Not many young lawyers have performed at hip-hop concerts across Canada or appeared in a music video. Salman Rana has done both. In hip-hop circles, the 30-year-old law school student is known as YLook.
For Rana, hip hop and law have always gone hand in hand. He started rapping at 12 and continued throughout his teens. Even back then, “most of my lyrics pointed to social justice.”
By 17, Rana belonged to a Toronto hip-hop collective known as the Circle. Some of the members would become household names. Jully Black’s latest album, Revival, won a Juno in 2008. Kardinal Offishall’s song “Dangerous,” featuring Akon, is on heavy rotation on MuchMusic. Choclair has a gold record.
Long before the awards and chart-topping hits, the Circle was a group of 12 friends who made music together. From 1995 to 2000, the crew often performed at Toronto venues. Some members, including Rana, toured the country together several times. As his friends tried to develop music careers, Rana focused on getting into law school. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to do law as well as music,” says Rana.
In 2001, he stopped performing to study for the LSAT. But Rana didn’t leave hip hop entirely. That year he wrote and recorded the song “Relate To Me,” which featured Kardinal Offishall. The song’s video became a MuchMusic hit while Rana was in law school.
At Osgoode Hall Law School, Rana was drawn to children’s rights. He later articled at the Office of the Children’s Lawyer. After being called to the bar in 2006, Rana spent eight months in Uganda, working for the Uganda Law Society. He also volunteered with the non-profit Bavubuka Foundation, which uses hip hop to empower youth. “A lot of young people want to rap, but they are nervous to do it, or they’re shy. . . . So a lot of times we can use hip hop to build a child’s self-esteem,” he says.
Hip hop can also be a tool to reach young people, says Rana. “When you understand the culture and you can use it in the way that is understanding of what young people are going through, it breaks down a lot of the obstacles.” During his stint in Uganda, Rana helped organize a hip-hop summit for youth and a hip-hop concert in the slums. “Afterwards dozens of young people were asking me what books they could get on hip-hop culture and history.” But bookstores in Uganda don’t carry books on hip hop. Rana hopes to raise money to buy books in North America and ship them to Uganda.
Since returning to Canada, Rana has spoken about hip hop and youth empowerment at local high schools. He also helped facilitate a research project that used hip hop as a way for inner-city teens to convey their experiences with the justice system.
These days, Rana is a master’s student at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. His thesis will explore how state law interacts with hip-hop culture. Rana will discuss how graffiti, a form of art and self-expression in hip-hop culture, is illegal in many parts of the world. He will also study how laws on freedom of speech impact hip hop.
As an example, he points to a hip-hop artist in France who described the country in a crude way to make a political point. Some government officials wanted the artist charged with treason.
While some of Rana’s sources will come from abroad, most will be closer to home. He mentions that a few years ago, in Toronto’s club district, a group of young people were arrested for disturbing the peace. The group wasn’t fighting physically. They were having a freestyle battle — a lyrical duel where poetry goes back and forth.
In the future, Rana hopes to combine his thesis with a study on unofficial law in hip-hop culture. He wants to explore “how these kids are defining law amongst themselves.”
Rana plans to wrap up his master’s degree by December. He’s not sure what he’ll do afterwards. He’s torn between starting a PhD or gaining more experience as a lawyer. “My dream job would be to work at a clinic in Toronto called Justice for Children and Youth.”
Regardless of what professional path he takes, hip hop will be a part of his life. “I always write rhymes,” he says. “I even think in rhymes sometimes, because it’s so much a part of me.”