Haviah Mighty is an enthusiastic, pulsing, and energetic force. Even as the day is waning and we’re cooped up in a meeting room in downtown Toronto, Haviah Mighty (her real name, by the way) is speaking with rapid fire. The 26-year-old, Brampton-based, Toronto-born rapper is readying the release of her debut LP, 13th Floor (on May 10, 2019), and can feel the anticipation from her audience. She admits this is a little confusing, since she’s been working away on rapping, production, and releasing work since she was a teenager. “[13th Floor] very much feels like a debut album, even though it’s technically my sixth body of work. To many people it’s my first or second,” says Mighty.
Her story, perhaps to a few of us, begins with The Sorority, and a now infamous cypher that garnered the collective acclaim more than three years ago. Released on International Women’s Day in 2016, the cypher was a rousing feminist-centric proclamation, touching on key issues and news events at the time (Sandra Bland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s then-feminist leanings in his cabinet), while also playfully bigging up each woman who had a chance to get on the mic. From there, The Sorority was formed, and the album The Pledge was released in 2018.
But Haviah Mighty’s story doesn’t really begin or end with The Sorority. Nor does it start with winning the Slaight Music Prize in 2018, or having her song “Vamanos” featured on the HBO show Insecure. These are snapshots compiled in the full, definitive version that is the life of Haviah Mighty.
Mighty’s story does begin in Toronto, in Gerrard Square, where – as a child living in an impoverished, largely white neighbourhood – she felt the sting of casual and direct racism. “Police were called because the piano was being played too loud,” says Mighty. “All of my sisters – I have three older sisters – played piano. At the time, my little brother was not yet born. But there were four little girls, very musical, always doing competitions and stuff. The area was not inviting.”
Mighty remembers feeling restricted as a child, in more ways than one. Her parents sought to protect their kids from racist neighbours, and Haviah specifically, from a school system that had decided she was a problematic child. “I was learning stuff and reading, but it wasn’t translating in the school system. I went to a school that had no doors for the classrooms, and it was this big open floor panel,” says Mighty. “On top of the racial aspect, on top of my weird seclusion, I was deemed [a case of anger management]. ‘She had attention deficit issues and she should be put on this pill and that pill.’ Luckily, I have parents who were, like, ‘Just read this book!’”
When she was eight years old, Mighty and her family – in a course of action she recognizes now as a need for them to survive and thrive – moved to Brampton. She then felt a kind of freedom she hadn’t before: “When I moved to Brampton, the difference to me as a young child, the borders that were created, the restrictions I felt, kind of loosened a bit. I was allowed to ride my bike, I could cross the street, I was allowed to go the park with my sister.” Mighty succeeded in school, getting excellent grades, and moving on to an enhanced, gifted class.
Yet, these experiences – only a handful of the many Mighty described in detail during our almost hour-long conversation – form the basis of her work, especially the work she accomplished on 13th Floor. “Those initial years where you kind of develop your social skills, knowing what it’s like to have friends and stuff, my sisters, my foundation, you see that in the music today in the representation, the people I work with and have around me,” she says. This individualism, and a scrappy DIY sensibility, really helped to form Mighty as a hip-hop force.
“Those initial years where you kind of develop your social skills… you see that in the music today.”
She continues, saying, “I think these little experiences – I say little, I don’t know. I know people have these experiences in their own lives that are much more direct, a lot more traumatic. But because I can make positive out of the negative, I can have this positive viewpoint of what those negative things have done for me. It’s created strength that I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have to navigate those things.”
13th Floor moves through Mighty’s declarations of self, including fun on the dancefloor, and a multi-generational heaviness, that weaves in drum-heavy beats, and Caribbean and Afrobeat influences. Mighty had a hand in production, songwriting, and the overall tone and feel of the album. She heavily produced on seven songs, while enlisting trusted producers like 2oolman from A Tribe Called Red, Taabu, Obuxum, and Clairmont The Second, to name a brief few.
The record opens with “In Women Colour,” a defiant, palpitating track proclaiming her place as a Black woman, while also tackling the division between men and women. It’s a misunderstanding of boring and great proportion to believe it’s an anti-male song. It’s not. Rather, “In Women Colour” is an amplification of her own lived experience. “At no point am I attacking all dudes,” she says. “I don’t feel like, when men listen to that song, they’re like, ‘This is a song for women!’ Do you know what I mean? It’s a song about a woman talking about her divide, being a woman with men, growing up.”
The number 13 takes on a few meanings on the album, largely orbiting the notion that ideologies or thoughts can be so readily accepted without consideration. Take, for example, how unlucky 13 appears in culture, where apartment buildings omit a 13th floor. That the Death card in tarot is the 13th in the Major Arcana, and it’s widely feared as a premonition of true death. Mighty also grapples with her own history, and the history of Black people in North America, on the powerful, observant song “Thirteen” – a reference to the United States’ 13th Amendment, the abolishment of slavery. “It’s interesting how much work has to be done to learn about yourself in this country when you’re Black,” says Mighty. “I’m only trying to learn them because they’re my experiences. They aren’t even shared with you in a true sense. It wasn’t shared with me, even when I was in school.”
So much of 13th Floor is storytelling, and Haviah Mighty is a compelling storyteller, mixing sharp verses with interesting, uncluttered, and deft production. Her approach is compassionate and conversational, sturdy and welcoming. If someone has no interest in the point of the stories she tells, or her perspective, there’s only so much Mighty says she can do. “To me, if the other side is unable to take the message, it’s probably because they have no interest in the message,” she says. “If I’m told – and I have been told – that is not my experience, then you’re not trying to hear the experience.”