Category Archives: Fall 2013

November 14, 2013

Constructing aspiration

Weaving through the tree-lined paths that cross our campus, one might look to either side and feel as though they are walking between different worlds: namely, University College — our oldest labyrinth — and the brutalist pile that is home to our medical faculty. These paths could be passages between buildings or centuries. The landscape is unified by the changing seasons and the CN Tower.

Our university is a beautiful place: often hopeless, hellish, and hectic, but surrounded by beauty nonetheless. The campus is housed in the heart of Toronto and built up in waves that spill from the central towers and cloisters of University College. The buildings surround us in an architectural mosaic as diverse as the student body, packed full of exemplars of Gothic, Romanesque, neoclassical, modern, and postmodern styles.

varsity architecture 079This variety in the built environment is both interesting and reflective of the greater city of Toronto. It is sure to provide at least a few buildings to please each bright, young, studious set of eyes — but how does it affect our minds? Is scribbling out a test in a fluorescent, whitewashed, cinderblock cellar really so different from lazily writing in a fine oak-panelled parlour? We learn the same things in either room, coughing up the same information, so why do we favour the high ceilings and shadows of the older buildings over the banal Sid Smith and McLennan labs?

Architectural determinism is the concept that our built environment can affect and modify our behaviour. The most notable and quotable example is the theoretical “panopticon prison,” in which inmates may be observed at all times from a guard tower that sprouts from the middle of the circular complex (not to draw too strong a parallel with the watchful arrow-slit windows of Robarts). Is it possible that our experience of the university is a result of the forms that its buildings take?

 

A university in a city 

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The University of Toronto is notable for outstanding academics and brilliant achievements in all fields of research.  Ours is consistently ranked among the world’s greatest universities — in 2013, we were ranked eighth in the world for scientific performance by NTU; seventeenth in the world overall by QS; and twenty-first internationally by Times Higher Education. According to most rankings, our school is unmatched by any other in Canada.

What we lack compared to the Ivy League and Oxbridge universities that we rank side-by-side with is a distinct character and a cohesive community. The Canadian universities that rank near us, such as Western and Queen’s, seem to our outsider eyes to have very tight-knit student bodies that wear their school colours with pride, both on and off campus. These universities seem to have more of a team spirit — perhaps because they are smaller schools — and each consists of one clearly defined campus that dominates the surrounding small cities of London and Kingston respectively. These towns are known to us as “university towns,” a category of which there is no risk of Toronto becoming a member.

U of T has a far greater population than these schools, and is spread across three large campuses — each providing a thoroughly different experience. At the St. George campus, the student body is split up into seven undergraduate colleges and many more subdivisions of professional faculties, theological colleges, and so on. There is little opportunity for students to come together meaningfully. An overwhelming majority of students live off campus, some commuting as many as two hours every morning.

There is also an absence of a uniform aesthetic in architecture and planning that could reinforce our identity. There is little to differentiate the St. George campus from other parts of downtown Toronto that feature a few beautiful relics of the past in valleys bordered by sheer cliffs of concrete and plate glass.

 

Modernism takes over

Robarts

In keeping with the twentieth-century trend in North American urban planning, rapid overdevelopment in the postwar era led to the abandonment of heritage preservation as a priority in building the campus. Toronto adopted modernism, and its university followed.

Modernist architectural theory embraced buildings as “machines for living” that should be efficient, insular, without ornament, and isolated from the streets: criteria often fulfilled with the aid of stern and featureless exterior walls.

On the St. George campus, modernism was first exemplified by the Mechanical Engineering Building (1947) and Elmsley Hall (1955). At first, these must have seemed like embassies of a blind and heavy-footed alien race. Soon they were joined by a dozen similar buildings, such as the McLennan Physical Laboratories (1967) and the much-reviled Sidney Smith Hall (1961).  We accept these buildings now as unfortunate facts of the St. George landscape, but rarely consider the noble arches that fell to make way for them.

The modernist movement carried with it an indomitable egotism that insisted it was revolutionary. Its disregard for the preservation of old buildings and their styling was akin to an erasure of history. Unlike others, U of T was easily wooed by modernism, and since it is not as old as most of the world’s other great schools, most of the original core buildings had not been around for relatively long when they fell victim to the movement. The brutalist anthill we know as the Medical Science Building (1969) now stands on the site of the original Biological Building and the original Skule; both were demolished in 1966 — long before they reached 100 years of age.

 

Identity loss 

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Was U of T moving toward a distinct identity? The old Biological Building, replaced by the plain and disappointing Ramsay Wright Laboratories, was a Romanesque stone mansion that recalled the windows of University College and the heavy but soft shapes of the Victoria College castle. The old Skule was a Gothic block that echoed the Royal Conservatory and St. Michael’s College.

Neoclassicism was also common to the School of Household Sciences — now the Lillian Massey building, the demolished “new” King’s College, and the demolished Chemistry Building. The university had not yet settled on a style, but it was still young.

Much of St. George Street  and Huron Street were once lined with residences built for Toronto’s upper- and middle-classes, professors, and fraternities — for example, 24 homes once stood on the half block now occupied by Sid Smith. As many as 200 did not survive the rapid expansion of our campus. Many of them were standard bay-gable or Second Empire row houses, but some, especially on the western side of St. George Street, were grander homes that could have been repurposed rather than bulldozed.

For an idea of how the street once looked, walk the northern end of St. George Street, where some of them were indeed preserved and integrated with the campus. The mansion that now cornerstones the new Rotman addition was once home to the Department of Classics, and a stretch of three remaining houses have become part of Woodsworth College.

 

“A quintessentially postmodern campus”

Leading geographer David Harvey writes that the postmodern “…urban fabric [is] necessarily fragmented, a palimpsest of past forms superimposed upon one another…” By his definition, U of T has become a quintessentially postmodern campus.

