He doesn’t fit the usual hip hop stereotypes. He’s 55 years old, has a head of thinning grey hair, and he lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in Stittsville.
Steve “Buddha” Leafloor is a Canadian hip hop pioneer and a social worker who’s worked with troubled teens in the arctic and in maximum security prisons. This weekend he’s taking part in the House of PainT festival in Ottawa, a three-day event celebrating art, music, dance and fashion.
(Top photo courtesy of Steve Buddha Leafloor / House of PainT)
“I quietly go about my business living here, but I travel all over. Most people would have no idea if they pass me on the street. I look like an old bearded viking,” he says.
Leafloor will be attending the festival with the Canadian Floor Masters, a b-boy crew he co-founded in Ottawa in 1983. On Saturday, he’ll present a collection of photos he took of the hip hop scene in Ottawa, England and New York during the 1980’s.
On Sunday, he’s a panelist in two discussions, one about the history of hip hop, and another about how hip hop is being used for outreach in various ways.
StittsvilleCentral.ca editor Glen Gower interviewed Leafloor about the festival and his outreach work.
GG: Your age, your look, and your life in far-flung suburban Stittsville seems to go against the normal image of what hip hop is. How do you reconcile those contradictions?
BUDDHA: Some of the stereotypes are wrong. As far as where I live, my stripes go way back. There’s history there. Anyone who’s deeply in the hip hop scene, they know who I am. It’s not because I’m old, it’s because I consistently stayed involved and supported the scene. In the early days we used to go to South Bronx and hang out with the New York City breakers. You can’t have better stripes thant that. I’ve opened for James Brown, Ice T, Grandmaster Flash, the Black Eye Peas…
I look like Santa Claus. I don’t look like I should be involved in hip hop. I’m 55 years old. I still dance.
What is valuable in the culture is having multi-generational mentorship. I’m not holding onto it for nostalgia. It’s shaped my life in a positive way.
GG: What is life like in Stittsville for you?
BUDDHA: I live in Fairwinds with my wife and family. I love the paths, I love walking. I can decompress before I go back into my stressful world. I lived in Kanata (in Bridlewood) for 25 years.
GG: I attended House of PainT last year with my kids not knowing what to expect and was blown away by the positive atmosphere and creativity. Where do you think that vibe comes from?
BUDDHA: House of PainT is really nice, people feel safe there, they feel like ‘hey this is not baggy pants around their knees, acting tough’. It’s a focus on the art forms. It’s still raw art forms, it’s not homogenized or sanitized or co-opted by the City of Ottawa. It’s still grassroots art.
GG: Tell me about the outreach panel you’re part of at the festival.
BUDDHA: I hope to talk about our youth prison work that we’re doing. I’m big on mental health, I’m a social worker. I’m fascinated with how complex mental health is, and about complex trauma. Many of the kids we worked with haven’t had just one screwy thing happen in their life, they’ve had layers upon layers happen. How do you unravel that?
GG: How did you end up working with youth in prison?
BUDDHA: We’ve gained a lot of experience doing work in the North with youth there [through Blueprint For Life – Social Work Through Hip Hop], then I started doing prision work in Alberta in maximum security youth facilities. We worked with a lot of kids who’d committed murder, ages 15-21. Certainly the same kind of complex trauma. Lots more urban kids, fully entrenched in gangs.
We had some great successes. Justice Canada hired me to represent Canada to speak at international conferences on justice. About this time last year they contacted me to let me know money would be available via the gangs and guns initiative. I set up a federal non-profit agency [Blueprint Pathways]. We applied, had very senior corrections people writing us letters of support, and we received funding of $500,000 to expand the work across Canada for three years.
Video: Blueprint Pathways
I’m building a cool spoken-word component out of it. We’re going to get the kids to start on journalling. It’s a great cathartic thing. I’ll have some of Canada’s top spoken word artists working with them. The theme is deconstructing loyalty and respect and building that back up.
GG: Where did the idea come from to mix hip hop and social work?
BUDDHA: That’s all exciting for me. My entire career as a social worker, I was always the guy questioning things internally and also realizing that often our structures – whether it’s health care, education, justice – get in the way of doing the work that they propose that they’re suppoed to be doing. They’re too bureaucratic or monolith. They’re stuck and can’t act fast enough to react to the pace of this new world. With hip hop, we’re able to reach some of the hardest-to-reach kids.
I remember doing the first work we did in a Calgary prison a few years ago. I have a team of Canada’s top street dancers. I remember after our first day in the Calgary facility, all of us just being silent. Looking at each other, wondering ‘holy shit – what went down today’. It was intense, in a good way. Seeing tightly-wound gang kids’ body language change and seeing the scared teenager come back… They come for the hip hop and stay for the healing.
Video: TEDxOttawa – Social Work Through Hip Hop
Know any interesting people in Stittsville that we should profile? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org