We’re pleased to continue our Upstarts series, featuring profiles of very young SOCAN members making a name for themselves with their music.

Jay JayBy the mere fact of growing up in the Appartements St-Pie X complex, Jay Jay already had one foot in Québec’s hip-hop culture. Previously known as Tours Bardy, the iconic apartment towers of Québec City’s Limoilou neighbourhood have been the epicentre of the city’s rap movement for three decades.

At 12 – having just graduated from elementary school a month ago – Jay Jay is the latest up-and-comer of one of the province’s seminal rap neighbourhoods, one which has already given us Shoddy, Webster, Souldia, Les Sozi, and many more. Bloc 2000, his debut EP, is geographically anchored in Limoilou-land, its title referring to 2000, rue Désilets, the address of one of those two emblematic housing project towers, where a plethora of cultures co-habitate in a vibrant, warm, yet sometime impetuous, climate.

Retourne chez toi / Juste au cas où / Y’a des bagarres de partout, cours / On pourrait dire des loups-garous” (Go home / Just in case / There’s fighting everywhere, run / They’re like werewolves), raps the young artist, of Congolese origin, on the hard-hitting “Feu rouge” (“Red Light”). The title refers to the flashing police-car lights that he saw illuminating the window panes of Bloc 2000, early on in his life.

“Limoilou is like a big family,” says Jay Jay, who we reach on the phone alongside Sami, his manager, who occasionally jumps in on the conversation to direct his young recruit’s train of thought. “But if you’re a newcomer, it can be scary. It’s a neighbourhood with lots of crooks… but if you were born here, you grew up with them.”

“I think what we can take away from it, is that Limoilou is like a family,” Sami adds, with a smile in his voice.

And if there’s one thing we all know, it’s family that matters most. The adage of Alaclair Ensemble, a band that has some of its many roots in the neighbourhood, embodies what comes out of Bloc 2000, an EP marked by Jay Jay’s love for his mother, his crew, and his friends.

One of them is Izo, a young teenager from the block who made him want to pick up rapping about a year ago. “I could tell he was really good,” says Jay Jay of the man he cites as a major influence, alongside big names like Koba LaD, Souldia, and 50 Cent. “We started rapping together about a year ago. He’s the one who introduced me to Sami.”

Sami quickly picked up on the talent of the two youngsters. “I invited them over to my humble studio,” he says. “A friend had stored his equipment in my bedroom. The result was ‘Recompter,’” says the young manager, who also grew up in Appartement St-Pie X.

The video for the first song by Jay Jay and Izo quickly reached 10,000 views on YouTube. The success was promising, but sadly “Izo’s mom deleted the video,” Sami says. “I got in touch with Jay to do a solo track. And this time, I took him to a real studio. We recorded Bloc 2000 with a different beat from the one you hear on the album.”

Sami then had the stroke of genius to send the song to a friend of his cousins: Souldia. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, the rapper immediately took Jay Jay under his wing. “I struggled to keep my emotions inside,” says the 12-year-old rappe,. who sees Souldia as a role model. “He said that from that point on, the one goal was to make a full album in a real studio. It was totally professional!”

Released by Disques 7 ième Ciel and Altitude Records – Souldia’s brand new record label – the mini-album was recorded in Montréal at the studio of Christophe Martin, Souldia’s loyal producer and sound engineer. The song “Malewa” – the EP’s first single, launched in March 2021, praising the virtues of his mom’s restaurant – established the basis of Jay Jay’s style: fiery trap, led by rather dark music, that contrast with radiant and candid lyrics, that are nonetheless rather mature and conscious for his age.

La drogue, nah, ne prends pas de tout ça / Ils croient que je dors, mais nah, je ne connais pas le cousin / Tu sais où que j’ai poussé, la jeunesse est dégoûtée / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, dis-moi est-ce que tu sais où c’est (Drugs, nah, don’t touch any of that / They think I’m asleep, but nah, I don’t know any pillow / You know, where I grew up, the young’uns are disgusted / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, tell me, do you know where that is), he raps with a precise and exhilarated flow that’s perfectly aligned with current trends.