Why has the university followed the path of fragmentation while other top schools have held fast to their roots in architectural tradition? Yale University recently commissioned the world-renowned historicist-architect Robert Stern, responsible for the gleaming white condominium that casts a morning shadow down Charles Street, to design two new residential colleges that will heavily borrow from and fit in with its nineteenth-century neighbours. Newer colleges at Oxford, such as Green Templeton (2008) and Kellogg (1994), opted to renovate old homes and institutional buildings rather than demolish and build anew. The University of Tokyo — which is perhaps of more comparable age, size, and global status to U of T — has opted to shift most new construction to its periphery to preserve its nineteenth-century core. The university is long past having decided against preserving its architectural heritage — but with the adoption of fragmentation, it will soon have even less of a stylistically defined core to discern.

Dealing with construction is just as much a part of life on campus as it is across the rest of the city. In our lifetimes, the Bahen Centre has risen at the south end of St. George, and the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building has newly crowned the southern corner of Queen’s Park. On the north end of campus, the new Munk Centre has just opened in the thoughtfully renovated Meteorological Building, and before many of us graduate, the angled columns of the new Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport will loom over Devonshire Place.

It is an exciting time to watch the campus change around us, but all of this new development is still not moving in any one distinct direction. The university administration seems to have no desire to unify campus; rather, it seems to be more interested in simply commissioning whatever is in vogue at the time of planning. Our walks to class have become walks through an exhibition of architectural fashion over time. Consider how different these four new buildings are, and what different impressions they would give if a new student were to see one of them upon first visiting the campus.

 

Towards coherency 

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New construction at St. George does not present or suggest any specific aspirations as U of T’s oldest buildings do. The neoclassical columns and heaven-minded towers which once decorated the campus, nodding to the Greeks and Romans studied within the buildings, have been replaced by modernist stand-ins. Elegant feats of stone and metal that could once inspire passing young engineers are also long gone.

Much of our campus is visually unpleasant, full of tired brashness — but we are still surrounded by the beauty that is ongoing. Few of us could deny the science fiction appeal of the Donnelly Centre’s DNA patterns or the soaring atrium of Victoria College’s new Goldring Centre. Maybe U of T was nearing an architectural archetype before the crush of modernism and mess of its aftermath, and maybe it is unknowingly nearing one once again.

Though incoherently, our school is redefining itself, and our lives will change with it. Every physical cause has an effect, from the raising of roofs to the falling of leaves. The sun begins to set at 5:00 pm, and the rapidly changing colours cast different lights across the gargoyles of University College. Every tower’s peak casts a long shadow across streets and quads, like a sundial that counts down the sun setting on another school day.

Some think that fall is the most picturesque season on our campus, with the falling tide of orange and red leaves bringing promises of winter. In our little world from College up to Bloor, we think that winter is more beautiful. Snow covers our campus like an equalizer, covers each hard line of windowsill and soft curve of roof in a white togetherness. Everything feels more like a home, connected by a common thread. Hopefully, in the long and bright future of this school, our planners and architects will find some common threads and tie them tighter together.

Pints and paintbrushes

Between the tangle of cafes and Portuguese bakeries on Dundas West, an empty space with hardwood floors and stark white walls overlooks Toronto. On the walls, a modest selection of paintings are hung sparingly. Two homemade wooden benches are positioned in the centre of the room, rising out from the hardwood.

“Back here is where our studios are,” says 29-year-old Toronto-based artist Mony Zakhour, welcoming us into his work space. Zakhour is one of the artists who uses Creatures:Collective, a Dundas West gallery and studio space directed by Erin Kjaer and and owned by Darren Leu.

Varsity Magazine: An Interview with Mony Zakhour from The Varsity on Vimeo.

He leads me through the empty, light-soaked room to his studio, where a gaggle of canvases are woven together by spray paint cans, easels, empty Perrier bottles, and the heavy pigmented smell of acrylic paint. Portraits line the walls, staring out at the studio’s inhabitants. Mona Lisa, Albert Einstein, Jay-Z, and Bob Marley smile and squint at me through canvases of melted colours and disjointed shapes. The circles, squares, and triangles that compose each portrait snap into one another with sharp precision. Each icon, although from a different era, rests comfortably beside his or her neighbour. In these humble confines, Jay-Z and Einstein look like the best of friends.

Mony-2We make our way back to the gallery space, slinking into the wooden benches as we begin hashing out the realities of the lives of Toronto artists, who supplement their income by doing double duty as bartenders and baristas.

Zakhour divulges how Toronto plays a role in both his work and the work of other artists based out of our city: “I love that it’s fast. I grew up in a small town, so I always looked for a busier, bigger city. I love just walking the streets with a coffee and kind of taking it.”

Reflecting on how he started out as an artist, Zakhour recalls: “I never knew what I wanted to be when I was a kid. My parents had a pizza restaurant, so I was raised in that industry. Working with them in the pizza restaurant, I always wanted to open up my own restaurant and work in the food industry. I only got into painting in 2008. I was taking a business course at a community college in Halifax. On my lunch breaks, I would go to a local gallery and see Justin Bua’s paintings. He’s a Brooklyn artist. They were amazing; I was blown away by him. In the time that I did have off, I wanted to do paintings like those. I wanted to mimic him. And I thought, because I had always drawn, that maybe I wouldn’t be as good, but I could do my own thing with it. I was living with my cousin at the time and decided to pick up a canvas and start.”

It took some time for Zakhour to hone his skills: “Everything turned out horribly wrong. I couldn’t for the life of me get a painting right. I finally did a Bob Marley painting. I tried doing the painting at least eight times and finally it worked. It actually worked. That got me painting even more.”

Zakhour was particularly inspired and influenced by urban milieus. “As a kid growing up watching films by filmmakers like Spike Lee, I thought everything filmmakers like him did was absolutely amazing. I was always drawn to that. I was also always drawn to urban culture like New York City.”

SHIIJE ZHOU/THE VARSITY

A highlight of his career was when he gave Spike Lee one of his paintings at the director’s request.

Zakhour’s time living in Japan in 2009 was also a major influence on his work. “Being away from the Western world, I found I really missed it — I missed the culture, so I started reaching out to films that I hadn’t seen in a while. I tried to listen to music that I had been neglecting as a child growing up… I was also doing a lot of painting. It was all fueled by missing the culture.”

