Hip-hop flows right next to blood cells in Emma Beko’s veins. The young singer-songwriter, who we discovered as one half of Heartstreets, released her first solo album, Blue, in January 2021. The songs are captivating, full of dark, vivid, haunting emotions, and take us to the deep-rooted heart of a hybrid sound where hip-hop, R&B, and pop come together.
“Yes, music comes from very deep inside me. I fell in love with hip-hop beats when I was six years old,” says Beko. “My half-brothers watched Musique Plus in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when rap was huge.” Born in Budapest, Beko grew up with her mom, a ballerina, in Montréal and then New York City. “It wasn’t long before I wanted to dance, too,” she says. “I joined a hip-hop dance troupe when I was 11 and later, I got into graffiti. I surrounded myself with everything hip-hop-related, and I embraced all of its codes – except rapping, which intimidated me.”
Even though she was utterly impressed by rap battles, and wrote a lot, nothing pointed to the fact that she’d one day participate in such a way. “When I moved to New York City at 15, I decided to re-invent myself,” she recalls. “I started hanging out with people who listened to a lot of hip-hop and I decided to trust myself.” Her insecurity gave way to a desire to show people that there are other voices. “I can’t sing like the girls in TLC, but I’ve got my own thing going, a more raspy voice. You don’t need a pretty voice to rap,” she giggles.
Beko was back in Montréal two years later, and music was already at the centre of her life. As the years went by, she allowed herself to feel and express emotions that were hers alone. “My solo project had been brewing in my mind and in my heart for a few years; I wanted to find out who I am when I’m on my own,” she says. It was during one of SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec song camps, to which Heartstreets had been invited, that the stars aligned, and her desire to follow their trail became a reality. “I so wish I could go back to a song camp as a solo artist,” she says. “That’s where I met Rymz [featured on one of songs]. My life was never the same after that song camp. As soon as I got back from there, I called J.-P. Beau Geste, my producer, and we started making tracks two days later.”
Asked about the origin of her musical vibe, Erykah Badu is the first name that pops up. “Just like her, people often wonder if I’m rapping or not because there’s a melody beyond the beat,” Beko explains.
Only when she’s completely alone does Beko dare to put everything she is on paper, so her ideal writing context is an empty room, at night, with a cold beer. “It comes more naturally at night, for me,” she says. “‘MHS’ came out in an hour just, because I had the right set-up. I often write very corny or weird stuff, but when I’m on my own, I don’t feel like I have to judge myself, and that allows me to go to the logical conclusion of those ideas. Some gems end up coming out of that process. I need to write bad stuff in order to write good stuff.”
And if, these days, a little drink helps her get into a state that’s conducive to elicit the memories she wants to set to music, it’s because excess is no longer part of her life. “I like having a drink when I write music,” says Beko. “I used to consume quite a bit, but nowadays, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t do drugs, and I barely drink. I just need a couple of beers in my studio to feel O.K. re-visiting painful parts of my life, but softly — it allows me to write the nicest things.”
Quills, Rymz, and Karelle Tremblay join Beko’s solo project, which she’s eager to present in a more direct way. In mid-March of 2021, she presented a virtual live show with an impressive stage direction that offered a taste she’ll not soon forget. “I was afraid my expectations might be too high because I’ve waited for so long, but it was the biggest high I’ve had in a long time, and I would do it again every day,” she admits.
With an independent project that requires an inordinate investment of time and energy, the singer-songwriter sets the bar very high: “I want to live comfortably from my music,” says Beko. “I want my style of music to gain international recognition, and I want to deeply love all the songs I offer to my audience. I’m demanding, I know!” she says, laughing.