It’s said that no one is a prophet in their own land. It certainly becomes much less disappointing when said prophet convinces a whole continent, instead. When Chad-born Montrealer Caleb Rimtobaye donned his AfrotroniX costume – including a Daft Punk-inspired helmet – in 2015, the whole African continent bowed down before him. Now, it’s on to Europe, before America finally succumbs to his African rhythms-and-chants inspired electronic music.

AfrotroniXTimes are good for Rimtobaye, who we had to track down for three months before managing to talk with him – because his touring schedule is so packed. In a recent profile, France’s daily paper  Le Monde introduced him as the “Pan-African musician of the future.” Last November, Rimtobaye was crowned Best African DJ at the Afrima Gala (All Africa Music Awards) in Ghana. Last February, he was crowned Best Artist at the third annual Gala Dynastie celebrating “Black Excellence in Québec.” Those recognitions come not a moment too soon, when you consider that the AfrotroniX project has been going on for four years, not to mention the 15 years of existence of his other project, the Afro pop outfit H’Sao.

It was while working on a new H’Sao album that Rimtobaye began his AfrotroniX transformation. “I felt a need for a new artistic challenge, I wanted to explore a new universe,” Rimtobaye told us from Montréal, between connecting flights. “I didn’t want to do what we’d done before. I’ve always liked electronic music, I met a lot of musicians from Berlin’s underground scene and I liked the way they worked. That’s when I decided to amalgamate those techno and electro sensibilities to African art.”

Art, here, is meant in its most universal sense, since Rimtobaye believes “AfrotroniX is a concept, a universe, a vision that points to Afro-futurism,” a literary and musical movement that dates back to the 1950s. Afro-futurism frames Africa (and its diaspora) in science fiction,  imagining an African society that’s as avant-garde as, if not more than  the Western world — especially on a technological level. Marvel’s superhero, Black Panther, recently became the icon of Afro-futurism, and musicians such as Sun Ra, Drexciya, George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, Jlin, and Janelle Monae have all espoused this optimistic vision of Africa.

All aspects of Rimtobaye’s AfrotroniX project have been carefully considered, from his songs to his live performance, his space-hero costume to the show’s visuals, created by Baillat Cardell & Fils. “I felt the need to show another side of Africa,” he says. “It’s a modern continent, but I get the feeling that Western media aren’t interested in that [modernity]. Young Africans want to participate in this movement, and in the future of our world. They, too, are globalists.”

Not only is this vision of Africa at the core of AfrotroniX’s themes, but it was quite literally the catalyst for his project, conceived in 2011, and launched in 2015. “The H’Sao experiment led me to re-think my vision of African music,” says Rimtobaye. “We travelled extensively thanks to that project, and I realized that our music, in the eyes of the world, was still the music of another ethnic community. I wanted to present African music differently,” says the musician, who was dubbed the “African David Guetta” when he first performed in Tanzania, four years ago.

In other words, AfrotroniX summarizes the whole debate about the ill-designated, so-called “World Music.” In the Western world, anything that’s not from the Northern hemisphere is thrown into that hodge-podge, “even though what H’Sao did was quite universal” – namely a fusion of soul, R&B, pop, reggae, and African rhythms. “I do African electro,” says Rimtobaye. “Rhythmically, I use a lot of African polyrhythms, and the electronic element is only there to support that. The core of my songs is very African, even more so than what I did with H’Sao. I even use [African music] samples, rhythms, and voices to further link my work to the African traditions.” The next AfrotroniX album, planned for release next fall, will go even further in that direction.

When you travel like Rimtobaye has with H’Sao since 2001, and then with AfrotroniX, “you realize that what you hear when you spend a night in a club is always the same,” he says. “It’s the same music whether you’re in Australia, or Europe, or North America. It’s the same style of music everywhere. So it’s nice to have access to this Afrobeat alternative, African club music.”

For many Canadian producers, being able to say that you’ve contributed production on a certified platinum album by one of hip-hop and pop music’s biggest stars is a dream that often remains just that – a dream. But for producer, DJ, and Bimbo Radio creator Blank, that unlikely fantasy became a reality.

“My management, NWYE [Not What You Expected], had put together a listening session in NYC and asked if I’d be interested in going to play my beats. I said yes, and I took the money that I had in my account out so that I could go,” explains Blank from her Toronto home. “I had some idea of who was going to be at the listening session, but I was still going in blind. When we got to the session, I played a few records for the room [and] people were going crazy. I think I only got through five beats that night, ‘cause they kept asking me to re-play them. It was from that night that my music went on to reach Nicki Minaj. The funny thing is, I made that beat back in 2016 and I e-mailed it to Tanisha [Blank’s manager, and founder of NWYE], labeling it for ‘Nicki Minaj’ in the subject line.”

