By Cliff Lee
Steve Kawalit’s at the back of a room, peeking above a sea of heads facing the television.
The house party grinds to a halt when hip-hop program RapCity promises a familiar name after the commercial break. It’s the longest commercial break of Kawalit’s life. Barely two minutes pass before a familiar bass line reverberates through the room. On screen, the Graphic Communications Management student strikes a pose in front of fluorescents lights that spell out his name.
“It’s Arabesque,” he rhymes on Bellyache. “And he’s officially blown.” Kawalit, however, isn’t as cocky as his alter ego. Ask him about last year’s The Eyeopener cover story proclaiming him “the best rapper in the world” and he’ll shy away immediately.
“That’s ridiculous. I’m the best rapper in, like, Mississauga,” he says. Or ask why he hasn’t gone on tour yet. Arabesque has been heard around the world, from hip-hop hotbed Detroit to far-flung Taiwan, yet he’s had to decline every offer to play away from home. “You can’t do a month’s tour when you have exams,” he says.
Or why, when Def Jam was interested in signing him, Kawalit had to decline them too. “I have to graduate,” he says. “If it was me on my own and I was brought up differently, I might have dropped out. But I’ve got to think about my environment.”
Kawalit realizes Canadian rhymes like, “This ain’t Degrassi High, boy, I don’t run with snakes,” may limit his career. “I don’t know anyone involved in hip hop in Canada making a good living,” he says. “Not Kardinal, not Choclair.”
He says that unless you’re Swollen Members, the real money is south of the border. So on most days, Steven Kawalit is simply Steven Kawalit. He doesn’t wear LRG and One Serious Threat clothing outside of photo shoots-he’s normally found in a dark vest and hoodie. He wakes up at 6 a.m., like many Ryerson commuters, and finds a parking spot at Kipling station.
Some days he goes to school, on others he does interviews and meets with his manager. If hip-hop and school ever have a time conflict, school wins out. In Kawalit’s schedule, a Saturday morning in the studio means a Friday night spent studying. “It’s not like I’m a big star or anything,” he says. “At the end of every night, my books are waiting for me at home.”
Still, the name Arabesque has carried weight in Toronto ever since his songs started playing on the radio. He’s had strangers walk up to him and freestyle and girls sing to him on the street. Some fans just shout, “Arabesque! Arabesque!” Kawalit has even signed CDs for GCM Chair Mary Black, whose granddaughter is a fan.
Once spring convocation comes and goes, Kawalit hopes to finally make the career breakthrough he’s been dreaming of. He’ll have nothing holding him back the next time a Def Jam comes around. But for now, he can wait.
“I know it’ll be there after I graduate.”