When Benita Prado was gifted a guitar as a young teenager, her mom wanted her to play classic rock. But rock took Prado to a whole other place: hip-hop. “The way the legends sampled those rock and funk records, that’s a big part of who I am and how I grew up,” she says.
From there, Prado, a B.C. native, started making music using GarageBand, and posting the results on a SoundCloud page – which drew the attention of high-profile acts, including artists on the Owsla record label.
For a while, Prado ghost-wrote for rappers under the name AlienKanye, but soon felt the urge to write her own music. “It felt a little oppressive to have men sing your words,” she says. That led her to shed her handle in favour of just using her surname: “It all happened on some caterpillar-to-butterfly shit.”
Prado’s music isn’t hip-hop or rock. Instead, it’s a collection of sounds and influences coalescing to make something sonically mesmerizing: woozy beats and hi-hats fuse together to create a launching pad for Prado’s R&B melodies, casting an intoxicating spell on listeners.
With Prado prepping a debut EP release in 2020, she has big goals for the coming year: “Uhh, world domination.” But as she sets her sights on the world at large, she wants her journey to inspire those most local to her.
“I don’t feel responsibility as much as I feel a sense of care for those kids and communities,” she says, of the young people of colour in her East Vancouver neighbourhood, in which she’s established a co-op space for them that includes a dance studio and recording studio. “I know what they’ve been through, and are going through, so I want all my future successes to reflect onto them, and create opportunities for them.”
Photo by courtesy/courtoisie. Left to right/De gauche à droite : Kimmortal (by/par Samuel Stevens), Han Han, Casey Mecija (by/par Tanja-Tiziana)
Three Filipinx SOCAN members discuss making music on their own terms
Story by Chaka V. Grier | March 8, 2021
“As an artist, my role is not to conform to what the audience wants me to do. It’s me showing them my world,” says Haniely Pableo, better known as Han Han. It’s a Friday afternoon and the operating-room nurse is enjoying a well-deserved day off. Her voice is raspy with fatigue, but her words are far from weary. “I’m quite aware of what their world is,” she continues. “Especially being in North America, being an immigrant, being a person of colour, and someone who grew up in the East, I’m already immersed here. I know their world, but they don’t know mine.”
In 2014, HanHan released her eponymous EP. It was fierce and honest, rooted in cultural pride, in both the languages in which she exclusively rapped – Tagalog and Cebuano – and its use of traditional instrumentation. Her vocal style defied the stereotype of the sweet, passive Filipina, and her lyrics called everyone out: misogynist, destructive colonial legacies, and divisions among the diaspora. Yet from the beginning, the emcee’s path to music was rooted in an urgent need for self-expression and community.
In 2008 – two years into re-uniting with her mother in Canada – Pableo began taking a poetry workshop. A serendipitous string of events unfolded, guiding her to an artist-rooted community of like-minded poets, musicians, performers, and activists. Her new artistic family helped her create a career in music that she never imagined. Today, even with growing recognition, and her debut full-length album, URDUJA, slated for 2020, Pableo remains unmoved by suggestions she become more “mainstream” and “accessible” by performing in English.
“I read this article somewhere that said crossing over to the Western audience shouldn’t be considered the highest privilege, because the Western audience are the ones missing out on a lot of creative culture beyond the borders of the West,” she says. “I’m different than most of the female artists I’m usually lined [up] with in festivals, but I never feel that I don’t have the power. When I’m on the mic, I have the power.”
And the community she found a decade ago remains her greatest source of power. “I’m grateful that I have [this] community, and it’s primarily women – we do different things, but our values are aligned.” ________________
In her Toronto home, Casey Mecija, the multi-disciplinary artist and new mother, is pondering how integral community and collaboration have been to her own artistry, most notably as the lead vocalist and songwriter for orchestral-pop band Ohbijou. “I’m energized by collaboration,” she says. “Much of my work with Ohbijou was about what music can produce [when we’re] in collaboration with each other.”
Nonetheless, in 2016, Mecija went solo with the release of her contemplative debut, Psychic Materials. “It was an opportunity for me to focus and reflect inward, prioritize my songwriting voice in a way that I hadn’t. It was a channel of autonomy.”