Longing for Western culture, idolizing Justin Bua, and working as a bartender all bleed into the final products that are Zakhour’s paintings. As we go on in our discussion, the interconnectedness of each element involved in creating art is revealed and our talk begins to take on the composition of a Zakhour painting — each part of the conversation rests comfortably on the last as it starts taking on the shape of a distinct icon.

Zakhour continues to work, bartending Monday to Friday. “It’s the interactions with people and their different stories that you take in. I think interaction with people in general kind of keeps you going and keeps your mind going. As artists, we’re lucky that we have the freedom to do what we love. Really, I just want to continue to paint,” he says.

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He sits beside me in a hoodie and jean jacket, squinting at the sunlight beating into the empty room. I ask him if he would be open to doing a bit of painting on camera and, after a brief phone call to get permission to use the wall in the back of the studio to paint, he leads us to an exposed brick hallway outside.

“I’ve actually never graffiti spray-painted before. This is my first time doing that. I think it turned out alright,” he muses as he observes the portrait.

His willingness to expand and be seen as an artist begins to peer out through the portrait’s wet paint eyes. I ask him what he thinks about artists of all forms reaching the levels of iconic success that they had once aspired to.

“I grew up in a small town, so I always looked for a busier, bigger city. I love just walking the streets with a coffee and kind of taking it.”

“It’s no longer the struggle,” he says. “As an artist, you’re someone documenting your life and what you’re doing. When [artists] become successful, they’ve done that, and they forget about it. What they’re doing is new but… it’s no longer the struggle.”

“They’re no longer the outsider looking in?” I ask.

“Exactly.”

University is not for everyone

When my grandfather was 19 years old, he walked through the front doors of Stamford Collegiate High School in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and applied for a job. He was one of eight children, all boys, who were born and raised on a small Ontario farm during the Great Depression.

Barely out of high school himself, he was hired on the spot as a gym teacher and guidance counsellor. He would spend the rest of his adult working life at Stamford, coaching soccer and basketball. He raised two daughters, was able to purchase a new car every few years, and had a summer cottage up north to which he would eventually retire with my grandmother. My grandfather took a year-long accreditation course at McMaster University to become a guidance counsellor before going back to complete a BA once he found a paying job.

Both of his daughters went to university in Ontario, one of whom, my mother, went on to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Toronto. While her father, with no experience to speak of, was able to walk to the local high school and get a job, my mother’s working life has been complicated by changes in employers, locations, and lengthy commutes. My mother and father, in the prime of their working lives, only recently paid off the debt they incurred more than 25 years ago when they first entered university.

There are approximately 818,000 full-time undergraduates currently enrolled in classes at Canadian universities. Many of these students are contributing to the nation’s growing national student debt — which, according to the Canadian Federation of Students’ website, has long surpassed $15 billion and continues to grow. More and more students are enrolling in universities every year, university tuition rates continue to rise, and the debt keeps mounting.

The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

In a piece on its website earlier this year, the CBC indicated that Ontario has the worst youth unemployment statistics in the country. “There is only one in two Ontarians between the ages 15 and 24 who have paid employment. What that is, is the worst numbers we’ve seen since Statscan has kept these numbers since 1976,” said Sean Geobey, a doctoral candidate in social and environmental finance at the University of Waterloo. Geobey’s research contributed to the findings covered in the article. While Canada has fortunately not experienced the same kind of economic lag that is still devastating other nations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the country is still struggling to make up lost ground. In the city of Toronto alone, 18.1 per cent of youth are currently without paying jobs.

Amidst these discouraging statistics, the government of Ontario has been embattled with partisan platforms looking to make fundamental changes to the province’s post-secondary education system, in an attempt to better prepare the next generation’s workforce. Last year, for instance, the provincial Progressive Conservatives, led by Tim Hudak, released a white paper titled “Paths to Prosperity: Higher Learning for Better Jobs.” The controversial policy paper has been the source of much debate over the future of Ontario’s employment market since its release. The current Liberal government, under Premier Kathleen Wynne, has yet to respond with its own proposal.

There is virtue in proposing a fundamental shift in the way Canadian society thinks about post-secondary education. For decades now, a university degree has widely been considered a prerequisite to a fulfilling work life. A generation of young Canadians has been misinformed about the value of the university experience, and our economy is suffering as a result. Canadians need to stop and reconsider the purpose and reality of a university education. Unless you are enrolled in a practical discipline, like engineering or certain sciences, university is not about preparing for the working world — nor is it it about developing essential skills for employment.

The four-year-degree structure is ultimately about developing responsible, intelligent citizens. This is not to say that employers are not looking for intelligent, reasonable people — they certainly are, but it is not nearly enough. University is about developing critical thinking skills and gaining a specialized education. At the risk of sounding elitist, students dragging their feet through arts degrees, sleeping in lectures, and waiting on OSAP or other loan payments to make tuition are simply wasting their time if they think a job is waiting for them.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make a seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. A new emphasis should be placed on education in the trades and other practical skill sets. There are simply too many people in Canada today without jobs, and too many jobs without people.

The universities themselves are complicit in this crisis. As institutions admit more and more students and collect tuition fees, they devalue the degrees and certifications they grant. If the only criteria for receiving a degree are that you are able to pay and satisfy the lowest standard of achievement, then the degree is worthless. It is a simple question of supply and demand: the more BA students there are floating around the job market, the less valuable the degree becomes. Universities are doing a disservice to their students and to society as a whole if they continue to offer degrees to anyone who can pay.

Year after year, a class of indebted young people is unloaded from the university system in Canada, smiling in their graduation pictures, diplomas in hand. The sad truth is that very few of these bright-eyed graduates will make the seamless transition into the working world, where their experience is relevant. A shift in society’s perception of the value of a university education must happen, and it must happen soon. 

Universities cannot be advertised as a way station to fulfilling employment; they must be considered centres for higher learning, institutions dedicated to the development of well-rounded citizens, and that is all. The truth is, you do not need to be well-rounded to find a job in Canada right now — you need skills. You need to be able to make or fix things. There simply is not enough room in the job pool for a thousand art history majors.

