In late 2022, Canada’s Queen of R&B Jully Black released her first album in 13 years, Three Rocks and a Slingshot; dance-pop artist Shawn Desman released his first solo single in about a decade,  “Maniac”; and R&B singer Glenn Lewis expects to release several singles this year, and an album by the end of it.

Somewhere along the line, as the clocked ticked and days turned, since releasing their debut albums  — Black’s This Is Me in 2005; Desman’s self-titled album in 2002; and Lewis’ World Outside My Window the same year — these rising stars became seasoned veterans, with all the respect, esteem, and influence that come with it.

Last summer, Drake was one of those people acknowledging their contributions, inviting all three to perform on his first-of-its-kind “All Canadian North Stars” OVO Fest show to celebrate and thank the hip-hop and R&B acts who “paved the way for all of us,” as the global superstar wrote on his Instagram.

It was good to see these Canadian legends getting flowers from one of the biggest artists in the world. But as Drake, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Jessie Reyez, and others took over the charts in the past decade, Black, Lewis, and Desman have been busy with other creative endeavours – and sometimes simply handling responsibilities that come with getting older.

Jully Black, Half Empty, Video

Click on the image to play the video of Jully Black’s “Half Empty”

“There was no, ‘I stopped [releasing music] because of this,’” says Black. “Yeah, my mom was sick, I was taking care of her, but that’s not the reason why. You have to live a life to tell a story and, for me, it’s really about the path of least resistance.

“I have a friend that went back for her Masters [degree] and decided to have a career change, and no one’s saying, ‘Why are you doing something else?’” she says. “It seems that everyday people, not in the music business, are allowed to change directions or change careers; it’s not ‘You’ve taken a break’ or ‘You’re making a comeback.’

“We’re these anomalies, or these mutants, with this talent, that the business expects to continue to pump out music like we’re machines. If I don’t feel like singing for the rest of my life, that’s my business.”

Of course, Black has been constantly singing; she just hadn’t pumped out music, as she says, though she’s been performing live onstage. She also starred in a major theatre production, Caroline, or Change; frequently hosts events and award shows; and runs a highly successful motivational 100 Strong and Sexy wellness program, and The Power of Step classes.

Making an album in her forties, the topics and tones she chose to write about showcased the strong, decisive woman we’ve witnessed in recent years, from the conviction in the lyrics to “Half Empty,” to the resilience of “No Relation,” and the I-can-take-it “Mi No Fraid.” The album title itself refers to David vs Goliath: fighting giants.

“There’s way more confidence in being able to speak to the subject matter without any shame or embarrassment – especially for myself being in this business since I was 14 years old,” says Black. “Some of the topics were really grown when I wasn’t grown yet. So now to speak about love loss, or being in love, or having sex, or whatever, I can talk about it, and be, like, ‘Yeah, I’m grown up, so it’s no big deal.’”

Glenn Lewis put out his last solo release in 2013, but in 2017 he collaborated with DJ Jazzy Jeff on his annual PLAYlist project, singing on the album Chasing Goosebumps, uniquely created in a week with three dozen contributors. In early 2022, his longtime friend and A&R executive, Kardinal Offishall, signed him to Universal Music Canada. He’ll release several singles this year, with an album expected by the Fall of 2023.

“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content” – Shawn Desman

Lewis says he’s never stopped writing songs, and even records them and puts them away. “Sometimes things will pick up, if I I’m concentrating on working on a project, like I am now,” he says. “But, mostly, in the past several years, I’ve just been doing the family thing.

“My only real outlet musically would be if there’s other artists that I admire, and I like their songwriting, or I like their songs, I’ll keep my chops up by singing along, or just trying to get a feel for how people conceptualize, and how they communicate through song now.  I was trying to stay up to speed on that.”

For his new project, Kardi – who recently accepted a global A&R role at Def Jam – has taken the position of consultant for Lewis. Now in his late forties, Lewis says his perspective on many usual subjects has matured.

“I’m still wanting to speak about things that we might think about, but don’t always come up in conversation – whether it’s things that are happening in the world and how they make us feel, and, in particular, romantic situations,” says Lewis.

“I might not say all of it in one song, but my experiences have brought me to the understanding that a lot of love has to do with how I love, even how I love myself – the kinds of things that you look out for, and begin to understand, with regards to the give-and-take of relationships, and the delicate balance of what that dynamic can be.”

