Despite its constant mutation, Québec’s hip-hop scene is still a male-dominated affair. Systematically relegated to the background, female rappers are still hopeful that things will change, and that the industry will lend them a strong hand in the near future.

“The time for female rappers to get more exposure is long overdue,” wrote journalist Yasmine Seck in VICE Québec back in January 2018. “Have women been left behind during Québec’s Golden Age of rap?” wrote La Presse journalist Stéphanie Vallet in an exhaustive special report that instantly turned into a hot-button issue on social networks.

For Frannie Holder of rap trio Random Recipe, this sudden media frenzy around women’s place on the local rap scene can only be beneficial. “We need to talk about it constantly,” she says. “If you ever hear people saying they’re fed up hearing about this, tell them that we’re even more fed up of having to endure this situation.”

Rapper Sarahmée has recently launched her second album, Irréversible, and she wants the current debate to turn into concrete action. “All has been said in the media, now is the time for bookers to show us what they’ve got,” she says. “Things are moving very slowly, so far… It’s always the same headliners at festivals. When I look at what all those events are offering, it feels like we’re three years behind. In the long run, it’s going to get boring for audiences. A lot of people have written to me saying that I’m not getting booked enough despite the excellent media coverage I’ve been getting.”

This situation also bothers Frannie Holder. “Festivals argue that they’re at the tail end of the production chain, and that they depend on what’s on offer, but ultimately, they often book only popular artists in the hopes of seeling as many tickets as possible,” she says. “I find that hypocritical, because if a booker only goes for what’s the most popular, they could easily be replaced by an algorithm. How does that deserve public subsidies [grants]? In Canada, there is an educational duty that comes with the arts. The arts must embody social change, and meet the needs of the people. I performed in an equal representation festival in Brazil, and I saw a ton of great female rappers that inspired me.”

Gatineau-born, Montréal-based battle rapper Honie B is also preoccupied by the issue of female representation in hip-hop. However, the 22-year-old rapper – who’s working on her first solo project – says she wants to avoid any kind of positive discrimination. “I wouldn’t want to be booked for a show just because the promoters have to meet a female quota,” she says. “I’d find that insulting.”

To her, it’s only a matter of time before women take the place they deserve. “Rap is still in its infancy here,” she says. “We’re slowly getting accustomed to the culture, and that means women need some time to emancipate. Whether you like it or not, it’s still a rough scene. You need to be very self-assured to stand out.”

That’s precisely what’s happening to Naya Ali. As the only rapper signed to the heavily hip-hop-oriented label Coyote Records, the Anglophone Montrealer has enjoyed new-found success since the release of her debut EP, Higher Self, last fall. Label President and founder Rafael Perez was instantly on board. “She’s fresh, she has a strong personality and a lot of drive,” he says. “As soon as I heard her demo, I was like ‘Wow! Where did she come from?’ We weren’t looking to sign a female rapper, but when you’re as impressed as I was, it’s awesome.”

But he’s the first to admit he doesn’t get a lot of demos from female rappers. “There’s probably a lot of great music that never makes it to my ears, young artists doing exceptional music in their basement,” he says. “And quite frankly, try as I might, I don’t find a lot of new female rappers… I believe keeping the conversation going in the media is a good thing, because it might inspire others to want to showcase their music.”

“We need projects that correspond to the reality of women… We need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.” — Frannie Holder

All this talk has gotten the ball rolling. Recently, Fondation Musicaction – a Québec-based organization that supports the production and marketing of a fair share of albums by Francophone artists in Canada – launched a pilot program supporting the mothers of infants (0 to 2 years old) in the development of their international careers. “This initiative came about because a lot of women musicians felt hindered professionally because they had a child; going on tour became way too expensive,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay, Musicaction Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs, about this exploratory measure that “allows the expenditure for an assistant entirely devoted to caring for a child while travelling.”

Sarahmée welcomes such an initiative with open arms. “I was told time and time again that having a child when you’re a female rapper is difficult,” she says. “People close to me were told stuff like, ‘Are you sure? How are you going to manage?’ It’s a truly great idea that’s in sync with the lifestyle of women, which is a lot less sedentary than it used to be.”

Frannie Holder agrees: “It’s like telling women that they don’t have to give up their careers to be a mother. I’ve seen many women delay their career way into their thirties, while men are often at their peak by then.”

According to the 34-year-old singer-songwriter, it’s through such initiatives, centred around women’s needs, that female rappers will be able to stand out more. “We need projects that correspond to the reality of women,” she says. “Helping each other out as female rappers is great, but we need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.”

One source of financing for the development of a specific skill – whether it’s through a conference, a course, a workshop or a seminar – is the SOCAN Foundation’s Professional Development Assistance Program. Just as accessible to young female rappers, the Foundation’s Travel Assistance Program covers a sizable portion of travel expenses when participating in a showcase or residency, for example. As a matter of fact, Frannie Holder and Montréal rapper Hua Li have both taken advantage of that subsidy in recent years.