Most of the change needs to take place in homes and high schools. Parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors need to reexamine the way that university is presented to students. University is expensive, it is hard, and it is not for everyone. Students need to have a sober and objective understanding of what they are getting into before they accept admission offers. It is a significant expense, either for the family or the individual, and it represents a significant opportunity cost: there will be substantial lost wages in return for your undergraduate efforts, and you will have lost time that could have been spent developing other skills or pursuing other experiences. The likelihood is that you will graduate from university in four or more years with some, if not significant, debt and no more employable than you would have been if you had spent those years doing something else.

What Ontario and Canada as a whole need now are fewer universities. We need to foster and develop institutions that provide young people with the skills they need to support themselves financially. I would personally much rather enjoy my life as a pipefitter, welder, or plumber — making a respectable wage with which I can support myself and a family — than I would working at a coffee shop, without an office wall upon which to display my degree.

“You’ve got to work your miracles”

Matthew Derrick-Huie, who goes by the name John River, is a former high school runner and soccer player from the GTA whose pursuit of a dream, rather than a finish line, had him taking down license plates, stalking vehicles, and idling at airports. With a self-produced mixtape and his charity, Hope City, the 19-year-old’s remarkable humility and drive steered the odds into his favour.

When an interview with J. Cole, organized by Hip Hop Canada, fell through, Derrick-Huie decided to chase down the celebrity to meet him as well as Ibrahim Hamad, president of Cole’s label, Dreamville Records. Derrick-Huie met J. Cole at Pearson Airport on his way back to Toronto. Soon after, the two met at Hamad’s New York City home, where Derrick-Huie rapped a verse for him.

Derrick-Huie’s years of patience, in conjunction with his extraordinary route to the industry’s doorstep, has earned him brotherly recognition and respect from Cole and Hamad, as well as the Toronto rap community. The Varsity caught up with him in Mississauga to discuss rap in Toronto and how he has pursued his dreams.

 

The Varsity: Who is John River?

Matthew Derrick-Huie: “John River” is a name that started with hope. When I left Europe and turned down a career in soccer, I had my future in front of me. I made that sacrifice — that’s automatic credibility. There’s a greater purpose right now. Sending back money wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted to make an impact at the grassroots level. I shouldn’t have to be a billionaire and “come back” to my city. My job is to connect people, especially if they feel like there’s nothing else they could be doing. John River is the artist to mobilize that movement.

 

TV: Considering how disjointed the Toronto rap community is, it would almost seem delusional to pursue a career in it. What compelled you?

MD: I’ve always liked the ability to express myself. I had an opinion about the world, and I was looking for a platform. I’ve never looked at it like, “I’m a musician.” It was just something I did. Rapping wasn’t anything like it is today when I started out. There were maybe 10 kids listening to it. It wasn’t a profitable job market — you just did it because you loved it.

 

IMG_7894TV: How did you know that rap was the style for you?

MD: I started with beat boxing. I never wrote anything down, but by high school, when people started getting into the genre, I knew I was really good. At Clarkson Secondary, we used to hold 200 people in the stairwell and have two people go at a freestyle against each other. Bets started going around in this too. People always thought I had my stuff written down, so I started going off what people were wearing — you can’t script that without seeing them. At that point, people knew I hadn’t been training for that moment or nothing… I never wanted anyone’s money, though. It was enough to know that people were recognizing me for something I was really good at.

 

TV: Is the industry as exclusive as outsiders believe?

MD: It is and it isn’t. You’ve got to go to the big guys and start. Kanye, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Drake, J. Cole. You choose one, but let’s say that road closes for whatever reason. Then you go to the next masthead, and your fashion of getting to them will have to be completely different each time. Take Drake, for example. He got booed at a lot of places in Canada. People said he sucked and would never have any success, but he’s laughing now. Maybe he couldn’t fill the genre he wanted to, fine. He went and just reinvented it, though, so he could. You’ve got to be proactive rather than praying: “I’ll be the one.” Do it yourself, man, Home Depot.

 

TV: What’s your best advice to others with a similar dream? 

MD: Understand that despite my success, it could have been anyone. We got downtown, we ran into the president of Dreamville, and that was pure luck. Will Smith said once that the universe moves to you. He was sounding a little weird to me then, but how wrong was I? Everyone has their own secret, their own story. Let me tell people that if you want it, go get it. You’ve got to work your miracles. J. Cole was that miracle route, but it didn’t have to be me first.

TV: When you decided you wanted this career, did you have an initial course of action in mind? 

MD: I never had a direct path of getting where I am now. In the summer when Drake was recording at Metalworks, I was waiting there from 1:00 am until 6:00 am four nights a week, hoping to see 40 [Noah Shebib]. Every night, the bouncer would come out around 4:00 am and tell me to fuck off, so I would grab my skateboard, make the 20-minute ride home, then come back the following night. One night, Future The Prince came out, Drake’s right-hand guy. He comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re that kid,” and so I hand him my CD. He actually took it. Man. That was that.

 

TV: What happened between Future taking your CD and the J. Cole concert?

MD: Everything happened on the fly. An interview I was supposed to attend with J. Cole got cancelled, but I knew I had to get it done. That encounter held the opportunity to give me the break I needed. If all it was going to take was rapping for him, I’d better find a way. Now we’re at the J. Cole concert in August, at Starbucks and charging the phones, getting ready for the big follow. We knew they had to have come in some vehicles, and we knew that those vehicles, once we found them, would be carrying our man, so I took down the license plates as soon as I saw what I thought I was looking for. Thankfully the odds were in my favour.

 

TV: And that was when you decided to follow them?

MD: A couple of weeks before the show, I crossed very narrow paths with 40 and Future around the block from where the show was at. Knowing that by chance, I was able to get my CD to both of Drake’s right-hand guys was the biggest, most definite sign in the world. I had to find J. Cole. After the concert, we followed the cars on foot. It was crazy, but there was so much traffic for a couple of blocks to follow, so as they started to turn, we hopped into a cab and told [the driver] to follow those cars. He actually kicked us out and told us that shit only happened in the movies. We were back on foot, so we started running. Three blocks later we break stride, but we figured they had to be headed home. Logically, the airport was our next stop, and so there we were, 2:00 am, waiting for our guy [J. Cole] in Departures [at Toronto Pearson International Airport].