Elsewhere, as on “Jeanine” – a touching homage to his mother – Jay Jay shows he’s also capable of being sensitive and emotional. “J’espère que ma musique pourra te faire vibrer / Maman je pars faire du rap / J’ai un combat à livrer” (I hope my music can move you / Mommy, I’m leaving to make rap music / I have a battle to fight), he confides.

“I wanted to thank my mom for the career she gave me. I adore my mother,” says Jay Jay. “I thought she’d put a stop [to my ambitions of making music]. It could’ve ruined all my dreams.”

That same song also leaves its mark because of its heart-wrenching chorus. “Papa où es-tu ?” (“Where are you, Dad?”), he repeatedly asks, in a way that is reminiscent of Stromae’s international hit. When we touch upon that question, Jay Jay becomes unequivocal: “I can’t even say he’s my dad… He never took care of me!”

Then again, why rely on a deadbeat dad when you have a whole neighbourhood behind you?

In the future, most of us will likely shudder at memories of the dark days of 2020 and 2021, but probably not Jenna Andrews. The Toronto-based multi-hyphenate (singer, songwriter, vocal producer, music publisher) is currently enjoying a stellar moment. As of July 19, 2021, she has writing credits on the U.S. No. 1 song (“Butter” by BTS) and the U.K. No. 6 song (“Heartbreak Anthem” by David Guetta, Little Mix, and Galantis). She also co-wrote the B-side for “Butter,” “Permission to Dance,” and both songs were performed to ecstatic reviews the week before on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Andrews spent the week flying between Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, so her recollection of the pandemic will be substantially different from yours and ours.

She caught the attention of the BTS’s label Big Hit, with “Supalonely,” a song she’d co-written for the New Zealand singer Benee. They contacted her to work with their other act, TXT, which led to a strong relationship with the BTS team. On the phone from New York during her hectic pan-American travels, Andrews explained that, “in that time period, Ron Perry [Chairman and CEO of Columbia Records] was working on their first [sung-in-]English single, ‘Dynamite,’ and, in the eleventh hour, Ron asked if I’d be down to work on vocal production. Of course I was thrilled, especially during the pandemic.”

Andrews instinctively fell into the role. “I grew up singing in church,” she says, “so I love harmony and all that stuff, which really works out when it’s a band, whether it’s a boy-band or a girl-band. So, basically, I wrote all the harmonies and all the ‘ad lib’ parts that they sing. I would sing all the harmonies, and then I would send it to them, and they’d be, like, ‘Oh, we like these ones,’ or ‘We don’t like these ones.’ I would sing an ad lib and they’d send it back and I’d say, ‘Please try it this way.’”

Once inside the BTS tent, Andrews had the label’s ear, so she put on her publisher’s hat. In 2019 she and veteran U.S. music executive Barry Weiss signed a deal with Sony/ATV for their publishing venture, Twentyseven Music. The company had been sent a demo (written by Stephen Kirk, Sebastian Garcia, and Robert Grimaldi) that Andrews thought was incredible. “The hook melody was amazing,” she says, “and I was immediately thinking, ‘This could be BTS’s next single.’ However, I didn’t think the lyric was very strong.” She played it for several people to no avail, but Ron Perry at Columbia “was on the same page as me.” They went to work with the others on Zoom.

Andrews recalls how, “Ron, one day, just said, ‘How about I try something like “Smooth Criminal,” by Michael Jackson?’ Immediately that made me think of, ‘Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover,’ and that was it. That’s when we came up with the concept and knew that we had something special.”

There are seven songwriters credited on “Butter,” and 14 on “Heartbreak Anthem,” but Andrews doesn’t think that it’s peculiar to have so many people involved. “Nowadays, songwriting isn’t [necessarily] just as basic as everyone sitting around a campfire and writing a song,” she says. “Maybe it’s someone from New Zealand that comes up with an amazing drum loop that inspires a song, [then] I might come up with a melody, and send it to my friend who may come up with a great lyric. Then the artist comes in, and may want to change things – they love the song but maybe the lyrics aren’t right for their brand, so they end up writing. And that’s how it ends up becoming more and more writers, depending on the song. During the streaming era there can be, like, 20 writers on a song.”