Blank’s production is behind not one, but two tracks on Minaj’s 2018 album Queen, “COCO Chanel” (featuring Foxy Brown) and “Inspirations Outro.” Recalling the night that she discovered that her beats had indeed made the mega-star’s album remains as surreal and thrilling as the day it happened.

“I didn’t let myself get excited at first, because anything could happen,” she says. “I was scrolling down my timeline on Instagram and I passed by this Nicki Minaj post. It was a video of a speaker, so I un-muted it and boop! There it was.  My record, with the caption ‘Testing new speakers.’ Two days later, the album was out. It was official.”

Born to Barbadian parents, Blank grew up listening to everything and everyone, and it was this widespread access to diverse genres and voices from all over the world that helped nurture her love of music, as well as a fascination with every element that goes into the making of it. But it’s a Dr. Dre album that marks one of her most defining moments as a budding young artist.

NWYE Song Camp, YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T

At the NWYE Song Camp. Left to right: YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T.

“I always paid close attention to the music when listening to a song,” she says. “It was Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, I was 12 years old, and I found myself wondering what the person who made the music behind the rapper was called. Someone told me they were called DJs, so, I said, ‘I want to be a DJ.’”

Later, she realized that it was a producer crafting the beats and rhythms behind the artists, which ignited her passion. In Grade 10, a friend gifted her Fruity Loops software, and she started to mess around with it.  Always deeply creative, she found that it felt natural, but an actual career in production wasn’t yet the goal. “I wasn’t thinking about making it a ‘career,’” says Blank. “I was just doing it ‘cause I enjoyed it.”

In 2008, she graduated from the Remix Project, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that provides under-served youth with creative tools and industry knowledge. For the next few years she collaborated with local and international songwriters and artists, taking her experimental and adventurous affinity for baile funk, hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, and Afro beats into new realms. Her work garnered respect and attention, and in addition to Minaj’s Queen, her production has appeared on major records like Raekwon’s “Wall to Wall” featuring French Montana and Busta Rhymes.

World music is Blank’s sound palette, and she’s one of the producers helping to take it from its once niche space in Western music to mainstream popularity. And while some may say that the proliferation of world beats in everything from Drake and the Weeknd’s music to Hollywood films like Black Panther is just a trend, Blank disagrees, citing the web as a space where sounds once categorized as “exotic” or “foreign” are getting the recognition they deserve.

Tanisha on her NWYE Song Camp

  • “NWYE 2019 Sound Camp was inspired by wanting to zone in, create and collaborate. I had applied to writing camps all over the world and not made it in, so my team and I made our own.”
  • “The best part of the 2019 Sound Camp was getting to connect and collaborate in the studio with some of the world’s top discovered and undiscovered songwriters and producers! That was special to me because, everything is online in today’s world, but there’s nothing like vibing and creating in real time with other creatives. We made 28 new records that weekend!”
  • “I hope NWYE and the NWYE Sound Camp provide change and education. We want Canadian creatives to know that making a living in the music business is attainable. The Sound camps encourage strong creative relationships, as well as the importance of cultivating business relationships, to bridge the gap between artists, writers, producers, and labels. We aim to be the change we want to see by creating the spaces we want to create in.”

“The internet shrinks the world,” she says. “It’s easier for people to discover different artists and genres from different places. It’s as easy as discovering one song you like, and just diving into a hole of discovery in that suggestions list on the side bar.”

Wanting to give world beats a new, modern platform, Blank created Bimbo Radio in 2017. Bimbo isn’t the first word you’d think Blank would use to name one of her major projects, but she ran with it due to its visual appeal: “It looks cool when it’s written,” she says. For Blank, Bimbo is a space to freely showcase genres such as reggae, dancehall, soca, and Afrobeat, to name just a few. And from the start, it’s resonated with an international audience.

“It started with a single mix, ‘Episode 1’ [that] I uploaded on SoundCloud, and then started to advertise on IG,” says Blank. “I was contacted by people in Brazil who really loved it [and] it started to gain a lot of traction there, and it spread like wildfire.”

For Bimbo’s listeners it’s the rabbit hole of eclectic sounds for which they’ve been waiting. “My hope is that Bimbo becomes a force in the cultivation of various world music genres, making it easier for people to access the music,” she says.