 

TV: After following J. Cole down to the airport, doing a verse, and finally meeting Ibrahim, what was your headspace like?

MD: I was embarrassed. I caught up with Bas after all of it, and he told me, “Ibrahim kept saying that you kept apologizing. What were you sorry for?” Just because I have a story to tell doesn’t justify crossing the boundaries I did. Who was I to be profiting off someone’s privacy? I just want people to look at this as a motivationally driven story. The guys at Dreamville are so brotherly to accept what I did and understand where I was coming from. I only did what I thought I had to do, for the people I thought I had to do it for.

 

TV: You chose to pray on a miracle to get your way. Did that [take a] toll [on] your optimism at all?

MD: There are so many parts to the story where I think, “I could have stopped there.” I didn’t know I was going to take it as far as I did, but that’s exactly what made me realize how badly I wanted it. There is no not making it. I think if I was only doing it for me, I would have been too scared… The day I decided I’m not going to settle for a no, I’m going to work hard and try and get J. Cole, I run into 40 on my way there. You give and you shall receive, man.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Defense of a passion

On August 11, 2013, five men won over $600,000 playing a video game.

The International, Dota 2’s world championship, had come to a close, and Natus Vincere (Na’Vi for short), perhaps the most storied team in the history of the game, had just claimed that formidable sum by coming in second place to the Alliance.

Alliance got $1.4 million.

E-sport_Dan Seljak-01
DAN SELJAK/THE VARSITY

ESports, the industry term for competitive video games, has gained a prominence that nobody could have imagined less than a decade ago. Valve, the developer of Dota 2, can afford to give out over $2.8 million in prize money at an annual tournament. Similar amounts of money are available for champions in Starcraft and League of Legends, and professional League of Legends players are now recognized as professional athletes for the purposes of visa distribution by US Citizenship and Immigration services. Competitive gaming is profitable; it is professional; it is, dare I say, cool.

In the middle of all this fanfare, however, are the same people who were always there.

People who love video games.

People like William Lee, more often known as “Blitz” — because the Dota community, like that of every eSport, refers to players by their screen names.

“I grew up in a traditional Korean home with divorced parents,” says Blitz. “I lived with my mom, and she was really against me playing video games in general, and so, up until the time I was about 15 or 16, I didn’t acquire a PC or anything. I actually had to go to my father’s house just to be on a computer.”

“My sister’s ex-boyfriend randomly took me to play Dota 1 one day, and I remember very clearly I was playing Sven, a really simple hero at the time, and I just absolutely fell in love with the game.”

DOTA StatsDota 2 is, on the surface, a simple game. Two teams of five players, each controlling a character (called a “Hero”) chosen from a pool of 102, fight to destroy a large structure called an “Ancient” in the centre of the other team’s base. What distinguishes the game, however, is how immersive it is as a result of the amount and diversity of heroes players can choose to play from. There are infinite ways the characters can interact with each other and the Dota landscape. By the time the first minute of game play has passed, each game of Dota is different from any other game of Dota ever played.

Blitz graduated from Purdue with a double major in management and classical literature. He had reasonably good grades, took the LSAT, and was ready to go to law school. He has also sunk countless hours into Dota and is famous for being the single best “Storm Spirit” player in the world. He has thought about attempting to pursue a career playing the game professionally.

Stories like his abound, but eSports are a young phenomenon, and very few players can make enough money to survive. “I’d say about maybe five to ten per cent of players could make a livable wage,” explains Blitz, “livable meaning about 23­— or 2400 dollars a month, right?”

“I had always kind of done the route that my parents had demanded of me: Go to school; do this; this is what you’re supposed to do,” says Blitz. “And I just felt like being selfish for a little bit, and I found out I really enjoyed it.”

Many fans and players of eSports would echo that sentiment. For them, Dota, or whatever games they play, mean so much more than simple recreation. They inspire a spirit of competition and a shared culture that they do not find anywhere else. “ Before Dota, I was really kind of shy, quiet, awkward. I was very socially difficult to be around,” the famously gregarious Blitz reveals. “And I think that Dota‘s kind of given me a better outlook on life, socially, because it is a social game, for the people who don’t know. You do play with teammates, and how well you do depends on how well you can communicate, and not get upset with people, just working in a team environment.”

And then he returns to what it would mean to try to play the game for a living.

“For top tournaments, excluding the International, there may be a $20,000 prize pool, but that’s paid out over the course of a three- or four-month tournament,” explains Blitz. “Playing Dota for two or three years is fantastic and all, but at some point you have to think about the future, and if you’re only getting by, I don’t think that’s really living.”

“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games; that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it because playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot,” he goes on. “For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing Dota is really demanding.”

The very best players in the world can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and can afford to play full-time. The vast majority of eSports players — who grew up loving video games and found, in the end, that there is nothing they love more — must work day jobs. They need to find some way not to starve while they pursue their dream, and so, they have less time to practice — making it even less likely that they will succeed.

“I’d like to be optimistic and tell myself I can do anything and accomplish anything,” said Blitz of his chances of ever winning The International, “but, realistically speaking, there’s so many things that are against me.”

“You know what’s always confused me, on a side note? It’s this whole thing like if you believe enough, you can do it. But isn’t every other person in my situation also trying really hard, and putting their all into it? I was always confused by that. Sure, I can believe in myself, and say: ‘Yeah, maybe I can!’ But realistically speaking, the odds are low.”

“A lot of people say things like, ‘Well, you’re making a living playing games, that’s fantastic that you’re getting anything at all,’ but that’s the wrong way to look at it, because, playing games for a living, you’re sacrificing a lot. For a lot of people, they won’t have the support of their families; they have to work another job; they might be giving up a better job for this, because playing DotA is really demanding.”

Blitz is a reasonable person — most professional Dota players are. Blitz, like his peers, acknowledges that his chances of making enough money to live on by playing Dota are slim, and his chances of making enough to live comfortably are almost nonexistent.

An additional caveat is that video games are still stigmatized. Dropping every other priority in the attempt to become a professional athlete in more traditional sports is comprehensible to most people, as is pursuing a dream of becoming an artist. “Playing video games” is very often still shorthand for being an immature, directionless slob.

