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'Toronto Star' Interview

For Raoul Juneja, hip-hop is about much more than just the music or the stereotypes associated with it.

Since starting his company, Lyrical Knockout Entertainment, the 25-year-old South Asian DJ's focus has been on literacy, politics and inspiration.

"In general there's misconceptions and stereotypes — in terms of people who work in hip-hop — and we said, `It's not always all about the money — sometimes there's more important things to focus on,'" says the Thornhill resident.

Through his company — which celebrates its five-year anniversary this month — he uses hip-hop as the basis to create charity projects.

Juneja, who goes by Deejay Ra although he takes on the producer role most often, gets his projects jumpstarted by his huge contact list. From college radio stations in Canada and the U.S., to artists, musicians and DJs who donate their time, Juneja spends most of his time sending emails, networking and working behind the scenes to get people involved in his projects.

He makes appearances on radio stations to promote things like his literacy campaign — which focuses on getting youth to read by introducing them to books on hip-hop artists — and gives away donated books while on the show.

He also hosts club nights and last February held a large Hip-Hop for Africa benefit concert to promote a CD for the Mandela Children's Fund at the Rivoli emceed by George Stroumboulopoulos.

Juneja was born in Mississauga, but raised for a good portion of his life in New York, where growing up was "very much black and white."

"There was no middle ground ... for me it ended up being a really good cultural experience because I was able to blend in with both crowds," he says.

His father's job as a financial consultant caused the family to frequently relocate, something he disliked then but considers a blessing now.

"The best time to travel for kids is when they're younger because that's when their minds are being developed ... especially if they're living in the States or the cities, because you really don't want them to think that is the way the whole world is, or these are the types of situations that everyone goes through," he says.

"That way if there is someone who has some racism I think it opens up their minds because they have the personal experience of going somewhere and meeting someone, and can say, `No you're just making a generalization of this certain religion or culture.'"

His family eventually moved back to Canada after his parents noticed "he was getting beaten up a lot more" due to racism issues.

Back on Canadian soil, he says, he faced a much different reality while attending the University of Western Ontario in London.

"Here, (I find) multiculturalism really allows different cultures to have the youth be westernized (while) exploring their own cultural background."

Since leaving London, he's produced a charity hip-hop EP for the Nelson Mandela Children's fund with Imaan Faith, an Iranian/Canadian rapper, and started his most interesting project, a hip-hop literacy campaign.

"The whole thing is to get lots of people involved and not say we're only going to focus on one market, culture or religion ... it's for everyone," he says.

The literacy campaign was spawned out of his realization that as a radio DJ he was always giving youth CDs and movies, but not books.

He was helping Harper Collins with some radio awareness campaigns when they told him about Be Cool, the movie sequel to Get Shorty, which had hip-hop artists like Outkast's Andre 3000 and Christina Milian. The idea: Collaborate with author Elmore Leonard — on whose books both movies were based — to get youth interested in hip-hop also interested in books.

"Our phrase was: Put down the gangsta rap CD and pick up the gangster novel, because his books are all about crime fiction," says Juneja. The hope is that youth will get interested in the books because the topics are similar to ones they already hear about in music.

"It's not to encourage that type of stuff amongst the youth but to get those 16 and over — who already watch Tarantino movies — reading, and assume they'll progress to Shakespeare eventually," he adds.

Harper Collins began donating books for Juneja's events. He finds that many people don't realize that hip-hop writers express deeper issues in their work.

"People are often surprised, (saying) `How can you be in hip-hop and be giving away Gandhi books at events?'" says Juneja, who's also worked with director Deepa Mehta and actor Lisa Ray on the literacy campaign. Both helped promote books about Gandhi during the release of Mehta's movie Water.

"I try to explain there's a connection with everything. ... Malcolm X said, even if the means are different, everyone has the goal to make things better for the youth and society, so whether it's Gandhi or Mandela ... we always try to promote political history too.

"At the end of the day, it can only help things if the youth are inspired."

Courtesy of Alwynne Gwilt and Toronto Star.

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