The UNITY Festival Kickoff concert July 10 at Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown, Toronto promises an afternoon of Canada's most talented bboys and bgirls, poppers, beat-boxers, spoken word artists and artistic expression.
The festival will have featured artists such as Richkidd, Lazylegs, KRNFX, Balu, Scott Jackson, Famous and DJ Crate Crusaders.
There will also be UNITY artists and headliners, free urban arts classes with professional UNITY artists, an open graffiti space for public art and community partner tables. Attendee's can expect a collaboration of art forms that represent different artistic elements taught in UNITY's year long in-school and after-school community programs.
Michael Prosserman founded the organization eight years ago in high school, he said in a telephone interview. It was during his time with Leave Out Violence he was inspired by the power of performance and the way the kids from Leave Out Violence told their stories through hip hop.
"I realized it's really powerful to engage people in something that's really fun to watch like break dancing and spoken word and stuff and then hit them with the really serious and powerful message," Prosserman said. "That's what inspired me to want to do this."
Prosserman said he was mentored by the people at Leave Out Violence and eventually came to register his own not-for-profit organization called UNITY before he was finished at university. That was four years ago.
Today UNITY is well known charity. The organization is an arts based alternative education organization which strives to engage youth ages ten to 18 by implementing in and after school programs to help cope with the stresses of everyday and develop skills for life.
Their core values are passion, respect, community and integrity. "The more positive role models are out there the more people will think it's cool to make positive decisions in their lives," Prosserman said.
Eight schools participate in the full 12-week program leading to an annual UNITY day at the school where participants get to perform in front of their peers.
"Our mission is to engage youth through something that they care about and get them to become role models in their community," he said. "So, essentially by the end of our program these young people are leaders and essentially spokespeople to what they've gone through in their lives and how they use their art form to overcome it to inspire their peers and the younger generation."
Programs target disengaged youth by engaging them with youth leaders and artists and targeting their love of art, whether it be graffiti, dance, bboying, mc'ing, poetry or popping.
"Those are art forms where you don't need anything but yourself and your body and at most maybe a piece of paper and a pen," said Prosserman. "In a sense it's fully accessible."
Selina Chan, UNITY contributor and photographer for 50mmphotography, began taking photos at events and saw how dedicated the individuals were to their craft, she said in an email.
"I've heard stories of how dance saved one youth from going back to jail. Saved another from 'going insane' after witnessing years of the Rwandan genocide. Gave hope to a youth who's family couldn't afford to buy him shoes that fit. Another who says dance saved him from being killed after years of selling drugs. Provided salvation for a youth who lost his father at a young age and was being courted by gangs. Provided inspiration to another to channel his pain into art and film," she wrote. " Many other youth simply wanted something to do after school. Others want to build a career based on their art form."
Through artistic mediums UNITY gives Toronto youth a chance to not only tell their story but also become recognized for their talents in urban arts like break dancing and bboying.
"Empowering youth, developing their skills and teaching them how to become leaders and role models just makes sense," writes Chan. "UNITY has made a big difference in the lives it has touched. It's why I joined, why I'm here and why I will support UNITY, always."
UNITY is about "very real and open and honest story telling," Prosserman said. The Festival Kickoff concert is a culmination of those stories.
"It's an amazing celebration where we have a break dancing competition on the Thursday night, spoken word poetry slam on the Friday night, an art exhibit on the Saturday night and the main day at Yonge-Dundas Square where 90 kids are performing and over 80 kids are participating in the break dancing competition," Prosserman said.
UNITY's kickoff festival includes main stage performances and headliner acts, it starts at 12:30 p.m. and goes to about 9:30 p.m., Sunday July 10 at Yonge-Dundas Square.
The cost - a donation to the charity to support youth in our communities.
"That's the beautiful thing about what we do, it's just entertaining," said Prosserman. "I think it's the perfect blend of the message, a program that really makes a difference and something that's actually, genuinely entertaining. That you go and see whether it was a charity program or not. People enjoy watching but they're also making a difference by supporting the work that we do."