Shawn Desman, who’s signed a new publishing deal with CSS Rights Management, and new record deal with Wax Records, admits that in 2015, after he parted ways with a record label, “I kind of hated the music business, if I’m being completely honest. And on top of it, my wife became really sick, and I had to step away and just be a committed father and husband.” He was still running the annual nationwide dance competition Move – now in its 15th year – but he hadn’t released new music since his 2013 album, Alive.

“Then, just before the pandemic, my best friend [singer and professional songwriter in Nashville] Tebey calls me, and he’s, like, ‘Hey, I have this idea about doing the project, me and you, and we called it RadioClub. We’re gonna write, produce the music. We’re not necessarily gonna be the voices on the music, we’ll get features, and we’re just gonna put it out,’” says Desman.

Shawn Desman, Maniac, Video

Click on the image to play the video of Shawn Desman’s “Maniac”

“Now, looking back, I know exactly what Tebey was doing. He was just trying to get the bug of music back in my life, ‘cause he knew that there was this huge void. I wasn’t happy. There was just something missing. So the first thing we do is this house/dance remix of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley, independently. We’re sitting on 25 million streams [of the song] right now.”

Desman says it did re-ignite his love of music. That, coupled with Drake telling him at the North Stars show that he needs to make music again, brought Desman back. He’s in the studio almost every day, and has a few new songs on the go, including one called “1985,” which he calls a “feel-good, nostalgic-type record.” He’s been working a lot with Wax owner Jamie Appleby, artist Alyssa Reid, and songwriter/producer Ryan Stewart.

“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content, because I do want it to resonate with where I am in my life, and not feel forced,” says Desman. “Let’s not try and be cool just for the sake of being cool. I’m not that 20-to-25-year-old guy, hanging out with the boys in the club. That’s just not my life right now. I’m seriously adulting. I got three kids at home.

“Anytime I get into a [writing] session with people, I’m, like, ‘Guys, I’m not talking about X, Y, Z,’ but then on the same coin, I think the reason why people continue to love Shawn Desman music is because it makes them feel a certain way. It makes them feel good. It’s happy. It’s positive. So I’m trying to stay more there, but what would I say in 2022, ‘23?

“I just want to make sure it resonates with me, and also with my audience – because my audience is not 15-year-olds. Although it’s funny, because I have a son who just started high school, and I was asking if his friends have heard my new song. What do they think? And he’s, like, ‘Dad, they actually love your new song.’  It’s really cool to see my kids finally being the age where they can see, and kind of realize, ‘Oh, my dad was – and maybe still is – a pretty big deal.’”

Meeting Charlie Kunce-Belhadj and Emma Cochrane, one immediately notices the nascent passion and youthful ardour that fuel their desire to kock on every door – and break it down, if necessary. Their musical project, Mayfly, grew slowly over time, and is rooted in a friendship that allows them to become the best possible version of themselves.

Mayfly“We met in the Creative Art program at Champlain College in Sherbrooke, and we both already knew that we wanted to pursue our passion for music, no matter what,” says Kunce-Belhadj. Their motivation was completely free of doubt. Their HIDEAWAY Vol. 1 EP, which was released in January of 2023, is the first half of a two-tiered whole, and the first step toward their shared dream.

Rarely sitting at the same table to create, the duo generally proceed with Kunce-Belhadj’s music and Cochrane’s lyrics – although sometimes the former will create a fully formed song based on three chords proposed by the latter, and vice-versa for the lyrics. “We know each other so well that we can write about the other’s wounds without asking questions,” Cochrane confides. “We’ve been together 24/7 since we were 19 years old.”

At that age, the two young women chose to live in the city to make things happen. “For us, it was Montréal or nothing,” says Cochrane. “We knew that was where we’d be able to learn by doing.” And rather than pursuing musical studies, or some similar form of training, they chose to go all-in with networking. “We didn’t know anyone, but we knew that contacts are at the very heart of this trade,” Cochrane explains. “So, we’d put everything we did online. We are fully self-taught, from marketing, to aesthetics, to building our social networks. That’s what allowed us to meet people.”

