As the year comes to a close, Lionel Kizaba will go on his holiday break with a sense of accomplishment. “This year has really been the best year of my life,” he enthuses, pointing out the 30-odd concerts he’s performed, in Québec and elsewhere in the world, over the past 12 months, as well as the Nov. 18, 2022, release of Kizavibe, his new electronic Afropop album — co-written and co-produced with his partner in crime, Gone Deville. 

Kizaba, Soso

Click on the image to play the Kizaba video “Soso”

For the singer-songwriter and drummer from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 2022 ended as it had more or less begun: with an invitation to the Mundial Montréal/M for Montréal Festival. He explained where the starting line of this creative cycle was: “The Mundial concert in 2021 set the table for the year to come, which I ended with a big concert at the Society for Arts and Technology [SAT] for the album launch,” as an after-party for M for Montréal. 

 “The festival director, Sébastien Nasra, had seen my concert at Mundial, and he said to me, ‘I thought you played African music, but it’s pop!’,” hence the invitation to the following year’s edition of M for Montréal. The director’s observation illustrates just how far pop music from the African continent has come in recent years, by shedding the divisive and outdated “world music” label, and finally being recognized for what it is: damn good, danceable, modern pop that deserves its spot on the world’s biggest stages, as Nigeria’s Burna Boy did last summer at Osheaga, or as fellow Nigerian Wizkid will do on March 18, 2023, at Bell Center. 

Kizaba wades in those very waters, cooking up a stew of pop, rap, and danceable electronic music, spiced with rhythms of his native Congo, chiefly soukous and rumba. “I put a lot of work into this,” says Kizaba. “I wanted to take the Congolese sound to another level by combining it with other musical styles. I wanted to offer diversified musical influences, because I don’t want only Congolese people to attend my shows, I want everyone to attend, all of Québec, the whole world. What I’m proposing is the whole universe!” 

Kizaba, Ingratitude

Click on the image to play the Kizaba video “Ingratitude” (feat. Luciane Dom)

That universe begins in Montréal — literally: it’s the title of the Kizavibe’s sweet opening song, a love letter to his city, he says, “to the vibe here, to the artists I’ve met here, like brother Pierre Kwenders,” a Congolese at heart, also featured on the dancehall duet “Bella”. “Of all the cities I’ve visited, I say Montréal is the best — it has the best vibe, there’s so much music to discover, it has an incredible togetherness. I needed to pay tribute to all that.”  

Kizaba created his 2017 debut album entirely on his own. “For this one, I really wanted to be able to rely on a second pair of ears.” he says. A friend put him in touch with composer and DJ Gone Deville (Pierre Belliveau), who was looking for a percussionist to accompany him at an event he was organizing. They clicked right away. “Pierre told me, ‘Lionel, I’m not letting go of you, I’ll follow you anywhere you go!’ He let me hear some beats he was working on, I chose a few more from his bank and that was the basis of the album,” recorded in Montréal and partly in DRC. 

 Gone Deville is also the technical director for Kizaba’s concerts, and they spent 2022 playing in many different time zones: “After my concert at Mundial Montréal, I was invited to play in a lot of big concerts — in the United States as an opening act for Lionel Richie, we toured Louisiana, Great Britain, Italy, British Columbia. . .” The coming year will also be bookings-rich with the tour resuming on January 12, 2023, including a presence at this year’s edition of the prestigious WOMAD festival in April in Chile. 

“Life comes at you fast” is an adage that has certainly proven true for Toronto singer-songwriter Dylan Sinclair. In the last six years, he’s gone from fledgling high school slam poet to one of Canada’s most promising R&B stars, racking up millions of streams, glowing critical acclaim, and a JUNO nomination for his 2020 effort, Proverb. The accolades were welcome — but also set an impossibly high standard, as the songster set out to write his follow-up.

Dylan Sinclair, Open

Click on the image to play the Dylan Sinclair video “Open”

“I felt a bit of pressure,” says Sinclair of his fast success. “But I think people tend to fall under pressure when they focus on it too much. I’m focused on growing as a person, and as an artist, and on being as consistent as I can be without killing myself over it. I’m not gonna drown in the pressure.”

That determined attitude underpinned Sinclair’s approach to the writing on No Longer in the Suburbs, the amorous, pensive effort that finds the 21-year-old grappling with everything from his newfound fame to burgeoning adulthood, and complicated relationships. Compared to his peers, Sinclair’s sound on Suburbs is markedly nostalgic, bringing to mind such veterans as Jon B and Musiq Soulchild. Sinclair says that’s due to the soundtrack he played during the writing process.