Being a songwriter and a music publisher
Andrews appreciates the synchronicity of being a songwriter and a music publisher simultaneously. “Basically, everyone we’ve signed at Twentyseven are people I write with and have connections with because, obviously, we work together so well,” she says. “It just makes sense to be under the same umbrella.” She uses the evolution of “Heartbreak Anthem” as an example. “I was working with Lennon Stella, she’s Canadian as well, from the show Nashville… I was sent that song originally for Lennon and it wasn’t right for her, but I thought it would be perfect for Little Mix, who were also signed to Twentyseven. They wanted a second verse, so I wrote the second verse with Little Mix. The song’s a big hit, so Twentyseven’s having a pretty cool moment right now.”

The first song Aqyila ever wrote was about her mom. The then 10-year-old performed the tender track at a school recital. “Of course, she was a huge fan – she had her phone out, recording me,” Aqyila tells us over videochat, smiling. “It was the first time I ever sang on a stage, too.”

Now, at 22, the Torontonian R&B artist born Taahira Aqyila Duff has been heard more than six million times on Spotify, and garnered 14 million views with three million likes on TikTok, over on the strength of her track “Vibe for Me (Bob for Me).” She posted it to her TikTok page, which went viral after Lizzo shared it.

As Aqyila tells it, she posted the song back in November of 2020, then went on with her life – as she would after posting any of her TikToks – but then the notifications started accumulating on her phone. She was stunned, but even more so when Lizzo came through to post “love you” on her page. Since then, some famous fans of the track have included ‘90s icons Monica and Brandy, TikTok star Charli D’Amelio, and Bebe Rexha – who appeared in Aqyila’s DMs with praise, and now follows her.

Aqyila tells us the story of her virality after a writing session where she’s working on a fresh batch of songs. She recently signed to Sony Music Canada. When Aqyila started her TikTok page at the outset of the pandemic, it was for fun, she says, a place to be creative and test out the tracks she whipped up in GarageBand. It’s clear that the major-label signing is the most impactful part of this dizzying journey. She says this is the first time she’s used professional studio microphones, and, as someone who wrote solo for a while, she’s enjoying working with collaborators who understand her vision.

Aqyila was raised on R&B: she cites Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and Fantasia as key influences in shaping her musical palette. Gospel, too, informs her artistic path: singers like Fred Hammond, Donnie McClurkin, and the duo Mary Mary. All performers who invoke vivid emotional depth, something important to Aqyila as a songwriter.

“I write out my emotions”

“I write out my emotions,” she says. “Whenever I’m thinking, or going through something or other, maybe [something] a little bit more difficult… I would just write it up and sing about it. And, usually, I feel like a weight’s lifted off my shoulders.

So much of Aqyila’s brief musical offerings are characterized as “feel-good,” something she herself seems to wholly emit: Aqyila is kind, tender, wise, and generous in her time and her work. “Vibe For Me,” she says, is a song that glows, or allows the people listening to it to glow.

“I want people to know that no matter what you look like, where you’re from, you are an amazing person,” she says. “That it instills and reminds people, OK, regardless of what standards may be out there in society today, when I look at that mirror, I’m still going to feel like I am that girl, that I am awesome.”

Even though Aqyila’s a decade-plus removed from that first song she wrote, the thread through it all is her desire to empower the listener, making people feel good, seen, or heard with her music. This hearkens back to her influences, and what she values as a performer: deep emotional expression. She alludes to a love song she was working on, just before our call, as something she’s so wildly proud of, a “pretty little track,” as she calls it.

And while she’s still using TikTok, still connecting with new and old fans, Aqyila doesn’t feel the need to keep her momentum if it’s inauthentic. “I don’t want to ever put that pressure on myself to be like, ‘Okay, I have to do something that’s going to go viral.’”

It truly seems like that won’t ever have to be the case.