Rapper Freddy King rolls from the streets to Casa Loma campus
Growing up in the streets of downtown Toronto Freddy King never saw himself in college.
“From the streets to this,” said King almost surprised to find himself in a college’s hallways. “College is a beautiful thing that I hope everybody gets to experience.”
But King isn’t just a student, the 29-year-old electrician apprentice is also a budding emcee in Toronto’s vibrant hip-hop scene.
The video for King’s song Revolution opens with King walking past colourful graffiti on plywood protecting the construction of new townhouses in Regent Park. A basketball court in the video is also bounded by a construction site. The video also heavily features Reggae Lane on Eglinton West.
With parents from Ghana, King incorporates themes of African liberation into his music and video as well as footage from Toronto Black Lives Matter protests. He says his music deals with the realities faced by youth in racialized communities in Toronto.
King was hitting the books right after math class on George Brown College’s Casa Loma campus for his basic electrical course when The Dialog caught up with him to talk about why he went to college.
“My cousin Roach went to George Brown’s St. James campus and then he got shot and killed at Keele and Sheppard a couple years back,” recalled King. “So for me I’m basically trying to live out excelling in college so his death doesn’t go in vain.”
King wears his heavy past lightly, but it’s always with him.
“Even though I wear a smile on my face and I’m happy-go-lucky and worry free, there’s a lot of craziness that’s going on through my head,” he said. “But I’m glad I get to experience life in George Brown and get to actually do something that I could never see myself doing.”
Some of his friends didn’t make it through.
King knew both the shooter and the victim of the 2013 Eaton’s Centre shooting, and was around the corner volunteering that day. His eyes looked off in another place as he told the story how he wanted to get lunch at the foodcourt at that exact moment, but his co-worker convinced him not to.
This experience, plus spending two years in jail, pushed King to leave the street life.
He got a grant from the Michelle Jean Foundation in 2013, which he used to finish his first album “Field of Dreams.”
“To come from jail and then get a former Governor General to endorse something that you truly believe in is like success in its own way,” said King. “It was very gratifying.”
Like many young people with criminal records, he found it tough to get meaningful work. King was able to get hired by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 353’s electrical apprentice program, a very competitive program where only one in 10 applicants makes it through the process.
“I’m fortunate because construction is a very forgiving trade because I have a criminal record. So a lot of places weren’t willing to take me on because of my past record,” said King. “I honestly feel like electrical really saved my life.”
Being a construction electrician is no paradise. It’s a well-paying career, but its effectively a six-year apprenticeship, and King mentions that other people in construction can be “disrespectful and racist.” But he’s determined to succeed in building a career that can fund his music and social message.
“Construction gives me my money,” said King. “The fact that people could listen to my music and not want to kill themselves; that to me is a lifesaver man. You can’t put a price tag on the value of life. Life is priceless.”
Toronto-based rapper Mohammad Ali, a George Brown graduate, was impressed with King’s work and said that it reminds him of the golden era of political hip-hop while staying fresh in 2017.
He noted the presence of Dudley Laws and Charles Roach in the video for Revolution, and said that including the late Toronto Black activists “solidifies itself as a T-Dot / 6ix record.”
Ali said that King’s work “channels a soulful, boom bap sound bringing the listener back to the political Hip Hop anthems of the 90’s when artists like Tupac and Common were dropping music which concurrently painted a picture of the lives of racially marginalized Americans, while also sparking a conversation about how to combat and eliminate this marginalization.”
King doesn’t feel that his construction apprenticeship is at odds with his rap career.
“You get to hear their stories and make music throughout different channels of vibration,” said King talking about his time on job sites. “My music was never about me. It’s always about everybody in the collective.”