Former "bad boy" named to prestigious Top 20 Under 20 list

Wali Shah
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 2:25pm
Blake Eligh

Wali Shah’s early years were turbulent ones. The child of Pakistani immigrants, Shah grew up in Mississauga where, during his school years, he became the target of racial slurs and bullying. In his early teens, he started hanging out with tough kids. By the age 15, he was facing assault charges and jail time.

Flash forward four short years—that kid in the back of the cruiser will be honoured this week as one of the Top 20 Under 20 in Canada. The national award, from Youth in Motion, will recognize 19-year-old Shah’s achievements as a motivational speaker, rapper and poet, and for making good on his promise to turn his life around.

“Each year we receive hundreds of applications but only 20 can be chosen,” says Enza Ruscillo, a senior manager with Youth In Motion. The organization fosters youth empowerment initiatives, with a focus on career building and leadership. The national awards, now in their eleventh year, recognize achievement, innovation and community contributions among Canadian youth. The winners, chosen from a pool of 400 applications, are chosen by a panel of judges comprised of Order of Canada recipients.

Previous recipients of the Top 20 Under 20 awards have gone on to found successful biotech and media startups, launch careers in the arts, win Rhodes Scholarships and present TEDx talks. Wali Shah will take his place amongst this group when he accepts his award this week. Among his accomplishments, Shah is a recording artist, anti-bullying activist, and is a speaker and fundraiser for the United Way of Peel Region.

Shah graduated from high school with honours in 2013, and recently finished his first year in UTM’s social sciences program. “I chose UTM because I wanted to stay in my community and keep giving back,” Shah says.

He credits his turnaround from hooligan to hero to Laura Kirby-McIntosh, a social studies teacher at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga. Just after Shah’s arrest, Kirby-McIntosh began to mentor the student, helping him to channel his energy into more positive directions, including music.

“I loved hip-hop," Shah says. "It was my dream to be a rapper."

Shah began to use his music “to give back to the community through positive messages.” As his alter-ego—rapper "Flo"—Shah rapped about the social issues of which he had first-hand knowledge, like bullying and violence.

His recording, Rhythm & Poetry, was released in 2013 and includes the powerful anti-bulling track, “King of the Castle.” The video received national airplay, and is now used as a teaching aid by the Peel District School Board. Shah has performed with big names from the Canadian music scene, including Jully Black, Danny Fernandes, Billy Talent and Sarah McLachlan.

In addition to his music, last year Shah raised $1-million for the United Way of Peel Region by telling his story at public appearances and corporate events. “It’s a testament,” he says of his motivational message. “You can always make a change.”

Shah shows no sign of slowing down. He has just completed his first year at UTM, but has his sights set on an education degree. Shah plans to help kids—like the troubled student he once was—as a high school teacher. “I want to give back the way she [Kirby-McIntosh] gave to me,” Shah says.