Straddling rap and slam poetry, and strongly influenced as a child and teenager by his native Benin’s rhythms, Le R has just released his first full-length album, Cœur de pion (A Pawn’s Heart), a poetic and evocative hip-hop album crafted by a world traveller with a big heart and an intellect to match.
“As a child,” Le R recalls, “I listened to a lot of classical and instrumental music on radio because of my parents, and also to the French variety programmes my mother was fond of. Then, as a teenager, I discovered rap. The French group IAM was all the rage in Benin at the time. Some of my friends were getting albums from relatives, and we would pass them around between us. I didn’t know enough English yet to be able to understand Anglophone rappers.”
“I’m not here to offend, but to speak out. Earth is my village.”
Le R’s passion for music developed organically: “In Africa, music is part of the fabric of life” he says. “People catch street rhythms by osmosis. For me, it was just a matter of natural immersion. On my mother’s side, all my uncles played a musical instrument – the guitar, for one, which I learned from them – or sang in a choir. I started studying theory with a cousin at the age of 12 or 13, although I was not necessarily planning on a music career back then.”
As a youth, Christian Djohossou (as Le R was then known) would write down the lyrics of the songs he liked and learn them from cassettes. “I was not being influenced by African artists at the time,” he says. “I was looking for something else. Older people were proud of our homegrown talent, artists like Angélique Kidjo, for instance, but I was more attracted to rap. That’s how I discovered the Francophone collective Bisso Na Bisso from Congo, whose album I played constantly.”
In spite of his attraction to music, Djohossou was preparing for a “serious” profession. “My parents were providing me with a traditional education, and I would never have dared to tell them I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “They would have accepted that, but they could see that life wasn’t easy for a musician. When I moved to Canada, I chose Ottawa because I thought I could pick up some English there while using French in my everyday life. I was coming here to learn computer engineering, but as soon as I arrived some 12 years ago, I got myself some music production instruments. It took me a long time to mature as an artist, remaining an amateur for a good 10 years before being able to make a living with my music. All self-employed people fight that same battle all the time!”
For his self-produced album, Le R surrounded himself with a team of exceptional musicians, including Sonny Black for the mix (and as a producer on two songs). “I met Sonny when I was working with Yao, who is in my circle of friends,” says Le R, “and we hit it off. He did an outstanding job mixing the album. He knew instinctively what I was trying to express.” There was also Samian, who co-wrote “Immortels” and sings it with Le R on the album. “I met him in 2013 when I opened for him,” he says, “and I had a lot of respect for him. So I told him about my recording project, and provided him with a soundtrack and a topic. It was a no-strings-attached joint effort based on connection and collaboration. The subject was personal and introspective. I was lucky to have him onboard.” As for the young Sudbury artist Patrick Wright, Le R met him in 2012. “We jammed together, and I loved his songs,” he says. “We kept in touch, and I invited to play a song at one of my shows, and it went well. So I asked him to contribute to the music of one of my songs [“Irréversible”].”
Yao and Djely Tapa also joined the team, but, for everything else, Le R wrote both the music and the lyrics. “I also produced the words and the music, and when they blend correctly, the result is cogent and flawless,” he says.
Now a force to be reckoned with on the world music scene, Le R took part in a variety of events this past summer. “I took my album everywhere – Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, Festival Franco-Ontarien, Word Pride, Franco-Fête de Toronto, you name it,” he says. “This fall, I’ll be travelling as part of preparing for my next album. It will be a period of creation and introspection. The chances are that my next album will be called Détours, and I already have a few songs in the bank. I’m not rushing anything because Cœur de pion still has a long way to go.”
Le R wisely warns against the potential pitfalls of songwriting. “You’ve got to resist falling into the trap of becoming disconnected from yourself,” he explains. “To be creative, you have to be connected to your inner being at all times. You’ve got to be in touch with your own creativity and follow the momentum.” As for creative inspiration, the artist says, “I take some distance from my political side because I’m a pacifist. I connect with the poetic aspect of things, as I do in ‘La cité des 333 Saints,’ where I talk about the golden age of Timbuktu. It’s a hopeful song, because if there was a golden age at one time, there can be another. I always believe that things will come full circle. I stay positive. I don’t point fingers. I blame nobody for the ills of the world. Without being too much peace-and-love, I disagree with the culture of confrontation. I’m in music to carry a message of peace. I’m not here to offend, but to speak out. Earth is my village.”