By the time Danny Fernandez was 10, he had visited over two dozen countries during six years spent aboard a floating hospital that provided free surgeries and medical care to some of the world’s poorest people.
“I don’t think I realized how cool it was at the time. Looking back, I definitely feel being immersed in so many different cultures helped shape a lot of who I became,” the 34-year-old rapper and street artist says.
Fernandez – who goes by the professional name of Def3 – lived on a ship called the Anastasis, along with his older brother and their parents, who were volunteers with the international Mercy Ship charitable organization.
His Chilean-born father worked as a plumber, carpenter and deckhand, while his mother was principal of the ship’s school and worked in the bookstore.
“They really followed their gut and chose to do something. They sold their house; I guess, in gambling terms, they went all-in,” he says. “Experiencing so much travel, and growing up knowing they were willing to risk it all for what they believed in, when I decided to do what I do, it made me think this was something that was possible.”
Fernandez first became exposed to hip hop music after the family left the ship and moved to Texas.
“It was actually a really small town that was very segregated and predominantly African-American and Latino. This would have been the early ’90s and hip hop was just making its way onto radio,” he says. “Right away, my brother and I really enjoyed it. This was in the era before downloading, and we’d sit there for hours every day and put cassettes into my dad’s radio and just record songs off the radio and make our own little mixed tapes and stuff.”
Following a move to Regina, Saskatchewan, Fernandez began to learn more about the art form through a friend’s older brother, who worked at an HMV store and introduced him to rap luminaries such as A Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan.
“I just slowly started getting surrounded by people who liked this music and learned much more about it, to the point that we were doing music presentations in Grade 8 and 9 that were based around the Wu-Tang, which on the prairies is kind of a funny thought.”
Part of hip hop’s appeal to him was its roots in poverty, with a messages that promoted anti-government ideas.
“I think what originally sparked that was my dad explaining to me the dictatorship that happened with Pinochet in Chile,” Fernandez says. “When he was first telling me, I didn’t understand that, because when you’re only exposed to so much, especially living on a ship, you don’t see it.
“What I didn’t realize was that the reason we were in a lot of these places was due to politics and wars and things that were happening. So in the messages I send, there’s always a bit of that, but I wouldn’t quite consider myself an activist or anything.”
Aside from his musical interests, visual art – especially graffiti – has long held a parallel fascination for Fernandez.
“My first taste of graffiti was really seeing political stuff in all these different countries. Around presidential elections, or when people were mad about something, you’d see all this graffiti everywhere from alleyways to the roofs of the houses.”
In the United States he became more exposed to the street culture side of graffiti.
“I’ve always had an interest in pop culture and things like that, especially with hip hop, so I’ve been painting a lot of that,” he says. “But as time progresses, I think it’s important to involve more of a message in all of my art. Considering what’s going on in the world, just how crazy everything is at this time, that’s probably the next phase.”
In the meantime, apart from a recording and international touring career that has paired him up with some of hip hop’s top names, Def3 has also earned a reputation for his public art, with commissions in Canada and abroad.
“I really like the actual art form. I like using a can, I like free-handing things, I like the techniques that are used within it,” he says. “It’s your own personal journey, the same as music. You kind of create art for people to have their own interpretation of what you’re making, but there’s always going to be this underground element of it, and that is what I feel is the core.”
His next big visual project is a huge mural outside a bar in downtown Regina.
“We’re painting that whole alley from top to bottom. It’s a two-floor building that’s probably about 130 feet long. That will be one of the biggest projects I’ve done, other than a grocery store here that I painted in 2011.”
When he comes north this weekend, though, it will be to share his hip hop stylings at the Dawson City Music Fest, not his dexterity with a spray can. Examples of his music and art can be found at www.Def3.com.