If Blitz fails, then he will have wasted years of his life developing no marketable skills and will have a résumé that will be laughed out of the door by most employers. He realizes that, statistically speaking, he will almost certainly fail.

On November 14, 2013, William “Blitz” Lee boarded a plane to fly to Korea to begin his Dota career.

Wishing Wells of the World

Without a star to witness it, you can always pause to make a wish. There’s something about a fountain, though, that conjures up a sense that making a wish before it will somehow make that wish come true.This strange faith is manifested and celebrated in unique ways throughout the world. The Varsity explored some of the most famous places people visit to make a wish.

 

1. Shoe Tree | Middlegate, Nevada

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Although vandals chopped down this emblem of love in 2010, this shoe tree was once the largest in the States, and inspired a cult-like following. People came from all over the country to throw their shoes into the tree as a sign of solidarity in times of hardship.

 

2. Snow White’s Wishing Well | Anaheim, California

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True to Snow White’s belief in her own wishing well, this spot in California’s Disneyland grants wishes to children all the time. Surrounded by marble statues of Snow White and her seven dwarves, the money thrown into the wishing well is donated to a variety of children’s charities.

 

3. Covadonga Sanctuary | Cangas de Onís, Spain

In Asturias, Spain, there’s a little cave; and in that cave, there’s a little chapel to the Virgin Mary; and underneath that chapel, there’s a beautiful wishing pool. This sacred site is also the burial place for the founder of Asturias, Pelagius, and his family.

 

4. Pont de l’Archevêché | Paris, France

The more famous of Paris’ two bridges featuring love locks, Pont de l’Archevêché is filled with padlocks with names written on them, locked with keys that now lie at the bottom of the river Seine — signifying the undying nature of love. This bridge is meant for lovers — particularly the unmarried ones.

 

5. The Fountains of Peterhof | St. Petersburg, Russia

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There’s no place more grand to make a wish than among the 64 different fountains, complete with brass statues and decorations, that make up the complex of fountains outside the Grand Palace. The Grand Cascade fountain is particularly imposing, and is the first sight visitors see as they arrive by sea to Peterhof.

 

6. Trevi Fountain | Rome, Italy

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Legend has it that if you make a stop at this cultural icon and throw a coin over your shoulder with your right hand, you’ll be sure to return to Rome. This world-famous fountain gathers over 3,000 euros in revenue per day, most of which is donated to a local supermarket for the needy.

 

7. Hagia Sophia Wishing Column | Istanbul, Turkey

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In Roman times, rumour had it that Emperor Justinian’s headache was cured by leaning his head on this column. People from all over would touch the hole in the column to their afflicted body parts to heal them. Today, visitors to the Hagia Sophia delight in making wishes by rotating their thumb clockwise around the hole.

 

8. Western Wall | Jerusalem, Israel

Continuing a tradition more than 300 years old, visitors to Jerusalem slip notes inscribed with their prayers in the crevices of the ancient wall, once the site of the Jewish Second Temple.

 

9. Qutub Minar Iron Pillar | New Delhi, India

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Built to honour the Hindu god Vishnu and the passing of King Chandragupta II, traditional lore states that if you can hug this iron pillar with your back against it, your wish will come true.

 

10. Qianqiu Pavilion | Beijing, China

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Located within the Forbidden City itself, the Qianqiu Pavilion boasts a beautifully structured, ancient wishing well, which guarantees love and prosperity to the wish-maker. With such unique and mysterious surroundings, this well draws visitors in with its legacy of grandeur and mysticism.

 

11. Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees | Hong Kong

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Beside the Tin Hau Temple in Hong Kong grow two large banyan trees. It’s an age-old tradition to write your wish on a piece of joss paper, tie it to an orange, and throw it to see if it will hang on one of the branches, signifying that your wish will come true. Today, wish-makers tie their wishes to wooden racks and imitation trees beside the banyans in order to preserve them.

 

12. Erawan Shrine | Bangkok, Thailand

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When the construction of the Erawan luxury hotel was plagued by catastrophes in the mid-1950s, the superstitious workers refused to continue working unless the spirits of the land were appeased. The shrine was the hotel’s answer. It pays homage to the Hindu god Brahma, and invites thousands of visitors of all faiths to make ceremonial wishes at the shrine, with everything from flower garlands and fruits to teakwood elephants.

 

13. Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove | Osogbo, Nigeria

The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is one of the last remaining sacred forests in Nigeria. Established over 400 years ago, it is a place of worship for the Osuba, Yoruba’s fertility goddess.

 

14. Fountain of Love | Montevideo, Uruguay

The plaque beside this fountain reads: “The legend of this young fountain tells us that if a lock with the initials of two people in love is placed in it, they will return together to the fountain and their love will be forever locked.”

A fighting chance

If you could ask students and alumni of the Transitional Year Programme (TYP) as children what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would likely get typical answers: a zoologist, boxer, dancer, or pediatrician. If you asked the same question to them as young adults, you’d get a very different answer: alive.

Since its inauguration in 1976, the TYP has been in place to assist adults without formal educational qualifications in building the foundation needed to successfully attain an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. The program, however, goes far beyond its written mandate. Behind the walls of 49 St. George Street, the central TYP office, there is a palpable sense of community and cooperation — the building is also a home, and a symbol of renewed confidence and access to opportunities.

“This place is special,” comments Michael, a TYP alumnus from 27 years ago. Michael still remembers his admission interview clearly. “I grew up thinking that I would never be anything… When they asked me why they should accept me, I said, ‘Just give me a chance, a chance to try.’” He went on to complete his Bachelor of Arts at U of T, and his Bachelor of Law at Osgoode Hall in York University.

“The program is completely inclusive. Here, all voices are relevant.”

Current TYP student Cheyenne is pursuing post-secondary education to provide a better life for her four-year-old son. She grew up in subsidized housing with a single mother and spent her teenage years living with whichever friend’s parents were kind enough to take her in.

“I realized that I was repeating the choices my mother made and decided I needed to make a change for my son’s sake,” she reflects. “This place is like a family. Everyone wants to help.”

