“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?”

When Charmaine first started writing songs as a teenager, her goal was to use her natural talents to help her family get out of a rough patch. At the time, her dad had lost his job and the family was living in a motel. She signed up to perform at a talent show at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, where an A&R rep from Warner Music Canada was going to be present.

“I was underage, so my mom had to come with me, and I had to wait outside the venue until it was my turn,” says Charmaine. “Then I went inside, performed, and everything’s been kind of magic since.”

Born in Zimbabwe, Charmaine immigrated to North America as child, living in Chicago, Stevensville (Michigan), and Nashville, before eventually landing in Toronto. Although the city’s diverse population introduced Charmaine to new global sounds, it was the raw and energetic down-South rap music she grew up listening to in Nashville that had the biggest influence on her music. Her latest single “WOO!” is a feminist anthem filled with swagger and a relentless beat.

“We wanted a turn-up vibe, a song that women could listen to when they’re out with their friends, having a blast,” says Charmaine. “It’s about being really content with the woman that you are, and not allowing anyone who is not of value to penetrate your vibe.” Later this year, Charmaine will release her debut EP with Warner Music Canada.

More than just a lyrical theme, female empowerment drives her mission as an artist. “I feel like a lot of local female artists don’t get the recognition they deserve,” she says. “There’s a good amount of us who are super-talented and making amazing music, but it’s like we always have to compete against the men, and we get lost in the shadows. I’m just trying to bring light towards the female rap scene in the city, to show we can do it, too.”

Nothing on Québec’s music scene sounds like Higher, Malika Tirolien’s sophomore album. Alongside renowned NYC composer Michael League (of Grammy-winning jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy), the singer-songwriter lays the foundations of her “high soul,” an airy mix of soul, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

Malika Tyrolien “If by ‘clash’ you mean ‘a fresh sound that we rarely hear here,’ then you’re absolutely right. It’s exactly what we were aiming for,” says Tirolien when we point out the unique character of her project. “With ‘high soul,’ we wanted to create an original and unique sound that was ours.”

Despite its lack of roots in Québecois musical culture, this hybrid genre has deeply American sources, as evidenced by its similarity to the work of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Erykah Badu, and other artists who cross Black music with more ambient and psychedelic overtones.

In the studio, “high soul” is crafted with a great deal of precision. “We placed the microphones and instruments in a specific way,” says Tirolien, also a member of the band Bokanté, as is League, her New York accomplice. “Michael decided to use only three mics to record the drums, which yields a more ‘oval’ and enveloping sound. We also recorded everything at a frequency of 432 Hz, which gives a more natural sound than the 440 Hz typical of pop music. That frequency is supposed to bring us into a state of relaxation, and connection with nature. It’s quite an esoteric belief – you either believe in it or you don’t – but to me, it fit with the album concept.”

The second part of a four-elements-themed quartet of releases, Higher represents the air. Hence its ambient and spiritual themes, flowing logically from the more down-to-earth, rooted concept of Sur la voie ensoleillée, her first album.

This time around, the Guadeloupe-born singer-songwriter invites us on “a psychedelic trip from anger to forgiveness.” The first three songs are a clear warning that this will be an intensely emotional trip. “It’s a suite in three movements,” she says. “First, on ‘No Mercy, you have anger, fire, and the urge for revenge. It’s important to go through those feelings if you wish to let go of them, instead of repressing them. Then, once you’ve dealt with all that, you can think about changing. That’s ‘Change Your Life. Finally, on ‘Better,’ you’re in the realm of my life’s mantra: mindful thinking. I consciously choose my thoughts so that they remain positive. The idea is not to be toxically positive, but to remain in control of our thoughts when things aren’t going so well.”

And although Higher is an “aerial” album, Tirolien still tackles very real, earth-bound topics. “Prière” re-visits a poem written by her grandfather, Guy Tirolien, challenging head-on the the falsified (and very white) history that’s been perpetuated for centuries in America. “It’s one of the direst consequences of colonization,” she says. “It should be a matter of fact for Black people to learn and know where we’re from. We must be proud of our history,” says the adoptive Montréaler.

Elsewhere, on “Sisters,” she advocates for greater solidarity between women. “Women have competed against each other for a very long time,” says Tirolien. “Reading anthropological writings that dealt with the subject, I understood that it dated back to the time when we had to try to please men, and compete to be protected by the strongest man. It’s in our cultural DNA, but we don’t need it anymore! I’m happy to see that, lately, there’s slightly more unity among women, especially thanks to the mobilization behind the #metoo movement. It’s important to stick together, ’cause we still have a lot of challenges to face.”

Malika TyrolienThe creation of the 11 songs on Higher required a full three years. In their New York studio, Tirolien and League fine-tuned and arranged their musical direction for two of those three years. It was a long-haul endeavour that allowed the artist to learn a lot about herself. “I tend to be a perfectionist and to focus too much on the result rather than the process,” says Tirolien. “I sometimes have a hard time enjoying the present. Thankfully, Michael is there to pull me in the opposite direction.”

Nearly a decade after meeting in a Montréal venue, where she was opening for his band Snarky Puppy, Tirolien says she’s especially happy to have found in Michael League a musician who complements her so well and makes her evolve so much.

Last year, a Grammy nomination for Bokanté (for Best World Album) reminded Tirolien of the importance of going international rather, than limiting themselves to the Québec market. “A lot of change has to happen in Québec for R&B/soul music to be truly accepted,” she says. “Just trying to find a label for myself here showed me how much work remains to be done. I was told, word for word, that my music would never work,” she laments, noting that there’s still no Québec musical gala that rewards her musical genre. “So, while we wait for things to change, I still want to produce myself. I have no choice but to aim higher.”