When we join Ashanti Mutinta (a.k.a. Backxwash) by phone, she’s still in disbelief.

Two weeks ago, her second album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It was short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, which annually celebrates the best Canadian album, regardless of genre or sales. “I didn’t expect this album to go this far,” says the rapper/producer, who’s also the first female hip-hop artist from Québec to ever earn such a nomination. “I’m truly honoured!”

Apart from a few media outlets that have highlighted this accomplishment, the Zambia-born Montréaler hasn’t received many kudos from the Québec hip-hop community. “To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been included [in that scene] at all. I feel quite isolated,” she says.”The first Spotify playlist to include one of my songs was Northern Bars, and it’s from Toronto. Maybe my style doesn’t speak [to people in Québec] as much?” she wonders, sincerely.

It’s true that her music has little in common with the legacy of Sans Pression, Muzion, and other pioneers of Québec rap. Inspired by Black Sabbath and Nine Inch Nails, both of whom she’s sampled on her sophomore album, the Anglophone rapper also has a penchant for the biting hip-hop of American rappers such as Danny Brown and JPEGMafia, as well as for the audacity of Moodie Black — a band that pioneered the noise-rap movement that culminated with Death Grips in the past decade.

Even more intense than Deviancy, her first album — which is filled with tinges of nu-metal, trap, and horrorcore — GHNTDWTLHOOI adds touches of industrial and doom metal. “Deviancy was a good headbanging album, but with this one, I was looking to express my emotions through my music,” she says. “I think I’ve finally found a sound I’m comfortable with.”

Backxwash had to revisit her past to get to this point. “This album is a turning point in my life,” says the artist, who left Zambia over a decade ago. “I wanted to speak to that child who cried every night because of their extreme vulnerability. The lyrics just flowed out of me like never before in my life.”

I told my mama that the devil got a place for me” she sings on “Spells,” a song about her Christian upbringing. “The person I am now is the opposite of that hyper-Christian child,” says the transgender artist, who still believes in God, “but not in a traditional way. That song is part of my healing process.”

Religion is indeed a central theme in jher songs. She’s sampled many Christian metal songs for her next EP, Stigmata, slated for late July, just as she’s sampled a dance ceremony from her homeland on “Black Sheep,” one of the most personal songs on GHNTDWTLHOOI. In the Nyau community, a secret society that is part of her Chewa ethnic group, this dance names Gule Wamkulu is the final stage of a ritual initiation that welcomes young men into adulthood. That dance is on the UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and it symbolizes a lot for a woman who left her country of origin for good. “That song is part of my healing process, and it talks about my family and what I went through over there. Now I can finally heal,” she says, adding that it wouldn’t be safe for her to go back to Zambia.

Yet, the sum total of growing up in Africa also has a positive side. That’s where, after all, she fell in love with American hip-hop, thanks to Notorious B.I.G.’s video for “Mo Money Mo Problems.” “I was nine or 10 when I saw it for the first time, and it completely rocked my world,” she says. “Notorious looked so cool! I started trying to rap like him by transcribing his words,” explains the artist, who also started making beats in her early teens.

That’s also when she started thinking about her identity. “I was asking myself a lot of questions over there, but I only felt the freedom to assume myself [as I am] when I arrived in Montréal,” in 2017, after spending eight years in British Columbia. The song “Adolescence” is dedicated to her younger brother, who still lives out West. “I don’t know if he’s heard that song… We don’t really speak to each other in my family,” she says.

I guess maybe I should go to therapy / Cause keeping it inside is something that is eating me alive,” she sings, with disarming calm, on the painfully sincere song. On a more abrasive tip, “Black Magic” talks about the anxiety of an artist who prefers to continue her habits ”instead of getting help,” as she says herself on the Rap Genius platform.

Backxwash assures us that there’s still hope, pointing out “Redemption,” the closing song on GHNTDWTLHOOI. “I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s a transition towards light, but it does represent the hope [for such transition] in a certain way,” she says. “There still remains a part of uncertainty, however. I still need to ask myself a lot of questions and to change a lot of things in my life.”

 



“Definitely happy,” is how Junia-T describes his reaction to being short-listed (in the Top 10) for the 2020 edition of the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. The multi-talented producer/engineer, songwriter,  and MC celebrated the CBC Music announcement recognizing his suitably titled Studio Monk album with a glass of champagne, fittingly surrounded by a group of friends.

After all, it was a collective approach to making the 13-song album – incorporating the talents of a horde of artists into his creative vision – that made the project such a success. Featuring critically-acclaimed colleagues like Jessie Reyez, River Tiber, and Sean Leon, as well as breakout appearances from Toronto singers Faiza and STORRY, and contributions from artists based in the U.S. (Elijah Dax, Miloh Smith) and the U.K. (Benjamin A.D.), the album maintains a remarkably cohesive feel that stems from his consistent recording process.

The recording of Studio Monk came almost a decade into Junia-T’s producing career, a journey charted in a new, as-yet-unreleased, mini-documentary about his creative process. Culling footage from very early in his career, when he had the opportunity to visit Bob Marley’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios, to the free-for-all jam sessions he attended at the Flock House studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it shows that Junia-T’s collaborative approach is the common denominator throughout.