This is especially true for the tight-knit community of single mothers: “Last year before an exam I couldn’t find a babysitter, and I knew I could leave my son here with the other moms and he would be safe,” said Cheyenne. She now aspires to become a film director.

Rehema, also a current student of the program, immigrated to Canada from Kenya four years ago to find work to support her family back home. With the help of the TYP, she hopes to someday return as a doctor to an orphanage at which she previously volunteered to help children born with HIV/AIDS.

Alumna Michelle Jarvis credits the program with changing her entire outlook on life: “The program is completely inclusive. Here, all voices are relevant.”

Shazali Samah, also an alumnus, agrees. To him, the program provides a space where students from marginalized backgrounds can pursue their dreams without fear of authority or feelings of inferiority. While Samah hopes to pursue law school, Jarvis, like many undergraduates, isn’t quite sure of her career path, but knows she wants to help people.

Helping others is a value emphasized and strengthened by the experience of studying through the TYP. Samah notes: “We’re very family-oriented. This place is a home for most of the students, and alumni come back because they want to support and give back to this place.”

TYP

This sense of home is what students and alumni now fear losing, as the U of T administration has proposed a merger of the TYP with the Faculty of Arts & Science. The move would entail relocating to Woodsworth College, which also houses the Academic Bridging Program.

The TYP Preservation Alliance (TYPPA) is a group dedicated to ensuring the program’s continued existence. Rather than contest the physical relocation of the program, the group is more concerned that the new space and the loss of autonomy will damage the integrity of the program and, by extension, its ability to support students in their goals. The TYPPA has several concerns about the proposed space at Woodsworth, including facility’s decreased size. This will impede alumni from visiting to the same extent that they have so far and prevent students from having drop-in access to faculty and advisors — the exact kind of support that is a hallmark of the program.

With rumours swirling that the TYP will be forced to move this December, there is growing anxiety among students who want a promise from the administration that their needs and voices will not be ignored.

“I’m concerned that the change isn’t what’s best for the program. The discussion [with the university administration] has been one-sided. There’s been a lot of talking with staff and no talking with students to hear their perspectives and needs,” said C.C., a program alumnus and active member of the TYPPA.

Michelle, a 2012 alumna, laughed as she described her sometimes difficult relationship with the program: “It was hard, but it was life-changing. This place became a home. The people here became family, and the support was what kept me on track.”

Michelle’s fear is that the program will eventually be phased out or amalgamated with the Academic Bridging Program: “Losing this program would mean a huge loss of knowledge, and it would silence so many distinct voices that deserve to be heard.”

“When I first got here, I was lost. I had people helping me, the older alumni, and that’s what has inspired me to give back,” adds Samah. He worries that the move will eliminate easy access to support from alumni and faculty, and compromise the unique nature of the program and the safe space it provides for students.

Samah expressed concern that if students lose the sanctuary the program currently provides, they may feel too overwhelmed to achieve their full potential: “It’s intimidating, coming here [to the downtown campus].”

For 37 years, the TYP has been, and continues to be, dedicated to supporting individuals who need the help in achieving their academic goals. More than its practical impact, the TYP has served as a boon for its students and alumni, providing an understanding, close community on the St. George campus.

Changes to the TYP, for better or for worse, seems inevitable. The move to eliminate the program, however, is unlikely to withstand the opposition of the strong cohort of students that testify to the impact of the program upon their lives. The TYP goes far beyond building academic foundations and supporting career aspirations. It rekindles students’ dreams and provides them with the hope that their aspirations can become reality. It gives people a home, a community, and a chance — and they are determined to fight to ensure that it will continue to exist and offer these same opportunities to incoming students in need.

The cost of being here

In his first year at the University of Toronto, Dan (name changed) was a model student. He had a 4.0 GPA, wrote for a campus newspaper, and was on his way to earning a history degree and beginning a career in education. However, due to struggles with student debt, Dan was forced to drop out of university. He is still paying off $18,000 in loans that he incurred while in school.

Dan attributes his struggles with student debt to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Under the program, financial aid is allocated based on a formula that takes into account the student’s income, tuition, and book costs. It also considers parental or spousal income, if applicable. The maximum amount a student can receive is $560 per week.

Dan asserts that this figure does not properly take into account cost of living. In his second year at U of T, for example, OSAP only offered a loan of $5,000, but his tuition was more than $6,000. “[I was] going into debt every month,” Dan says. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

According to the U of T Governing Council’s 1998 Policy on Student Financial Support, “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.” To this end, U of T provides non-repayable grants to students whose financial needs exceed the capabilities of OSAP. Yet some students, like Dan, still drop out of university due to financial concerns.

Today, a record 48 per cent of U of T’s undergraduate students receive OSAP funding. By graduation, these students owe over $20,000 to the government. On average, it takes these students nine and a half years to pay off student debt, at a market-like interest rate of 3.5 per cent. That amounts to $6,448 in interest over the course of the repayment period. Student debt is a reality of education in countries around the world. In Canada, outstanding student loan debt currently stands at over $15 billion. In the United States, outstanding student loan debt stands at over $1 trillion. This is more than their outstanding credit card debt.

 

Different effects

Provinces

According to University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Arts & Science director-at-large Ben Coleman, “the point of OSAP is socioeconomic mobility — an opportunity, through education, to do better than your parents. Where’s the equal opportunity when you have to start your adult life with a debt burden and richer students don’t?”

Student debt limits opportunity, causes stress, and inhibits educational attainment. Many students with high debt loads are forced to take on jobs that limit extracurricular involvement and academic achievement.

Student debt also has spillover effects into other areas of a student’s life. Students with high debt loads are often forced to delay important life decisions. For example, they are less likely to start a small business or pursue further educational opportunities, such as graduate school. They are also more likely to delay home ownership and retirement saving.

 

Advocating change 

“Students see the worst effects of student debts after graduation. Students who end up repaying their loans after graduation end up paying a lot more than students who end up paying up front,” says UTSU vice-president, equity, Yolen Bollo-Kamara.

Bollo-Kamara advocates increased provincial funding for post-secondary education. At the moment, Ontario’s spending on post-secondary education per student is the lowest in the country, while Alberta’s is the highest.