Music as a space for personal exploration and revelation has driven Mecija for much of her life. At first a strategy of integration by her parents, to help their Canadian-born children weave into the fabric of the larger community, it soon became Mecija’s sanctuary. “Music as a form didn’t insist that I knew how to say the things that I wanted to say,” she says. “It’s poetic. It’s about emotion. And for me, sometimes expressing my feelings through words was difficult.”
But as a second-generation Canadian, in a society that often ignores or flattens people of colour in order to fit pre-conceived ideas, she’s faced inherent challenges.
What does Filipinx mean? The term Filipinx is born out of a movement to create space for and acknowledge non-gender-binary members of the formerly “Filipino/Filipina” diaspora in the white-centric, binary places to which their parents decide to move (e.g., Canada, the United States, etc.). The gender-neutral “Filipinx” is also seen as a way to de-colonize identity, since the gendered terms were brought about by Spanish colonization. It’s one way to be more inclusive and respectful of that community.
“There’s often conflations of the colour of one’s skin to the sound of one’s music,” she says. “It’s easy to say that someone who’s Filipino, or Filipinx, plays Filipinx music. I don’t displace that affiliation – because I am Filipinx, and what I produce is from my embodied experience – but sometimes I think that that association can be lazy. And, I’m not from the Philippines, so being second-generation can have a disorienting impact on [my] relationship to a geography that I don’t particularly know.” Mecija incorporates what she calls the “messiness” by surrendering the need for neat, easy conclusions about self and society.
“The songs [don’t] arrive at any concrete conclusions about who I am and where I’m from, [or] who I desire,” she says. “My lyrics are in process, they’re in search of something that I know I’ll never find an answer to, which is much like my quest for what my cultural identity means here in Canada. I don’t deal with issues of gender, sexuality, culture, in ways that are too explicit, either. For me, those are nuanced conversations, nuanced experiences.” ________________
For Vancouver-based, multi-disciplinary, gender-fluid singer-emcee Kimmortal, making music that explores identity, dismantles colonialism, and transforms society is a bold mission. And lyricism is their tool. Starting as a dancer, Kimmortal grew to revere hip-hop culture, one founded in resistance and hard-earned self-love.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Surrey, where all the white kids around me listened to Christian rock,” they say. “I saw hip-hop and rap – Black music – as the antithesis to this. I found my style and self in hip-hop. I also learned about my Filipinx community through the lens of rappers like Blue Scholars, Bambu, Rocky Rivera, and Kiwi Illafonte.”
Rap’s insistence on, and even veneration of, authenticity also felt right to them. Their candid, vulnerable music brings an intimacy to hip-hop that’s reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. In 2019, their stellar release X Marks the Swirl showcased a voice impossible to ignore.
“You can tell a wack rapper apart from an awesome possum through [your] honesty, owning who you are, and how you hold your self and story,” they say. “I focus on whatever I’m going through at the time – reflections on my community, on radical love with self and others, [on] doubt and anxieties, as well as the magic and possibilities.” Most importantly, their music is a space for those who’ve long been oppressed. “I speak to the queer and Filipinx and POC community, which is the same community that speaks to me,” they say.
When asked if having the prefix “Filipinx” preceding discussions about their music is inhibiting, the answer is a resounding no. “It’s important to note, because I am who I am: queer, Filipinx, “Canadian” on unceded Indigenous [Coast Salish] land. More Filipinx artists [are] speaking about our diverse experiences, and further complexifying the single narrative. We’re not just [going to] be homogenized as Asian – we have a distinct history.”
And it is these distinct voices that all three artists want championed, while also being cautious about the “new voices” trope. “It’s important to question the rhetoric of ‘emergence,’” says Mecija, who cites an industry that, to this day, prominently focuses on white, hetero-normative artists. “People have been creating music in this city and Canada for a long time – Maylee Todd, Phèdre. There all of these artists that understand themselves as being Filipinx.”
Kimmortal agrees, and finds it heartening that many are looking to each other, not the purported “mainstream” for appreciation.