He honed that method in 2017 while at an invite-only Riot Club session at a house in Los Angeles, which pooled like-minded artists who never seemed to be able to synchronize their schedules enough to work together. One example of the laid-back vibe was when he worked with his now-longtime collaborator Jessie Reyez (for whom he serves as the MC/DJ in her live/touring band), just as her “Figures” single was beginning to buzz.

“She showed up at the crib, it was like two in the morning,” says Junia-T. “I’m sleeping on this beanbag chair, I’m trying to stretch out my back to fix it. So I’m, like, laying on the floor in the living room and Jessie just walks in and looks down at me and is, like, ‘Yo, Junia? You dead yet?’ And I’m, like, ‘I’m alive,’ and she says, ‘Are you ready to cook, or what?’”

By 7:00 a.m., the duo had almost finished what would become “Sad Face Emojis.” “Complicated,” Junia-T’s tag-team rhyme display with Adam Bomb (of Freedom Writers and Natural Born Strangers), was another Studio Monk track that arose out of these sessions. Energized by the experience, he realized he’d need to replicate that creative environment  to make the best music. So when Junia-T was presented with a recording contract from Pirates Blend, he made it a stipulation of the deal to have a dedicated studio space.

“I needed to have a studio to create in, because of how frequently I would be in the studio,” he says. “Because if I’ve got to stress about making money to be in a spot, I’m not going to be creative. The liberating feeling was in L.A., when I had the studio, and all I had to do was just bring people in. And I didn’t have to rush them out…  that’s when the music got good.”

“All I had to do was just bring people in, and I didn’t have to rush them out”

With the creative space secured at what was then known as The Hive (now Soleil Sound), Junia-T ensured that there was a consistent approach to creativity. This often meant doing nothing, except sharing food and conversation for a couple of hours. “Sometimes it would take four hours to make a song, sometimes eight,” he says. “But it wasn’t eight hours of toiling on songs, it was four hours of really grounding, being humans, and the music part was hella quick…”

Singer Faiza, who appears on three of Studio Monk’s 13 songs, first connected with Junia-T in the studio after a creative sojourn in Atlanta left her feeling dissatisfied. Within 30 minutes, they’d already recorded Studio Monk’s “Make It,” introducing Faiza to a new way of working. “He’s really big on you just going in the booth without necessarily writing anything down, or not spending too much time writing, or over-thinking,” she says. “He’s not interested in a million-and-one takes, just, like, the first couple [of] takes is usually where he feels like you get it.

“[He] kind of helped me through some of my own battles as a songwriter because I feel like, up until that point, I was really trying to fit into a mold. Because I didn’t feel seen, I didn’t feel heard… [But] the music that we made felt like it was really true to who I was.” It was this attitude that Faiza brought to “Puzzles,” a song that unapologetically distills her experiences as a Black woman, in a songwriting tour de  force. Faiza says it “just came pouring out,” and Junia-T, typically, captured it in one take.

Following videos for “Know Better,” “Ooo Wee,” “Thinking Over,” and “Home Team,” there’s now a visual accompanying “Puzzles.” The clip, directed by Dan LeMoyne (The Weeknd, k-os, Diplo), features Faiza walking around the deserted streets of Toronto as a mystical figure, evoking the lockdown era that’s endured through most of 2020 so far.

Junia-T’s perspective on the song’s larger meaning brings him back to the collective focus of Studio Monk as a whole, where he views himself as a member of a team. “It’s my responsibility to stand by that in support of my sister, and that message – not only because she’s my sister, but because I believe in the same thing,” says Junia-T. “I feel honored to be a contributor and a supporter in the message.”



R&B singer LOONY grew up in Scarborough, in the Northeast end of Toronto, where she taught herself how to sing as a kid, attended rock music summer camp, and released her first mixtape in high school.

“In Scarborough, people feel a little distant from the [downtown] core,” says LOONY, 26. “There’s not much to do here but create – and get in trouble.” Before she left to study English Literature at McGill University in Montréal, LOONY says she was “acting in a careless, reckless kind of way.” When she moved home, she found herself returning to her old ways.

On her sophomore EP JOYRiDE, released in April 2020, she explores her relationship with her old neighbourhood, while reckoning with past experiences and bad relationships.  “Going for a joyride is a crime, but I also thought of it as a vehicle to turn these feelings into something else that I can control,” she says.

The EP mixes neo-soul and R&B, with LOONY’s intimate, emotional voice anchoring each song. She worked closely with producers Akeel Henry – a former apprentice of Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib –  and Adam Ponang, to develop her experimental, genre-blurring sound.

LOONY started writing lyrics when she was back in Scarborough, but her time in Montréal greatly impacted her songwriting. At McGill, she fell in love with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. “I would skip a lot of classes, but I remember going one day when we were talking about the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot,” she says. “It blew my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m missing out on? Because this is fire.’”

With her upcoming concerts postponed, LOONY’s spending her days hanging out in nature and writing new songs. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many amazing artists in the East end,” she says. “There’s more green space, and more room to figure out what you want to do.”