Before I begin, I must warn you: I’ll be mentioning race, stereotypes and expectations in the following article. Obviously I don’t intend to offend anyone, but this is the internet. Just keep an open mind here.
I’d like to talk about two things you’re most likely unfamiliar with. The first of these is a rapper originally from London, Ontario. His name is Shad. He does things with rhymes you wouldn’t believe.
Introductions are in order:
This is Shad’s latest single:
A quick listen to “Stylin” should reveal all the staples of the genre. The song “features” fellow artist Saukrates. Verses are broken by sung choruses. Subject matter is mostly self-referential and career focused. Honestly, all you’ll get from a casual listen is a catchy beat and some rhymes you forgot to pay attention to. Listen again—and I mean really listen. Shad has a way with words.
If you take the time to dissect his verse, Shad’s “Stylin” touches on the very topic I’d like to discuss. This guy should be at the top of the hip hop charts, raking in the money that’s foolishly being thrown at other, infinitely less talented “rappers” (and I hate to name names). I’m being purely subjective here, but I think it’s a shame that the whole world doesn’t know about Shad. We all feel like this about something, right? Something we need to introduce to all our friends. Shad’s getting there, little by little, but he’s yet to make it into the big leagues. He does, however, reign in a very loyal, often fanatic fan-base. And a lot of them look like me.
Yours truly: somewhere in-between I’m sure.
I’ve been to my fair share of shows in the Greater Toronto Area, and every audience is different. Sometimes you’ll get a sea of glasses, beards and flannel while other times oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans are the norm. It’s safe to say music is not limited by race, but I’ve been to shows where I’m the only white person in the crowd. Sometimes an audience is determined by the location of the show—sometimes by how it was advertised. It’s always interesting to go to a concert and notice all the different types of people that share the same love for the same music you do. I find it fascinating.
I was especially fascinated when I finally got to see Shad live. I was expecting the usual hip hop audience—a healthy mix of races and styles, usually punctuated with a dress code similar to the artist being seen. I couldn’t help but notice that almost everybody in the venue reminded me of myself—visually, that is. The audience was almost entirely white. Why did this surprise me? In the downtown core of Toronto it’s hard to turn 360 degrees without seeing every race represented. At a hip hop show, I wasn’t expecting an audience that acted like they were there to see Arcade Fire. It didn’t offend me; it just surprised me.
Shad says it himself in “Stylin”:
See, I've got fans who say,
"Hey Shad, I hate rap,
But I like you."
Well, I hate that,
But I like you.
At least, I like that you like me,
So I won't spite you.
It's not your fault you're a white dude
Who likes white music I like too.
I paid an extra $10 for a pre-show meet and greet with Shad and I’ll be honest, I was tempted to say just that: “Shad, most rap sucks, but you rock.” I’m sure somebody in line said it. So what is it exactly that attracts such a specific audience to Shad? Looking around in the crowd I could have sworn I’d seen these very same fans at shows for bands like The Weakerthans, The Joel Plaskett Emergency and Broken Social Scenes (all Canadian references, I apologize). This strange—dare I say it—hipster, nerdy audience was absolutely devoted to Shad. Then again, so I am, so why am I so surprised?
I’ll tell you exactly what I like about Shad. His lyrics go above and beyond clever. He references things I can relate to. He raps about being a Christian without turning his songs into the tacky worship music that Christian musicians are all too often associated with. His music, beats and riffs are terrific. His rhymes are optimistic, positive and never pretentious. I urge you to listen to his music further simply to bask in his lyrical genius. See? I’m a fan-boy. Why have I (and like-minded fans) caught onto this gem of an artist while he’s still ignored by a large portion of hip hop fandom?
My guess is as good as yours. Marketing? Exposure?
So what does that very longwinded, overly fanatic plug have to do with comics? Have you ever read The Arrival by Shaun Tan? It’s essentially the Shad of the comic book world.
I received The Arrival as a Christmas gift from my girlfriend. She’s well aware of my graphic novel collection, so she decided to buy me a book she was sure I’d never heard of. I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable comic fan, but she was right; I’d never heard of Shaun Tan or The Arrival. This isn’t some obscure indie mini-comic either, The Arrival is considered a children’s book.
To describe The Arrival would be to do it an injustice. I suppose I could say it’s a fantastical portrait of the immigrant experience without words and you might understand where the story goes. That said, you can’t even begin to comprehend the impact each and every panel has on the reader. I might as well show you one.
Each and every page is just as beautiful. If a book is going to be completely silent, you’re going to need to say a lot with your pictures. Shaun Tan speaks volumes with the amount of detail he’s put into this book and it’s simply impossible not to listen. Words fail me, here’s another page:
Unfortunately, Tan’s book has run into the same problem as Shad. While his audience could be comic fandom at large, his book has been marginalized to a select few. The back cover boasts praise from Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman and Craig Thompson. Gene Yang wrote a terrific review for The New York Times. This book isn’t unknown, but it deserves to be regarded as a masterpiece of the medium.
The Arrival is officially labelled as a children’s book/graphic novel. Is there a large audience of children eagerly awaiting a sequel? I have yet to hear any comic fan name-drop Tan in person. Is The Arrival’s limited fan base due to exposure? Content? Demographics? Again, my guess is as good as yours. This book is readily available from Chapters, but my local (very large, very diverse) comic shop has never heard of it.
If you are a fan of words, no matter your race, style of dress or predispositio
n towards hip hop, you should give Shad a listen. If you are a fan of pictures, no matter your taste in genre, preferred medium or age, you should read The Arrival. I can’t for the life of me understand how both Shad and Tan maintain such unusual, small devoted fan bases when given the right circumstances, their popularity could explode. Their popularity should explode. Again, I might be biased. I’m just one of those few, unusual, devoted fans.
So I’m obsessed with a rapper that’s popular with hipsters and a children’s book that should be considered a graphic novel classic. This has me curious about what else is out there. I’m not a huge horror fan, but maybe there’s that one perfect movie I need to see (and maybe it was Pontypool). I don’t care for country, but perhaps there’s a band I’d be crazy about (and perhaps they’re Wilco). Tell me, what’s your gem that needs to shine? Am I missing out on some wacky, amazing game I might normally shun? Is there a novel I’d never think to pick up, but should? Is there a cartoon I simply must see?
Have you ordered The Arrival yet?