“I was listening to a lot of R&B from the kings, Usher and Chris Brown, non-stop,” says the Filipino-Guyanese crooner. “I listened to albums like Confessions and women’s groups like 702 and SWV. All of the feel-good, Black romance music.” The influences shine through heavily, especially on tracks like the pleading, affectionate “Open,”, or on “Suppress” – where a clear-eyed Sinclair reflects on his romantic relationship with the self-awareness of a young Donell Jones.

Beyond the very obvious old-school thread in Suburbs are other ingredients that distinguish Sinclair from his peers, among them a sincere and consistent tenderness that he credits to his church beginnings. Regardless of the lyrical subject matter, there’s something uniquely mellow and soft-hearted about Sinclair’s approach to this album, a holdover from the praise and worship sessions he fondly remembers form childhood.

“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music, and the church is filled with beautiful music and singing,” says Sinclair. “I never really gravitated toward [more aggressive] music because I came from a space where there were singalongs, and harmonizing, and real instruments. The [Gospel] influence just creeps into my music somehow, I don’t consciously do it. I do whatever feels good, instinctually. I automatically do my three-part harmonies because that’s what we did at our worship sessions at home. And the melodies I choose are about singing together. It’s so much more beautiful that way.”

“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music.”

A solid team of collaborators was also a requirement for Sinclair’s process on Suburbs, and his teammates are more than just industry colleagues — they’re his actual friends. “Jordon Manswell, he’s my right-hand guy,” Sinclair says, referring to the Grammy-nominated producer whose credits include Proverb, Daniel Caesar, and Mariah Carey. Musician and producer Alex Ernewein (Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson) also gets a shout-out, as does Zachary Simmonds, a producer and close friend who happens to be Caesar’s younger brother.

The friendship — and musical partnership — between Sinclair and Simmonds dates back to before either person was born (four days apart at that). Their fathers, Kevin Sinclair and Norwill Simmonds, released a Gospel album back in the early aughts, and the two families have continued to bond in the decades that followed. Now, their children are picking up where the two patriarchs left off.

Dylan Sinclair, Never, Joyce Wrice

Click on the image to play the Dylan Sinclair video “Never” (ft. Joyce Wrice)

“Zach and I are the same age. He’s the producer, I’m the songwriter. This has been our story; our come-up together,” says Sinclair. That journey includes making music, of course, but also ample hangouts, and frequent trips out of town for a change of scenery. While they worked on Suburbs, the crew went everywhere from Fort Erie to Montréal, with the aim of getting out and seeing the world. The goal was to live life, then bring those experiences back to the studio to recount them in song. The trips also gave Sinclair a break from the pressures of mounting fame.

“It really is a group effort, and it’s more fun that way. I’ve locked myself in my room to try to work, and it’s not fun. [I need] that work-life balance,” says Sinclair. “I think a lot of people kinda hibernate in the studio and search for anything for inspiration. The music loses its substance. My focus is on making sure we’re living, and doing things, so that the music feels full, and like it’s coming from a real place.”

That same authenticity was important when choosing features for the album. On the deluxe version of Suburbs, hot up-and-comers like Destin Conrad, Jvck James, and Joyce Wrice make appearances; all artists of whom Sinclair was a proper fan, before he could even fathom the collaborations. He says that such full-circle moments – like the transition from listening to Wrice in high school to singing alongside her on the slow jam “Never” – are what keep him inspired.

“My inspiration [fades] quickly,” says Sinclair. “When it comes back, it’s usually from a full-circle moment ­­­– like watching the JUNOs and the next thing you know I get a nod. Same thing with Joyce and working with her. That was a very big moment for me! That makes me want to go back in the studio and work so much more.”

“It’s my duty to let people know what I think is great in general, as a DJ. And now as a producer, I can take that to the next level, where I can actually make songs with these artists and I can put them on stages with me – because I was just looking at myself like a conduit to be able to connect things and people.”

4KORNERS, Ogwula

Click on the image to play the 4KORNERS video “Ogwula” (feat. EverythingOShauN)

Kirk St. Cyr, better known as DJ 4Korners, is talking not only about his role as a DJ playing music in clubs around the world, but also as a fully-fledged artist who’s just released his debut album. Much like the releases of many other Canadian DJs in the present day, 4Korners of the World not only highlights his songwriting and production skills across a variety of music genres, it also incorporates the constantly evolving roles a DJ increasingly takes on in addition to their foundational, well-honed, and essential skills of rocking a party crowd.