Artistically, the modus operandi has always been carte blanche, and an irrepressible desire to forge ahead. “When we moved to Montréal, we spent our entire savings on buying equipment, and building a studio in our apartment,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “Our good friend Jules [Bonneville-Coulombe] was a trigger. We did our first shows with him, as well as a few performances in cafés to build our confidence.” Then came Les Francouvertes in 2021, which paved the way for things to come; even though Mayfly didn’t move on in the contest itself, that’s where their record label discovered them. Duprince Records has been grooming the duo for almost two years. “The things that have happened to us since have been exponential,” adds Kunce-Belhadj.

Mayfly, Ma Peau Brûle

Click on the image to play the Mayfly song “Ma Peau Brûle.”

Although the songs they presented during Francouvertes had to be in French, they undoubtedly feel more comfortable singing in English because it “allows us to go further.” “We weren’t at all confident in our Franco catalogue when we got to the Francouvertes,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “We feel like we’re playing a character when we write in French.” “French is our native language,” says Cochrane. “It’s going to be obvious on volume two of HIDEAWAY. A sentence in French is always more personal, and that can be intimidating. We can be more open in English.”

Alongside Adrian Villagomez, they developed their visuals and music videos that are true to themselves. “We admired him, so we used the 2020 method and DM’d him,” the women say with a giggle. They’re satisfied with everything that’s come out of that collaboration, which allowed them to create a visual universe true to what they had imagined. “Our music is our bubble, it’s a safe space. We want our album to come across as a statement, a dark but danceable moment, that’s both wistful and hypnotic,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “It’s a bit like the album as a whole [volumes one and two] was an avowal: you have emotions to live through, and it’s OK to feel them.”

Kunce-Belhadj admits that Mayfly’s music was “embryonic and unclear” when they enlisted for Francouvertes. “During the pandemic we found the intention of our project,” she says. “We wanted to make sure our label felt they made a good choice when they picked us. We worked really hard to fine-tune our sound.”

Mayfly, Black Water

Click on the image to play the video for Mayfly’s “Black Water.”

They found that finesse at Homy Studio. “We needed backup and better material,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “We knew Hologramme. We told them, ‘Here’s our project and its essence.’ We spent two months in the studio with them, and everything we’d done up to that point was the same but sounded better. Analog sounds, layers, textures… Everything was prettier. Working on a project with six heads instead of two was a challenge, but the result is exactly what we wanted.”

Whereas Volume 1 was an introduction, Volume 2 will be the “A-ha!” moment when the emotions and desires have been recognized, and everything left to be expressed will be said out loud. “Volume 2 will be the cherry on top,” Kunce-Belhadj. “It has a bit of everything: big Franco pop, American rap. We express our feelings, ranging from hate, to joy, to fatigue. 2023 is the year of letting go.”

Now firmly entrenched as a tradition, here are this year’s Québec rap artists who’ll surely reach a greater audience in the coming 12 months.



Click on the image to play the Guessmi video “Ring 3X”

“If it becomes work, I’m not down for it,” says Guessmi over the phone. On its own, this sentence says a lot about the artistic journey of the rapper, born in Laval – one of the province’s hotbeds of hip-hop talent for the past few years.

That’s because nothing seems to require Guessmi to expend any kind of effort. It was in late 2019 that the rapper, of Tunisian descent, followed a friend in a studio and went into the booth “just for fun.” She rapidly developed a taste for it. “Before that, I freestyled in chillings. I’d written texts, but I’d never read them out loud,” says the young woman who first became known on Instagram when she published 30-second excerpts from her first studio sessions.

Shortly after, Lebza Khey – a key player on Laval’s rap scene, and founder of the Seiha Studios indie label – heard about the talented young Guessmi and reached out to her on Instagram. “When I hooked up with Lebza and his entourage – Cupidon and Boutot, most notably – I felt like we had a common passion a common goal. We could all go places together. I don’t believe you can go places on your own,” she says, de facto distancing herself from one of the most tenacious myths of American rap: the self-made man/woman myth. “What’s truly important [to succeed], is to charge ahead… and have a solid team.”

