Stephen (Buddha) Leafloor uses hip hop to improve the mental health of northern youth.
“If you talk to kids, the early hip-hop experience in the Bronx, before it got taken worldwide, was one of nobody gives a fuck about us,” said Leafloor, standing along the mirrors at Leaping Feats studio in Whitehorse.
“We’re forgotten – nobody cares, we’ve got to take control of our own things to feel good about ourselves.”
That may seem a far cry from Freud’s couch. But Leafloor has spent a career in social outreach, working as a manager in group homes and as a probation officer.
He was also one of Canada’s first professional breakdancers, one of several b-boys in the Canadian Floormasters, a crew of head-spinning pioneers from the 1980s.
It wasn’t long before he combined his two interests. Blueprint for Life, a program that uses the quintessential urban culture in rural settings, has been used in 29 communities across northern Canada.
“I just got back from Grise Fjord, Arctic Bay, Inuvik, Yellowknife. How do these kids feel?
“They feel like no none is coming here to save us, we’ve got to come up with our own sense of identity, and hip hop is flexible like that.”
Hip hop, the three-decade old art of mixing, breaking and spray painting, is not just a lifestyle for Leafloor. It’s a force for good in the world.
“It’s a way of rebuilding your self-confidence after things have been taken away,” he said.
He’s not alone in his belief. Hip hop, often wrongly lumped in with misogynist and violent gangsta rap, has a long history of fostering positivity in neglected places.
“You show me any other dance style historically that has been as concerned about giving back?” he said.
“Ballet? What did ballet ever do to give back to the community? It was a performance thing that grew out of the king’s court. Other than the performance, I don’t see modern dance doing outreach all over the place.
Leafloor will be one in a trio of speakers to join forces for Cypher for Change this weekend. The event, sponsored by the National Breakdancing Forum, was the brainchild of local b-boys.
While Leafloor will explain how to convince governments to use hip-hop-based social outreach, Michael (Piecez) Prosserman will introduce his charity, the Unity Charity, which uses hip hop as an artistic outlet for Toronto youth.
Luca (Lazy Legz) Patuelli is a world-renown breakdancer with roots in Montreal. But he’s now adopted a second career as a motivational speaker. He dances with crutches after suffering from the muscular and skeletal changes that arise from arthrogryposis and scoliosis.
Cypher for Change, which runs Friday to Sunday, will introduce youth to people like Leafloor who have been turning the culture into a career for years.
“We’re trying to show them people like Buddha, people like Michael Prosserman and Luca Patuelli – people who have done things with their dancing,” said Sami Elkout, one of the event’s organizers at Leaping Feats studio.
“I can give Sami ideas about how he can talk to Justice, how he can talk to police, how he could talk to educational institutions,” said Leafloor.
“We’ve already busted down these doors.”
Leafloor sees a growing movement of hip-hop enthusiasts who are spreading the culture beyond a mere hobby.
“(Blueprint) probably does the most sophisticated outreach in the world through b-boying,” he said.
“Because I’ve really broken it down. What other program has hip hop replace traditional schooling?”
Leafloor’s program usually runs five days and encourages youth to deal with their toughest demons, like sexual abuse, anger management, family violence and bullying.
“Unequivocally, I do more mental health outreach in the Arctic than any government organization,” he said.
“That’s something to be proud of for the hip hop community, when the social workers are saying we’re doing more outreach than them.”
He’s worked with suicidal kids in towns with little to no social workers. He’s used the innate positivity and lifelines of hip hop and turned it into a full-scale education program that usually lasts a week.
“It’s not a new thing doing outreach through the arts,” he said.
But because hip hop is flexible, it connects with the marginalized and downtrodden by invoking a creative and competitive spirit.
“Why were the Maori the first b-boys in New Zealand? They were the first b-boys because they needed it the most. Why were the Turkish kids the first b-boys in Germany? Because, at the street level, they were spit on physically by the skinheads,” he said.
“Why is there First Nation rap all over the world? Because they feel they can say something through it.”
Graffiti, another pillar of hip hop culture, is also amendable to local traditions and ideas, he said.
“(Hip-hop culture) should be different in Iqaluit; it should be different in Whitehorse,” he said.
Hip hop is also free from any pretensions related to socioeconomic status, making it accessible to anyone, he said.
Around 40 b-boys will be coming to Whitehorse this weekend for Cypher for Change, with dancers from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Inuvik, Iqaluit, said Elkout.
“We’re aiming it at youth who are already in the culture,” he said.
Local dancers are also hosting a break dancing battle Friday and Saturday. Both the Cypher event and the battle are being held at FH Collins High School.
Leafloor is hoping to get a few more followers on the path of doing good through hip hop.
“If you don’t have mental health, you don’t have anything,” he said.
A kid who is neglected or abused at home can’t learn until they feel good about themselves, he said.
“Forget all your ideas about economic development, forget all your ideas about education. If a (neglected) kid is sitting in the classroom, do you think they’re thinking about math? They’re thinking about the stresses of going home.”
Cypher for Change begins Friday at 4 p.m. with Leafloor’s presentation. Call 393-2623 for more times and details.
Contact James Munson at