“Recognition is fleeting,” they say. “Filipinx in the diaspora are tuning into each other through the internet, and our ancient wisdom. De-colonization is something many POC communities are coming to. Many of us are on land that is not our ancestors’. We begin to question our own cultures – like, who the fuck is King Philip, anyways? And what [does] it mean to be Filipino outside of our colonial history?”
Photo by Charline Clavier
Simon Kearney: Hold On, I’m Coming!
Story by Catherine Genest | September 25, 2019
Four years after La vie en mauve, singer-songwriter Simon Kearney goes tabula rasa, broadens his musical horizons, and embraces pop ’n’ roll. Say what? He’ll explain everything…
We first became acquainted with him as more of a rocker, slinging his six strings expertly through complex, virtuoso solos. “Now, it’s the instrument I like the least,” he says. “All the songs on Maison ouverte started with a bass line. I’d start with a drum loop and then come up with a bass riff. I tried using the guitar last, because I couldn’t help falling back into old habits with it, since I’ve always composed that way up to now. Whether I like it or not, I had old patterns. I really wanted to break them… I also wanted to do simpler stuff. If I played you the riff for “Hey Man,” you’d think it makes no sense!”
Stepping out of his comfort zone was Kearney’ leitmotif right from the inception, and all through this creative cycle. On this second album, which he himself considers to be his first, Kearney even raps during bridges (“Bad Girl Mama,” “Mes pants”) and forays into funk. It comes as no surprise, then, that his guitar playing is more reminiscent of Prince than Fred Fortin. His creative stance has completely changed.
“When I look at rap in the United States, I think we’re on more of a glam trajectory,” says Kearney. “It’s all about grillz, purple drinks, and showing off. We don’t have that here in Québec. We like being more solemn and minimalist in our musical approach, because of folk music and all that. I think we’re starting to lean towards glam a little more, and I wanted to exploit that on Maison ouverte. That’s also why I had a bit of a hard time writing lyrics, because I only listened to Anglo music.”
Almost paradoxically, his lyrics ended up being as Québécois as it gets, grammatically and thematically. Take for example “Câline,” where he sings with a powerful head voice we’ve never heard before. Or “Mes pants,” a song which – under the guise of being corny, yet subtle – delivers a vibrant message to his peers.
“I’ve noticed I always try to have different ways of reading the lyrics when I write them,” he says. “People can then choose for themselves what they take away from it, a bit like Richard Desjardins. If you don’t pay close attention, you might think it’s a Kaïn song, but if you pay close attention, you might notice what he’s saying is really big… The chorus in “Mes pants” is silly and simple, but it’s about being in control, and being oneself, and it’s really about the people of Québec. It’s like when I say, ‘It’s not always pretty when I speak my language,’ I’m addressing our weird inferiority complex…”
For the wheat to grow
Kearney’s career began precociously, and now has two very distinct but very complementary phases. On the one hand, there are his own concerts as a headliner and frontman. On the other hand? All the gigs he books as a session musician. On tour with Jérôme 50 and Pascal Picard, and he also played guitar on a few tracks of Hubert Lenoir’s Darlène. He uses teamwork and sharing as fuel, and feeds his ideas to others without keeping score Quite the contrary. “[That duality] is fine with me, because they’re projects in which I get really involved, personally,” says Kearney. “It’s like with Jérôme, it was implicit that if I was going to play guitar for him, I wouldn’t be held back to play strictly and exactly what he asked… In the end, I’m composing the guitar riffs with him. It’s my guitar style, and I think if he chose someone else, his project would be different.”
Such a double life allows Kearney to diversify his revenue streams. As a matter of fact, the songwriter in him is brutally honest about the financial pitfalls of his trade in songs like “Pop ’n’ roll” and “Mon chien est mort” (literally, “my dog is dead,” but also a Québécois colloquialism meaning “all hope is lost”). He sings about losing talent contests, and dreams that, at the end of the day, don’t pay his rent.
“Copyrights help a lot, but I didn’t want to make any compromises when it comes to my music,” he says. “I call it pop ’n’ roll and I fully assume there’s a pop element to it, I really don’t mind. Whether you like it or not, adding a touch of pop music makes the radio a lot more interested. I manage to make a few bucks with that.”