By Aastha Sethi, with files from Aashka Sood
Through accessibility, encouragement, and unparalleled energy, iCON Hip-Hop is on a mission to create an inclusive space for Vancouver’s underground rappers.
In its regular rap battles, artists of all backgrounds and experiences come together to perform, and to support each other. Unlike so many typical rap events, these battles are noticeably filled with BIPOC, queer, female, and non-binary artists.
They’re an expression of “Vancouver’s innate sense of inclusivity,” says Ghettofab, who produces iCON events along with rappers Trewth and Soul. The three got inspired to start running battles after witnessing a similar thing by Vancouver Latin Freestyle.
“They showed us there was a lot of potential,” reflects Ghettofab. Witnessing rappers freestyling in both Spanish and English gave them the idea to create a space for anyone to come and rap, in any language they want, for a $5 fee (which is waived for those who cannot afford it).
iCON also takes pride in holding artists accountable to their words, which they do by recording the performers and allowing them to post the content on their socials for free. This gives them the chance to reflect on their work and make improvements.
One such performer is Kayla Vargas, who goes by the stage name Kaya Ko (Tagalog for “I can do it”). An industry that is conventionally cis-male-dominated does not faze Kaya, who holds their own and raps about politics, power, and their Filipino identity.
The 26-year-old grew up in Fairview and creates music to bridge human connections.
“A huge thing with hip-hop is creating a voice for marginalized people,” they say. “What I really seek to do when I’m freestyling is create common ground…to connect with as many people as I can with universal truths.”
Their earliest memory of hip-hop music was a Black Eyed Peas concert at the Best Buy at Cambie and Broadway when the store first opened. Looking back at it, they cannot believe that at age 11, they got to watch the band for free—and in such a bizarre setting.
“My cousin Spencer had me on his shoulders because I was so small,” they recall. “I was watching them and I was just in awe.”
iCON does not have a consistent venue (they used to operate out of the Railway Club, but that spot temporarily closed and then changed ownership); still, that hasn’t stopped their momentum. They currently run events wherever they can, from The MOTN to the Astoria. Ghettofab hopes to organize a tour and believes in their potential to pull that off, despite the financial strain (to keep just the rap battles going, he pays $150 out of his own pocket every time). The group also has a podcast, which features interviews with some of Vancouver’s most influential figures in hip-hop.
All in all, it’s about the power of hip-hop—of any music, really—to connect us.
“Join us on this incredible ride as we celebrate the culture that moves us all,” iCON’s organizers write on Instagram. “Together, we’ll create history, empower artists, and keep the spirit of hip hop alive!”