4Korners of The World mashes up a number of different genres, incorporating musical styles that range through afrobeats, hip-hop, R&B, and electronic music, into a seamless extension of his sets as a DJ. Recruiting a number of newly emerging artists from across Canada, 4Korners of the World is a truly eclectic mix.

“The reason why I chose these particular artists is, number one, they’re all dope,” says 4Korners. “Second, because of the concept of the album, I specifically sought out people from the diaspora, and first-generation Canadians of other-worldly descent. I think that we carry a unique experience. I think we see the world in an interesting way, we see Canada in an interesting way. And I believe that that really comes through in the music.”

For 4Korners, the album is a logical extension of the music he plays in clubs, and at basketball games as the official DJ of the Toronto Raptors. As his brand game is strong, 4Korners recently launched an artist showcase called Wonderful in Toronto. “The mission is to showcase emerging and established BIPOC artists, celebrate our music and cultures,” says 4Korners about the combined concert and party showcase.

Another DJ determined to showcase new and emerging artists is Toronto-born, Los Angeles- based DJ Rosegold.  “I do love to introduce new artists and new music that I think that no one knows about,” says the DJ, born Dahlia Harper. “And I do it selectively, by putting in a new song… sandwiched in between two songs that I know everyone in the club knows, no matter how old you are, how young you are, what your race is.”

“As a DJ, it’s my duty to let people know what I think is great… as a producer, I can take that to the next level” – DJ 4Korners

Describing her sound as  “the music that you didn’t know that you wanted to hear,” DJ Rosegold has manifested her eclectic disc jockeying on her Rosegold University: Homecoming EP, where she pays homage to her reggae roots, and her forthcoming music, expected in early 2023.

Not only does the music she produces herself showcase musical styles from across the diaspora, it’s also evident in the eye-catching merch from her Rosegold University line that she recognizes the importance of branding in a social media age. This has led her to DJing events for Barack Obama and Lauren London, among many others.

However, Rosegold wishes that such an emphasis on branding wasn’t necessary. “Now, it’s like talent isn’t the main thing that people focus on, unfortunately,” she says. “So, for me as a DJ, the majority of my bookings are from word of mouth, or people finding me on Instagram. My bookings are heavily reliant on what my brand looks like on social media.” Rosegold has adapted to this reality and turned her confident, driven personality to her advantage, creating a talent agency called House of Milo.

But at the end of the day, whether you’re a DJ or an artist, it comes down to bringing your inimitable style to the music. Junia-T’s 2020 Studio Monk album was short-listed for a Polaris Prize, a couple of years after his stint as a DJ for Jessie Reyez on her first global tour. He initially made some noise as an MC, and now identifies mainly as a DJ/producer, so Junia-T has some insight into the mindset a DJ brings as an artist.

DJ Rosegold, Chantel, Come Closer

Click on the image to play the DJ Rosegold video “Come Closer” (feat. Chantel)

“I keep them one and the same,” says Junia-T of his approach. “Not every DJ is like that, but I like to play the same way I select music for a project. I like to just play the stuff that I really enjoy. I don’t care if people know it or not, because it’s a test of my taste.”

DJ Rosegold mirrors this attitude. “The thing that I think is so cool about me crossing over into production is, I know what goes. By that, I mean that I know what the people want to hear in the party,” she says. “Because I see the reactions, I see what gets people excited, and I put myself in the shoes of the partygoer… So that’s kind of how I fuse the two together, and that’s why I’m really happy that I started first in DJing and then going into production –  because I was able to really identify what it is that people want to hear.”

For 4Korners, who grew up in a Trinidadian household in Toronto, and enjoyed a childhood where he loved everything from soca to funk to rock, there’s a similar mentality when looking at the fluidity between being a DJ and an artist.

“It was only natural that I played all the music that I love, so it’s always been a wide variety of things,” he says. “Now that I’m a producer and an artist, and I’m making the music that I play, it’s just the same thing. I have so many different types of music, and there’s so many sounds from so many influences, that it wouldn’t be me if it didn’t come out like this through my music. There’s no way I can do one specific thing. It’s just not who I am.”