Written by Jordan Darville
Mustafa’s heart has been left scorched by the album release cycle.
As a condition for confirming our interview, a publicist for the 25-year-old artist stipulates that I must not ask him about what inspired When Smoke Rises, his Polaris Prize-nominated debut album. It is an elegy that begins with the title, a tribute to Mustafa’s close friend Smoke Dawg, the Toronto rapper who was shot and killed in 2018.
The grief contained in each of the album’s songs is still raw and resonant — and recounting to journalists how he alchemized it into music wasn’t helping. Strangers from across the world have reached out to Mustafa, a devout Muslim with a deep well of empathy, to share their own feelings of mourning.
The weight of their sorrow became too heavy, and on June 11, two weeks after the album’s release, Mustafa announced an internet sabbatical with an Instagram post. “I’ve been reading a lot and taking walks,” Mustafa tells me over the phone, his voice lighter than I imagined. “I’ve been looking at potential therapists.”
Despite the publicist’s request, an insight into the album’s creation will occasionally tumble out of Mustafa unprompted, the way relevant wisdom has a habit of doing so from generous speakers.
“When I made this record,” Mustafa says, “I really genuinely made it, because this feeling was not reflected for me anywhere prior to me making it. I wanted a gentle account of what it means to lose someone in the way that I lost someone.”
Like Mustafa, Smoke Dawg grew up in Toronto’s Regent Park, Canada’s oldest housing project. Systemic neglect metastasized into violent surroundings, and both young men asserted their humanity in the face of an unyielding public through their art. For Mustafa, it was poetry — haunting and prodigious verse about life on the margins as a Sudanese immigrant.
“A Single Rose,” a filmed spoken-word piece from 2009, gave him a national profile as Mustafa the Poet. Canadians were enraptured by the doe-eyed 12-year-old in baggy jeans and a tracksuit top who urged them not to avert their gaze. In 2010, Mustafa and Smoke Dawg joined Mo-G, Safe and Puffy L’z in the buzzy musical collective Halal Gang, and by 2016, Mustafa had been enlisted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the Youth Advisory Council. A turning point in Mustafa’s career came after meeting Frank Dukes, the Toronto pop mega-producer; Mustafa was soon a songwriter with credits on tracks by the Weeknd (“Attention”) and Camila Cabello (“All These Years,” “She Loves Control”).
Then, Smoke Dawg died. Like all catastrophes, it consumed Mustafa’s life, and the plans for his career. The following year, he began writing When Smoke Rises, the project he had been putting off for so long.
Mustafa’s early poetry dove between disciplines — too rhythmic to be spoken word, too humbled to be slam — and his album follows suit. Across eight songs, When Smoke Rises creates its own folk music from a global pot of sound. “Air Forces,” the first solo song Mustafa ever released, weaves traditional Sudanese chants through Nick Drake-esque guitar plucked into the texture of cloud trails.
I will go from Gunna to Joni Mitchell to NBA YoungBoy to Cat Stevens if you give me the aux. I exist in many worlds, I’m free.– Mustafa
“Don’t crease your Air Forces,” Mustafa beseeches in the opening lyrics. “Just stay inside tonight.” You can hear the promise of a dark night of the soul, and its attendant feelings of guilt, vengeance and despair. Oblivion beckons but love endures in the album’s sombre, understated, R&B-infused production from Dukes, while features from James Blake and Sampha, two other artists who bring an innately reflective streak to their experiments, bolster the project’s vibrancy.
“I will go from Gunna to Joni Mitchell to NBA YoungBoy to Cat Stevens if you give me the aux,” Mustafa once tweeted. “I exist in many worlds, I’m free.” Years after the hype for the “new Toronto sound” crested, Mustafa channels its spirit rather than sonics to share a borderless and emotive creation. There are no counterweights to the devastating feelings Mustafa channels; he tells me it was an intentional choice to strip pageantry from the project.
“This was an attempt to, as purely as I could, reflect the feeling, as sparse as it was sometimes,” he says. “I just wanted to really be able to reflect exactly what that mourning felt to me.”
Periodically, Mustafa will use the word “island” to position the creative and political isolation of his community relative to the rest of Canada. He’s happy to be nominated for the Polaris Prize, he tells me, because it disrupts a prevailing stereotype about Black music. Also, it’s informative: Mustafa is certain that few in his Regent Park community know what the Prize is.
“I think that being nominated for things like this is a reminder of why vulnerability is so powerful, and why there’s so much strength in being able to go against the grain and go against the popular narrative.”