Released in March of 2022, Guessmi’s first single, “Rafales,” is a perfect example of her ikewide range of influences – which include French rap legends l Booba and La Fouine as much as stalwarts of American rap of the 2000s and 2010s, like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj. With her debut EP 45 degrés – a collaboration with now-inseparable Lebza Khey – the 23-year-old rapper reveals an entirely new side of her musical palette, where she lays her harmonious flow over melodically sombre dancehall and Afro-trap rhythms. “My only technique in the studio is to not over-think things. I never want to force my state of mind. I just go with the flow,” she says.,

In 2023, Guessmi will release excerpts from her studio sessions on her socials. “Each session will correspond to a song, and we’ll let the people decide if we release the song or not,” she explains. “Except they won’t really have a choice: they’ll love them for sure!”

Sloan Lucas

Sloan Lucas, My Bad

Click on the image to play the Sloan Lucas video “My Bad”

Sloan Lucas is a latecomer to rap, having started in her late twenties. “Rap happened at a time where I needed deeper roots,” says the young woman, who was born in Québec’s Eastern Townships, but has lived in Montréal for over a decade.

Her roots previously grew in extreme left-wing activist circles, and in theatrical creation. Splitting her time between Québec and France, Lucas was involved in projects of collective – mostly militant – living arts for a decade. But ultimately, she found collective creations cumbersome. “Collective modes can be exhausting,” she says. “They’re stimulating, but co-ordinating schedules, rehearsals, and political beliefs can be exhausting. I needed to find myself in a more solitary approach.”

To give her artistic process a new impetus, Lucas started writing lyrics, in 2018. Greatly inspired by France’s new wave of rap around 2010, spearheaded by acts like L’entourage and La 75e Session, the rapper used the pandemic to fine-tune her flow and prose. Released in 2020 and 2021 respectively, her first two EPs—Oh Shit OK and Oh Shit Sorry—masterfully reveal her potential, thanks to her smooth flow and biting lyrics. “I might be less militant than I used to be, but I still have that rage in me,” she says.

Although her rap sometimes falls into the standard trap trappings, Lucas keeps her left-field mentality alive, and remains a relative outsider to the local rap scene. “It’s not so much motivated by a desire to remain underground, as by a refusal to be mainstream or famous at all costs,” she says. “But if I can increase my visibility [while respecting my limits and priorities], I’ll do it.”

For 2023, Lucas wants to open her horizons to others, a process she’s begun, alongside Montréal-based producers Ramzi Blue (a.k.a. Bill Noir) and Nicky Savage, who collaborated on Oh Shit Sorry. “I want to start doing more collabs and features,” she says. “The period of isolation I needed to re-centre myself is done. Initially, I thought I could do everything on my own, but now I have a much better idea of what I’m able to do on my own.”


Izuku, Domino

Click on the image to play the Izuku video “Domino”

Even though he’s only 22, Izuku is already fully self-confident. “There’s no limit to what I can create,” proclaims the Montréal-based rapper. “I listen to all kinds of stuff. What motivates me is getting outside of my comfort zone.”

Izuku’s childhood and teens were defined by his love of words. The artist, with origins in both Martinique and Mali, first became interested in literature while attending a renowned French school in Montréal, before turning to music. After finely dissecting his favourite artists’ lyrics, he began rapping in 2018 alongside a friend. “We created a first sound together, and I played it to people in my entourage,” says Izuku. “It was well received, but I couldn’t get back in the studio! Nothing happened for four months. I didn’t want to be like everyone else… I needed to take a step back.”

His first two full projects – Hagra Vol. 1 and Izuku 2.0 – are the result of that step back. Izuku displays his raw talent through his organic, fluid way of combining singing and rapping. Far from completely leaving behind rap tropes, the winner of the 2020 edition of the rap competition Rentre dans le live isn’t afraid to let his vulnerability shine through his lyrics. “Music defines me,” he says. “I’m not someone who opens up to people in everyday life. I don’t talk about my life to others – I hate that. But through my music, people can discover who I am from another perspective.”

On Pour elle, his latest EP, released in November of 2022, Izuku ponders love and relationships with great lucidity. The creative process allowed him to better understand human nature, and, more specifically, the sometimes deceptive ways in which we present ourselves. “Whether it’s love, friendship or family, I’ve come to understand that we love people because we have a certain perspective on them,” he says. “We [create this idea of a person] based on what we like about them… but that’s not necessarily who that person is [deep down inside].”