Helping her take her music and her medium to the world is singer-songwriter and founder of NWYE, and its offshoot NWYE Sound Camp, Tanisha Clarke. It’s that friendship and respect for each other that took Blank’s beats to Minaj’s Queen, and the relationship is one for which Blank is deeply grateful.

“NWYE is important to me,” she says. “It’s a label that’s owned and operated by a woman of colour, who’s taken another woman of colour – a producer – to platinum status. It’s a statement to other women of colour coming up that, yes! It can be done.”

It only took three EPs in less than a year for Josie Boivin, who goes by the name MUNYA, to establish herself outside the country. But this isn’t her first rodeo; music has been part of her for so long that her main issue with it is the overabundance of possibilities. What do you do, when you know how to do everything?

While in a high-school integrated arts program, MUNYA furthered the piano skills she’d picked up as a child. Then one day, things changed when she imitated – loosely yet convincingly – a schoolmate who was an opera singer. “I was in the stairwell and there was a ton of echo,” she says. “The opera teacher heard me sing and said I should do opera. I studied that for two years while pursuing piano, too.”

Stepping Out of The Comfort Zone

Opera remained part of her life during her cégep studies in Saguenay, after which she headed to Montréal. “I wanted to travel, my focus no longer was music,” she says.

But don’t be fooled: MUNYA’s music isn’t classical, and you won’t find Puccini’s entire oeuvre on her Bandcamp page. “I don’t sing opera anymore, except for the members of my family who are quite fond of it, but it’s a muscular vocal technique that needs to be maintained,” she says. “It allowed me to have control over my voice and be really comfortable with it. No matter what happens, my voice rarely gets tired.”

It’s was a strong, sudden interest in jazz brought her back to her calling. “I started listening to John Coltrane, Chet Baker, icons,” she says. “That’s when I decided to study jazz at Université de Montréal.”

She quickly dropped out, and was propelled into the world of music as never before, by becoming a session musician for the likes of Philémon Cimon, Alex Nevsky and Stirling Groove, to name but a few. “The problem I have with music is that I love so many genres that I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to play,” says MUNYA. “I started doing re-mixes of songs that I liked, and developed producing skills.”

She started working on her solo project in November of 2017. And by “solo,” MUNYA means it, her two hands firmly on the steering wheel. “I recorded a bit of guitar and drums with two other musicians, but otherwise I always work alone,” she says. “My sound is quite personal, I guess, because people who play all their instruments, produce, and sing are quite rare.”

Thus were born three ethereal EPs over her rich, charged past year. All three episodes of MUNYA’s output follow each other gracefully, like the seasons of life. “I didn’t want to make a whole album in one go, it would’ve been too taxing on my soul,” she says. “The attention that the first EP attracted gave me the confidence to start writing another.”

On the Road Again

May, November, March. Three stops on the journey, three landmarks on the road map, three EPs: North Hatley, Delmano and Blue Pine. A cottage in the Eastern Townships with a view of a lake, where everything began; a hotel bar in New York City ,where an outlandish dream was sown and gave birth to “La femme à la peau bleue” (“The woman with blue skin”)  from “Vendredi sur mer”; and a fictional place discovered in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s often said that great things would happen if places could speak. As it turns out, they speak a language that MUNYA understands.

She shares her productions as little as possible before they’re final. “People will share their opinions with you and that makes you doubt what you wrote,” she says. “After that, the result isn’t as natural.”

Working, but not travelling, solo; that’s how she progresses, finding inspiration in artists she appreciates, while not needing any day-to-day help.

The Journey of a Voice

The celebrated label Luminelle Records took MUNYA under its wing early on in the journey. “My first EP was released independently, and music blogs shared ‘Des bisous partout.’ I had a review in Pitchfork, and people all over Europe and the U.S. started writing to me. No one from Québec,” she says.

No one is a prophet in their own land, and even though the song that broke her out on the scene is written and sung in French, it’s not in her native Québec that her career took off. “It’s a timing thing,” she says. “Québec will always be my home. A lifetime is years, not just months. Everything in its own time.”

After giving just two solo shows, MUNYA’s embarked on her first tour, a string of sold-out shows where she opened for Cults in the U.S. “These guys are my friends now,” she says. “They really helped me out, and I know that once I’ve progressed in my own career, I’ll want to help others like they helped me.”

For MUNYA, creation is a living thing, and things need to be in motion, and we have to let them carry us forward. “One has to make music for oneself,” she says. “We’re humans, not robots. We absorb stuff. I feel like today’s delivery modes allow us to let ourselves be guided, and see where creation takes us. We don’t have a model or a recipe. You just gotta keep your feet moving.”