Part of that narrative is exclusion. Mustafa remembers taking part in a roundtable for the construction of a performing arts centre in Regent Park. An official said that the building would “bring Toronto to Regent Park.” That stuck with Mustafa. Regent Park is in Toronto’s centre; what distinguished it from the city at large in the eyes of this powerful person?
I had a great fear that my experience in the ‘hood in Toronto, there would be no accounts of it.– Mustafa
A truthful idea of “Canadianness” was something Mustafa had to build for himself. As a child, the United States was the focus in the classroom. “It was what we were discussing when we spoke about Black history, when we spoke about this theory of racism and poverty,” he says.
Mustafa saw these things where he lived, and a new worry gripped him. “I had a great fear that my experience in the ‘hood in Toronto, there would be no accounts of it.” He educated himself on Canada’s colonial and racist history and gave himself a new foundation for his identity. Years later, when Black Lives Matter came to Toronto and the city protested against police brutality, Mustafa did not feel that the intensity of the movement reflected the dire facts on the ground.
“The way that people rally in different cities in America,” he reflects, “[Toronto] didn’t stop in the same way for the people that were passing in the city.” His resolve was hardened. “[It] was a reminder for me to preserve as best as I could, the stories of the people that would be lost by the system.”
When Smoke Rises certainly doesn’t sound like a provocation, but it is one. Smoke Dawg was a rapper who didn’t shy away from violent lyrics, and upon his death, his artistry was warped into toxic grist for dehumanizing, victim-blaming media coverage. This abhorrent view of human life is challenged by the creation of an album-length eulogy of unambiguous beauty for a figure like Smoke Dawg, and the project’s ambition strikes at why justice will not be found in media depictions of lives that, as Mustafa puts it, are “represented for the sake of representation.”
As he did in “A Single Rose,” Mustafa challenges those who wield power to sharpen and bend their perception, turning inward and cutting through the rot. “I think that sometimes the Canadian system fulfils quotas. We just say, ‘OK, cool, we got this experience, and that experience, and this place and that race, and we fulfilled our duty.'” He continues: “When you look outside of that, we’re looking at what experience is being reflected as honestly as it possibly could. I think that what we will then find will be different [from] what we’re finding now.”
Mustafa believes that Canada’s grant system, long criticized by the country’s artists for playing it safe, has the potential to better elevate these stories and experiences. It just has to look beyond the periphery, especially if it’s dominated by artists like Mustafa himself. “I’ve been celebrated by polite society in a way that allows for me to receive [grants] more easily than the people like me that are from communities like mine,” he admits, hopeful that more work will be done in “finding more bridges between [the grant system] and communities that are not accessing them.”
Rather than leave the job of improving these prospects to the federal government, Mustafa takes an active role. In 2019 he directed Remember Me, Toronto, a short film that brought together rappers from warring communities and gave them space to discuss how they, too, wanted to break cycles of violence and destitution. (Drake was one of the artists interviewed, and the film’s soundtrack was produced by his longtime collaborator Noah “40” Shebib.)
Earlier this year, Mustafa hosted Lil Berete, a young Regent Park rapper, at an Airbnb in Los Angeles. Mustafa, who is wary of Toronto rap fandom, hoped the visit would give Lil Berete some new context about his Canadian followers: “Even the audience that you have,” he seethes, “a lot of them want you to self-destruct, because that self-destruction is a part of their entertainment.”
The problem stems, Mustafa says, from the “toxic” social media conversations and fads cultivated by platforms like 6ixBuzz, a popular Instagram tabloid. “There’s an audience of people that consume this inner city music and try to pit communities against each other.” He continues, his voice rising: “I’m trying to offer them tales and my own understanding of what it means to be outside of that. The reminder is that it’s bigger than what it is. That the people within that make it out, too.”
I just want the more expansive experience of what it means to live and breathe as the person that I am.– Mustafa
When Smoke Rises does not have such a happy ending. “Please come back/ at least in my dreams,” Mustafa sings on the album’s closing track, “Come Back,” James Blake’s looping piano melody dissolving into a bassy purgatory as the song ends. These days, though, Mustafa is getting better at finding joy. He thrums with excitement over the new music he’s creating, sounds that are untethered to mourning.
“It’s about my love for God,” Mustafa reveals, “and it’s also about whether I’m worthy to even give that love. I just want the more expansive experience of what it means to live and breathe as the person that I am.” But it’s when he talks about his long walks that you can hear a switch: he’s found that his body isn’t holding on to trauma in the same way anymore.
“I think freedom brings you great joy,” he says, his words not full of revelation but welcome acceptance, of some new, well-earned fact of his life.
Don’t miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.
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