Throughout 2023, Izuku will carry on his poetic and musical explorations with a series of singles, culminating with the release of his fourth project sometime before the Summer.


Chung, Cave Music

Click on the image to play the Chung video “Cave Music”

Chung sure attracts a lot of attention, thanks to her uncompromising flow and hard-hitting rhymes. “I’m the flavour. I’m bringing back the substance, the essence,” says the Lasalle rapper.

She’s doing it with the help of some of the most talented local beat-makers (Cotola, Mike Shabb, Nicholas Craven), who create powerful beats based on very raw sampling, often devoid of any additional rhythmic elements – squarely in the tradition of drum-free hip-hop. Chung’s lyrics express her ambitions as a rapper, as well as her unique artistry. “It’s death to the bimbo rap when Chung step in,” she says, condemning a style of rap that’s more superficial, based on the appearance of the rapper, rather than on what she has to say. “I want to represent the regular Black queens with love and aggression,” she says. “I’m bringing back militancy and a message to this shit!”

Without going as far as saying Chung does militant rap, she energetically embodies her authenticity on her first two projects, Chung Shui (2021) and See You, When I C U (2022). Those two releases are the climax of a decade of exploration, during which the rapper remained rather discreet. Inspired by Chun-Li, a character in the famous video game Street Fighter, her stage name reflects her no-holds-barred attitude and struggle-filled journey. “At first rapping was a form of passing time, freestyling with family and friends,” she says. “I loved flexing my pen and my word game. My oldest brother taught me as a young’un, and I ran with it. Now, here I am.”

Her first Instagram videos in 2019 even earned her a compliment from New York rap legend Havoc, one half of iconic duo Mobb Deep. Later on, figureheads of the recent resurgence of American East Coast rap, like Conway The Machine and Roc Marciano, got in touch after discovering her music. There are worse ways to start a career, to say the least…

Chung will release three new projects in 2023. “More upbeat music. More fly and sick talk,” she says, without any further details, “Art shouldn’t and can’t be explained, though. Just look and learn when the time comes.”

Joseph Sarenhes

Joseph Sarenhes, Stand Up

Click on the image to play the Joseph Sarenhes video “Stand Up”

Joseph Sarenhes developed his musical identity at a very young age. His Guinean dad and Huron-Wendat mother gave him “a very solid rhythmic base.” Raised amidst powwows and West African music, the Wendake (a reserve near Québec City) native was born “with a djembe in my hands.”

In high school, he followed his professional dancer father’s footsteps and enrolled in a program focused on classical and contemporary dance, while also being a member of hip-hop dance troupes. But at some point, dance was no longer enough. “I don’t want to denigrate that discipline [dance],” he says, “but it just was no longer enough for me. I needed [to express myself more], to get things off my chest. I harboured a lot of frustration… about Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and their history in Québec, and in the Americas. . . Changing disciplines came naturally to me.”

It’s with a mission of representing his plural identities, and denouncing the injustices around him, that Sarenhes approaches his music – an R&B-tinged rap that also integrates musical elements from the cultures that nurtured him. After timid beginnings at the end of his teens on home (and very confidential) recordings using GarageBand, the rapper, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist revealed himself on “The Burden,” a song he released during the winter of 2021.

Barely a few months later, he launched his first EP, Pride & Chains, created as part of the Échelon project – an initiative co-founded by rapper Webster to develop the careers of artists from the racialized and Indigenous communities of Québec City. That project was home to his anthem “Stand Up,” in which Sarenhes talks clearly about the socio-economic situation of North American Indigenous peoples. “I got a lot of feedback [from that song] and a lot of offers for shows,” he says. “I don’t consider myself to be on rap’s map yet, but that’s the song that got the ball rolling for people to notice me.”

Recruited to compose music for films and stage plays in Québec and the U.S., the 24-year-old artist couldn’t devote much time to his rapping career, and only managed to release two singles, “Staring at Me” and “Bruises.” “But trust, I’ll be back in full force in 2023. I feel much more confident in my art,” says the rapper, a big fan of Tory Lanez and J Cole. “I already have about a dozen shows booked in Québec City and Montréal next summer. I’m lucky, because I can earn a living from my art, even though I haven’t had a hit yet. That’s magic to me.”