Sterling Downey was 16 when he took the plunge into Montréal hip-hop culture. With his array of aerosols, this graffiti artist left his mark on the four corners of the city under the tag “SEAZ.” Today, as Montréal’s deputy mayor, he looks back on the values that guided and still guide the graffiti movement, from past to present.
The 90s was a boom time for Montréal hip-hop culture. What were the values on which it was built?
Whether we’re talking about graffiti, breakdancing, dance or rappers, hip-hop has always been an inclusive culture, based on the community and the sharing of common interests. If you practice one of these art forms, you’re already marginalized by society according to socio-economic factors. For example, we can criticize the son of a rich family for not knowing what it’s like to live on the street. For the rest of it, we don’t care about the colour of your skin or your nationality.
You co-founded the Under Pressure Festival in Montréal in 1996, which brought graffiti to the forefront. Wasn’t that a contradiction of the tagger’s philosophy, to institutionalize a form of expression that’s basically illegal?
I certainly was challenged by the community for just that reason. But the idea was never to make money from our festival. Our event was free. Obviously there was a graffiti scene in Montréal. But this was the first time that something was organized by the people of that community. At the time, the City was waging war against graffitists, and several hip-hop events were banned by the police for moral reasons. Our intention with the festival was to demystify the prejudices against urban culture and the people who are a part of it. My goal was also to bring people into neighborhoods of Montréal where we see prostitution, rooming houses and homelessness. What I meant to say to folks by doing that is that there is no corner of your city where you should feel uneasy.
How did the values of hip-hop evolve?
I saw urban culture becoming excessively tainted by toxic masculinity. In the 90s, the place of women was mostly defined by their sexuality, with few exceptions. At the time it would have been unthinkable for a rapper to “come out.” But if people couldn’t be who they are, it was also because there was enormous stigmatization in society as a whole. So 90s hip-hop and today’s hip-hop are two different worlds. And it saddens me to think that some of the guys I evolved with couldn’t honestly be who they were because they feared reprisals.