through this magnificent city of ours.
Q: What do you think about hip hop’s role in bringing the youth of the city together?
A: I’m surprised at the size of the millennial cohort and the diversity of it, and the passion they have for the music and for life in general. It’s something that is very much a social glue in this city. A lot of the old folks don’t know that, incredibly.
Q: How do you like being called ‘Dad’? Do you know what that means?
A: I don’t know how long ago it was, I said, “How come some of you guys keep saying Dad or Daddy?” I got an avalanche of responses, and there were so many of them that they began to refer to me automatically as Dad. It’s just one of those things that happened. You roll with it.
Q: You seem to be connecting with an age group that’s pretty disenfranchised from politics. Would you agree?
A: It would appear that way.
Q: Do you think you could use that influence to encourage that demographic to become more politically engaged?
A: The one thing I don’t think I can be perceived as doing is preaching. I don’t think this generation wants to be preached at. If what I’m doing, bottom line, is showing that politicians have a personal side to them, and we’re not as remote from them as we may appear in the mainstream media, then I’m happy. I think I would’ve maybe attracted more attention than would be out there to politicians or politics in general.
Q: You said hip hop is very much a social glue in this city. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be harnessed to create social change?
A: …You have to remember I’m in the shallow end of the pool, so I’m still learning, but this is my sense. This is a remarkably diverse city — over 200 ethnic groups living cheek by jowl. Quite a spread between lowest and highest income. The millennial interest in hip hop, and (their) affection for many of the ideas that find expression through hip hop cuts across all those boundaries… It’s a sign of our times that we’re thinking of government as the prime instigator, but I suspect that the harnessing of their interest and their enthusiasm from within (will) create a leadership all its own. That could be a complex route with successes and failures, as people of that generation take their place in various occupations, among them politics.
Q: Is there a message you want them to get from you?
A: That politicians are human beings. We’re people. Like them, we’re multifaceted. We’re not above them or apart from them. We’re part of them.
Q: I have to ask you a variation of the same question people have been asking you for a while now. Your Twitter account — people find it hard to believe your sense of humour is your own because the tone, the style of wit and references are very of the Internet and youthful. What do you say to that?
A: The premise is that you can’t be funny because you’re old, and that’s not the case. Sometimes the people with the most savage humour are seniors. They’ve lived a long time, they’ve been around the block a couple of times. They’ve not only learned that life can be tragic, it can also be funny. I grew up with Laurel and Hardy and Lou Costello, Jerry Lewis, all the wits that were on The Late Show. Humour’s been a very important part of my life. Regrettably in politics, people are asking you serious questions and expecting serious responses.
Q: What did you think of Drake’s silence on the violence at Muzik? Do you think he should’ve spoken out earlier?
A: He did respond to violence that had occurred a year before so his position on violence was already known.