Shotto Guapo suddenly gets very emotional. We’ve just asked who for whom his song “Rose is written. It’s a very vulnerable piano-voice ballad that closes Âme, the first part of his first solo album, Âme Nesia. Imagine Alexandra Streliski or Cœur de pirate as an accompanist to a grief-stricken rapper.

Shotto Guapo“Who am I talking to in ‘Rose’?” Guapo repeats, as if to allow a moment to compose himself. “I’m talking to my maternal grandmother. She’s the one who raised me when I lived in France. It’s thanks to her that I’m the arts now. I wasn’t that good a student when it came to regular subjects, but she saw my creative side and encouraged me. [Sigh] Our last goodbye was not a goodbye. I thought life would go on and I’d see her again, but that’s not how it happened.”

Born in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, in 2002 Guapo fled the violent conflicts that ravaged his country, to stay with his grandmother Rose in Normandy. Reggae, up until then, had always been his favourite genre. He was even, for a while, the singer in a reggae band before being thunderstruck by the powerful flow of Tupac Shakur, and shortly after, by the whole consciousness-raising rap movement in France.

Such is the rich baggage that Shotto Guapo brings to his first album: African instruments (such as the kora on “Cendres”) and sung verses, but also afro-trap rhythms and sometimes oppressive moods. Which is why the MC wanted to make this project a double-album (whatever that means in the era of streaming): eight sun-filled songs heavily influenced by reggae’s quest for universal love (Âme), followed by eight rougher tracks about his views on existence, and his hope to one day be free of all servitude (Nesia).

In 2010, faced with the limited possibilities of social mobility in France, Guapo decided to come to Montréal. In 2019, he reached the semi-finals of Francouvertes alongside his acolytes David Campana and Major, with whom he released an album, CE7TE LIFE, shortly thereafter. It would be the cornerstone of his return to music, which he’d temporarily left behind to pursue a diploma from the Trebas Institute, studies which now enable him to be in charge of the visual aspects of all his projects.

“Our struggle in this world is to do everything we can to reach a level of freedom that allows you to live your life however you want”

A dream life, in other words? “Je suis déjà condamné,” (“I’m already condemned”), whispers Shotto, 29, on “Condamné,” one of the more pessimistic songs on Âme Nesia. “It’s not pessimistic, it’s a revolutionary song,” says the man who won the Best Artist of the Diaspora during the most recent edition of the Abidjan Hip Hop Awards.

“When I say I’m condemned, I don’t mean myself, I mean the whole human race. We come into this world and we are thrown into capitalism. Capitalism decides your degree of freedom and what you can and can’t have. If you don’t have money, you can’t live how you’d like to, and when you can’t live your life how you’d like to, you have no freedom. Our struggle in this world is to do everything we can to reach a level of freedom that allows you to live your life however you want, regardless of the social inequalities we have to endure.”

It becomes clear that music, for Shotto Guapo, is a tool that will get him closer to freedom. And it also becomes clear that said freedom requires deep introspection into what he wishes to leave behind, and the message he wants to convey. Even lighter songs that celebrate the beauty of the female form on a dancefloor include a discourse on how he doesn’t want to feed objectification.

“I have a kid sister, I just cannot denigrate women in any way, it’s that simple,” he says. “It’s not my thing, in any case. I don’t need to paint women in a certain light to feel important… It’s crucial for me to say things with my music, because music is a powerful tool. I’m not in it for the fame. The influence I might have on future generations is very important to me. Even when I do funny trap, and I’m not trying to make people have deep thoughts, I still maintain a modicum of consciousness in my lyrics.”