Bollo-Kamara also advocates changes to U of T’s institutional interest on tuition fees. “Under the current system, students have to pay 60 per cent of fees up front to be enrolled in classes. After November 15, they start incurring interest on the balance of their tuition,” Bollo-Kamara says. “If students are unable to pay tuition fees up front, they end up paying almost credit-card level interest rates for their tuition.”

Under OSAP, students are allocated financial aid in two installments: in September and in January. According to Bollo-Kamara, this system penalizes disadvantaged students who are unable to pay their tuition fees up front.

Coleman, referencing student debt data for the U of T St. George campus which he received after filing a Freedom of Information request, advocates the implementation of per-semester, per-course tuition. U of T currently operates under a flat-fee model, in which students pay the same tuition whether they take three, four, five, or six courses. Coleman believes that changing the current model will “help OSAP students greatly.”

Dan agrees: “If I was able to take and pay for three courses, I could work a part-time job while attending school.” Under the flat-fee system, this is not feasible.

Another option is to change the interest rate charged to students. At the moment, both the federal and provincial governments charge interest on student loans. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where tuition fees have been frozen since 1999, and in Prince Edward Island, students pay no interest on student loans. A similar system is in place in other countries such as New Zealand.

 

Benefits of widespread access to education

Debt Graph 2

Allowing widespread access to education promotes innovation and economic growth. More people have the opportunity to attain the skills necessary to fill labour gaps and shortages. According to Statistics Canada, there are currently 5.3 unemployed people for every job vacancy in Canada. Many of these people cannot afford to attain the skills necessary to fill the vacancies. Education also promotes economic mobility. Students with higher education are more likely to determine their own economic outcomes, as opposed to simply taking on the economic position of their parents.

Ontario asserts that it is committed to making post-secondary education accessible to all families, regardless of financial position. To that end, the Ontario Student Access Guarantee offers bursaries, scholarships, work-study programs, and summer employment programs to students who are unable to fully cover their expenses under OSAP.

Still, student debt is a difficult reality of life for many Canadian students. “All I wanted was the chance to get an education,” says Dan. Under the current system of student loans, this goal is unattainable for many Canadian students.

Everyone’s a DJ

In a sweaty swarm of nerves and instincts, people move, smile, sway, bump, grab, dance, make out — and not noticing that the sounds burrowing into their ears are creating and sustaining a common sensation among them, syncing their emotions for that instant.

West Coast DJ Cooper Saver is engaged in an existential search for the manifestation of this scenario: “I want people to interact with each other while I’m providing a vibe for them to get lost in.”

As electronic music and its entanglement with nightlife culture have exploded into a formidable milieu over the last several decades, there are many young artists, DJs, and producers like Saver who are turning to music mixing and electronic music production to add to what has already become a thriving community. Today, there are more and more people coming to electronic music as opposed to other categories of expression, sometimes due to a desire to positively affect themselves and the people they play music for.

The obvious answer to why there has recently been a rise in the number of self-proclaimed DJs is the advent of accessible music production technology. Saver comments, “People are probably very excited and intrigued by this phenomenon that hasn’t existed until now due to technology. Right now, you can download software today and get started, but before you needed access to a professional studio.”

The impulse to create music to facilitate celebration, ingathering, and community is nothing new. What is unique is that, in our day and age, people can be DJs instead of members of a band simply because access to newer technologies has allowed them to pick from a wider set of choices than past popular music forms. This provides them with a public platform to share their music, without the added requirement of an inherent musical talent or the ability to play a musical instrument.

“The electric guitar was a popular invention for twentieth century musicians, and was neglected by many when it was first popularized, much like the use of a laptop today… Everything progresses,” adds Vancouver DJ Patrick Holland, who goes by 8prn. The advent of a greater preponderance of DJs in musical culture today is less a break from past modes of production than it is an extension of the timeless urge to make aesthetic noise with the now-added benefit of a home studio.

If some generalizations can be made among DJs, their status as individuals is reaffirmed by their differences in coming to electronic music and how they interpret music itself. Holland said he had no intention of becoming a DJ when he started producing electronic music. Rather, he claims music: “…was an escapist intention to get away from… doing science at university when I started. Making music has since become what I do with most of my time, so it’s not as escapist, but more of an outlet for creativity.”

Toronto DJ Mike Rose revealed an alternative origin: “I used to play in a punk band, so this was new territory for me — just another way to express myself.”

Saver explained that he started out by making mixtapes in high school — “I never really look for anything else besides self-satisfaction” — before moving on to produce his own music. Holland described his original influences as “mellow hip-hop and slow surf rock,” but now his work is inspired by an array of sources — from hip-hop and trance to electro-pop. A recent mix of his used the opening theme from David Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks. 

Rose transitioned away from punk rock to appreciate more hip-hop and electro. House is now his genre of choice. Saver’s style incorporates ’80s pop, classic rock, funk, and soul, beyond an electro sound.

At present, there is plenty of disagreement over what a DJ is and does. Holland suggests that an important distinction is needed between DJs, who mix existing music, and producers, who make the music that is used. Someone could be both, but by lumping the two terms together, Holland felt that “[i]t’d be like calling a curator and a painter the same thing.”

Rose and Saver felt that DJ was a broader term, encompassing anyone who plays recorded music for other people, although this is a decidedly modern conception. Saver adds that a DJ is, “…[s]upposed to create an atmosphere… make people have fun.”

Saver also expressed confusion regarding the phenomenon of large concert-style techno shows: “I’m not asking people to stare at me as if they were at a rock concert … the records should be the focus, not me.”

“Right now, you can download software today and get started, but before you needed access to a professional studio.”

Holland agreed: “I feel that people are starting to view DJs as a spectacle, like a band, where you’re a physical performer… Playing live electronic music and DJing is honestly, in my opinion, not exciting to view, but instead enjoyable to listen to.”

Undoubtedly, there are a wide range of perspectives on what constitutes a DJ today, some of which are problematically broad. Still, there is a cohort of people striving to push electronic music in a different direction by taking advantage of the accessibility of creation brought on by modern technology. Saver summarizes the common drive to create a new sound that these artists share as, “a universal longing.”