Rinaldo Walcott started his career in rap music. Not as a rapper - or a musician at all - but as a social scientist quietly working on his PhD.
Recalling his graduate days at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), where he is now an associate professor and a Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Cultural Studies, Walcott says, "I was focused on questions of popular culture and exploring how rap music in the early 1990s was emerging as an important social and political force across North America."
That research prompted Walcott to examine literature, film and other types of music as windows into contemporary black Canadian culture - work which culminated in a critically acclaimed collection of essays called Black Like Who?
First published in 1997, Black Like Who? launched Walcott into the spotlight and he quickly became regarded as an expert on black Canadian culture. "I had written this little book that I thought only academics would be interested in, but it got a very good response from the mainstream community as well," he says.
Walcott soon found himself discussing various aspects of black culture on television shows such as Counterspin, Studio One, Q Files, The New Music and Too Much for Much (a late night program on the MuchMusic channel). "I was reluctant at first," says the soft-spoken Walcott. "But then I started to do it because I believe that what we do in universities should be part of the public debate."
Since joining U of T in 2002, Walcott has kicked his research into high gear thanks to significant support from the Canada Research Chairs program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust.
His central focus involves the development of a web-based database archive of films and short videos that challenge traditional notions of Canadian culture.
"We are interested in work that re-narrates the Canadian nation," he explains, referring to his search for films developed by "people who are set apart from the dominant culture by racial, ethnic, gender and/or sexual difference."
"It's going to be a slow and painstaking process, but we think it will have a real impact on how people actually think about cultural production and the role it plays in shaping people's identities, and thus in shaping the larger nation."
By unearthing work that has circulated only in places like small arts festivals, Walcott and his team of graduate students aim to piece together a new chapter of Canadian history. "We hope this will begin to change ideas about what is deemed worthy of being collected and preserved in the national archives."
The database project is already proving to be a nice complement to Walcott's own ongoing research, which includes an upcoming book called Disturbing the Peace: The Impossible Dream of Black Canadian Culture.
Once complete, the database will be accessible to researchers nationally and internationally as well as to the general public. "We believe this will become a really important research mechanism - a kind of 'one-stop shopping' for the other side of Canada's culture."
Photo: William Ciccocioppo