When Khodi Dill became a father, he wanted to share his love of rap music with his children.
He searched stores in Saskatoon for children’s books about the subject, but when he couldn’t find anything, he decided to write something himself.
“I didn’t know then that it would become a book,” he says. “I was like, ‘well at least for me and my kids, I have to write something.’ And that’s how it started.”
“Welcome to the Cypher,” released last fall, is Dill’s first published children’s book. In it, an adult narrator takes a group of children on a journey to discover rap and self-expression.
Dill says our society tends to restrict young listeners from exposure to rap music.
“But to paint that entire genre with the same brush is just really, I think, relying on a stereotype.
“Not only that, it’s really harmful to restrict young people from accessing what really could be a potentially life-changing art form, outlet and passion for them.”
Dill himself found his voice after discovering rap music. He had always liked poetry but found his writing did not fit into traditional European-based styles.
He says the strong oral tradition in Black societies goes back thousands of years, pre-existing colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. For Dill, reaching back to this tradition is an act of justice, reclaiming something Black peoples had for eons that was in various ways taken away, erased or restricted.
He’s humbled to be part of the movement toward more representation of Black voices on bookshelves in the Prairies.
Growing up in Moose Jaw, Sask., he had to go to great pains to learn about and discover rap music — especially in the days before YouTube.
As a young Black person on the Prairies, he felt isolated. Black friends, he says, were hard to come by, as they were consistent and positive representations of Black people in school.
It was a time he felt different, but he says he tried to “go with the flow” — assimilating into the white, Western culture around him. As an adult, he’s acted on his yearning to reclaim aspects of his identity from him he was n’t encouraged to express as a youth.
A pivotal moment for Dill came after high school in 2007 when Canadian author Lawrence Hill released “The Book of Negroes,” which confronts the history of slavery outside and within Canada.
Dill says reading a book by a Black Canadian author about a Black protagonist finally offered the representation he was seeking.
“I think representation is hugely important and again, when I wrote ‘Welcome to the Cypher,’ I was mostly focused on sharing my love of music with my kids, but I see now that it’s out there and people are grabbing on to it, Dill says.
As a student, Dill was drawn to English and fascinated by storytelling.
He says mastering the subject was his ticket to acceptance in his school community and beyond. His connection between him and his teachers and his love of language led him toward a teaching career.
Today Dill teaches young adults seeking to upgrade their classes for post-secondary programs at Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon.
Principal Tammy Girolami recalls seeing a video clip of Dill’s spoken word poetry before working together.
“My gut just told me I needed to get to know him in order to make some change with education,” she says.
She describes Dill as the kind of teacher who stands at the front of the room and has the most incredible dialogue, debate and conversation with students to get them thinking in different ways to find their voice and passion.
“I consider him a mentor and I’m quite a lot older than Khodi. When we do work around anti-oppressive education and doing things and breaking down the walls of what our education institution is, he really is a mentor of mine and I learn from him every single day,” she says.
Dill completed his master’s degree under the supervision of renowned anti-racism scholar Dr. Verna St. Denis at the University of Saskatchewan. He says the experience changed how he saw himself, education and the world around him. He came to see education can be an act of liberation and “unlearning.”
Dill feels disheartened by attempts in some American school districts to ban Critical Race Theory from classrooms, which he sees as akin to trying to ban anti-racist education.
He knows there can be a backlash to anti-racist education, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to stop. He explains anti-racist educators want to inform people to make society better and bring about racial equity and equality.
Dill continues to make time for spoken word poetry. Although he doesn’t regularly compete at poetry slams or perform his poetry at open mic events, he keeps writing.
And there will be more published literary works to come, including Dill’s second book, “Little Black Lives Matter,” illustrated by Chelsea Charles, with a release date set for October.
The book looks at 15 historical Black figures that have shaped society, showing young readers that these important people were once children.
“I just hope that can be a save for any young, young people who might be experiencing the effects of systemic racism in our society so that they know they have value, they have worth and that they have a future and it could be very bright ,” Dill says.
Another book in progress is for young adults, with an expected release in 2023. It includes concepts and terminology around anti-oppressive and anti-racist education and shares parts of Dill’s life story.
When asked what he thinks about being considered a role model, he says he hopes what he is doing can be an example of what others can do if they want to see changes in our society.
“I really feel right now I’m the best version of myself that I’ve ever been and hopefully if people do look to me, they’ll try and become the best versions of themselves as well.”