The rapper Pressa paces across a grand stage. It is the first time he has opened for Drake. It is also his first-ever public performance.
He is 20 years old, perhaps 130 pounds – gold chains included – and works the crowd like a old pro, rattling off rhymes firmly grounded in the Toronto neighbourhood where he was born and raised.
“Sleeping in my North Face, we come from north Jane,” he raps.
Spectators turn away, talk amongst themselves. Quinton Armani Gardner is a long way from home. This is the sold-out Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, England (capacity: 16,000). The Brits came for that other Torontonian.
Mr. Gardner soldiers on, serene. He can revel in the mere act of being here – here on this overseas stage, here rather than jail with his father and brother, here rather than riddled with bullets like his friend and collaborator Robin Banks, who narrowly survived a nightclub shooting this month.
His unlikely ascent through the ranks of the city’s underground rap scene began last year with Deadmihana, a track about smoking a dead man’s marijuana, released under his stage name, Pressa. The video has since topped 1.6 million YouTube views. More tracks and more acclaim followed. But just as his career appeared destined for stardom, Toronto police named him as one of the leaders of the Young Buck Killers, a gang allegedly involved in a terrifying downtown shootout that spiralled into a case of kidnapping and sexual torture, part of it broadcast over social media. The allegation has not been tested in court and Mr. Gardner’s lawyer maintains his client’s innocence.
Pressa now stands at a make-or-break moment. He just finished opening for Drake’s European swing. Next up is a warm-up spot with Giggs, a chart-topping British rapper. He has charisma and a head for business.
“Pressa is on everybody’s radar,” said Eb Reinbergs, entertainment lawyer and founder of the Canadian Urban Music Conference. “He’s one of the top two or three hottest rappers in city.”
And yet, by next year he could just as easily be sitting in a jail cell as in a VIP room.
It’s possible he’s earned both.
‘He will never be a kid again’
On June 15, 1996, Mark Anthony Gardner shot a man through the heart.
Back then Mr. Gardner was known simply as “Prestige.” His lengthy record of convictions for drugs and violence earned him a measure of respect in the north Toronto neighbourhood where he lived. On that June night, he went to a community dance, where he encountered a long delay in entering the hall. He vented his anger at a 26-year-old volunteer security guard named David Williams, who spent his days working for the city as a youth worker. Mr. Gardner told the security guard he was going to kill him, calmly retrieved a handgun from his car, returned to the dance and fired a single shot.
“I said I’d shoot you,” he reportedly told the dying man, before fleeing the scene.
A judge called it a “deliberate execution” and sentenced Mr. Gardner to at least 15 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Quinton Armani Gardner was 36 days old when his father pulled that trigger. The murder sentence created a financial crunch in the Gardner household. During a court hearing, Quinton’s mother submitted a letter saying that money was tight. She was faced with a dilemma: On one hand, she needed to leave the house to earn money. On the other, she needed to stay home to keep her sons – Quinton and his three-year-older brother Chermar – away from the criminal influences that pervaded their Driftwood neighbourhood, situated just north of the Jane/Finch intersection.
The boys would have to learn to navigate a world where good deeds aren’t always rewarded.
One school teacher, Devon Jones, could see that the Gardners were in a vulnerable position. In more than two decades teaching in the Driftwood area, Mr. Jones has witnessed countless young men turn to crime as a solution to their marginal circumstances. He likens the neighbourhood to a prison where young people become habituated to poverty and violence.
City of Toronto figures show that the Driftwood area is the least livable community in the city, based on an aggregation of scores for education, employment, mortality and other criteria. Unemployment is roughly twice the national average. One-third of residents collect social assistance. On one track, Pressa says he comes from a “crazy block” where you need to be prepared to “die for your necklace.”
Today, Mr. Jones avoids speaking directly about the Gardner’s circumstances, but talks openly about one of their close friends, Kwasi (Wassi) Skene-Peters. Mr. Jones recalls one Saturday in 2005, when gunfire erupted in Driftwood leaving a young man dead on a footbridge. He watched Wassi, then a preteen, stumble across the bullet-riddled body. “I thought to myself, ‘He will never be a kid again,'” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no way you can see something this grotesque as a child and go on to become a normal functioning human being.”
Mr. Jones encouraged Chermar and Wassi to join the Youth Association for Academics, Athletic and Character Education (YAACE), a group he co-founded after the footbridge incident to steer at-risk kids off the streets and into school. On at least one occasion, he took Chermar and Wassi to a camp outside the city to remove them, for a time, from the life that was beginning to envelop them.
But while Mr. Jones’s tireless efforts put hundreds of children on a path to post-secondary education, he could not save Wassi and Chermar, who skipped school to work part-time before entering the drug trade full-time.
By the age of 18, Chermar was manufacturing and distributing crack cocaine. By the fall of 2011, Toronto Police considered Chermar the leader of a violent gang called the Young Buck Killers, which ran drugs and guns throughout the Greater Toronto Area. The gang was subsequently linked to more than 60 arrests in an organized crime raid dubbed Project Marvel.
To continue reading this article by author Patrick White, please visit the The Globe and Mail website.