Also available are training sessions provided by the Société professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ), which allow artists to fine-tune their trade (training sessions in writing, interpretation, stage presence…) and develop their business-related skills (legal advice about contracts, and how to protect their songs against theft or plagiarism). The over-600-member-strong organization is constantly looking for new artists who want to “professionalize” themselves.

Otherwise, two of the most accessible subsidies for Francophone female rappers are Musicaction’s emerging artist support and song production and promotion programs. The first program is for self-produced, emerging artists, while the second is aimed at independent or signed artists who want to produce four songs “for immediate promotion.” Beyond that, Musicaction’s grants are often geared towards, and more easily obtained by, established record labels. Bear in mind that currently, the three main hip-hop labels in Québec – Disques 7ième Ciel, Explicit Productions, Joy Ride Records – are recognized by Musicaction, and as such receive a yearly stipend from that organization to produce their roster’s albums. Yet none of them has signed a female rapper.

To counter-balance this male domination, Frannie Holder suggests following in the footsteps of the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), which recently tabled an action plan to achieve gender equality in film before 2020. From now on, a producer can only present two fictional feature-length projects “if one of them is written or directed by a woman.”

“It has made a world of difference in only two years,” says Holder, who’s been sitting of the SOCAN Foundation Board of Directors for about a year. “Now, it’s time to look at the financing offered to musicians by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), and other such bodies, to gradually move towards gender equality.”

That idea is making progress at Musicaction. “The latest versions of our forms include a male-female survey question, so that we get accurate data on the projects we finance,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay. “Our short-term goal is not gender equality, but we are aware of this issue in top management. We do make an effort to have more female juries. It gives us different ears.”

Without going as far as supporting gender-equal financing for Québe hip-hop, Rafael Perez welcomes change. “I’ll leave that question to the Boards of Directors, because it’s a sensitive issue for me,” says the man who’s signed on Laurence Nerbonne and Marième, two singers with marked rap influences, to his Coyote imprint. “But at the end of the day, I appreciate that the people involved are making more and more efforts [towards the representation of women on the local rap scene]. I think it’s a good thing.”

Like many other songwriters before (and after) him, Tyler Shaw unashamedly declares that the first song he ever wrote was, in a word, “awful.” But at the time? “Oh my goodness, I thought was great. I wrote it about a girl I had a crush on. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this girl is mine! If she hears this song, I’m gonna get the girl.’” Whether it would have worked or not we’ll never know – she never heard the song, “But I got the girl anyway. One of my best friends still has the recording and, I think it was a couple of years ago, he bumped into me and said, ‘Remember this?’ And I said, ‘I wish I didn’t.’”

Shaw, now a two-time SOCAN Award winner and two-time JUNO Award nominee, with two albums (Yesterday in 2015, Intuition in September of 2018) and a handful of certified hit singles to his name, has clearly evolved as a songwriter. It’s a bit ironic that a singer, who first captured the industry’s attention when he won the MuchMusic Coca-Cola Covers Contest in  2012, had already put a good five years of songwriting behind him by then.

“At 13 years old, I started writing songs every single day, about everything,” Tyler says from his home in Toronto, 10 days after his 26th birthday. “Break-ups, falling in love, school stuff, everything and anything. As you practice songwriting, that increases your skills – just like anything, if you practice [like piano or guitar]. I was literally writing a song a day, maybe two a day, when I was 13. When I got signed as an artist in the industry, signed under a label [Sony Music Canada], that’s when things started to develop even more.”

By the time he moved from his hometown of Vancouver to attend university on Prince Edward Island, he’d firmly established his musical ambition, and played at local and campus bars. Once the song contest led to a label signing, everything went into high gear. His debut single, “Kiss Goodnight” (in 2012) was certified platinum, and his latest release “With You”, from the album Intuition, has been certified gold, and viewed on YouTube more than 13 million times. On April 12, 2019, a new, French version of the single, featuring Sara Diamond, was released.

The learning process was daunting. When Shaw started working on his first album, he had to figure out how to collaborate with others, almost all strangers, except by reputation.  “If you can walk into a room with someone,” he recalls, “not meeting them, not knowing anything about them except what they’ve done musically, and immediately connect with them within the first 30 seconds, the first minute or so, you think you can come up with something special. But I’ve walked into a room, before this last album, and it’s… it’s not shady, but it’s just not the vibe that I would want to have in a room with a songwriter. It’s not welcoming, it’s not warm, it’s just cold and uninviting. When that happens, I push through because, well, you never know, but it generally doesn’t go well. I like to keep a positive frame of mind and just say, ‘OK, maybe he’s having an off day… And maybe something can come of that feeling, you never know. But, generally, it doesn’t work out that way.”

Writing fast for film
In 2017, Shaw took some time away from his recording career to try acting. He didn’t see it as a major detour. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “In a film called The Meaning of Life, I was playing the character of a therapeutic clown for kids who was aspiring to be the next big musician. In a way, the role itself, I could definitely relate to… Not the clown part!” he adds, laughing. “During the movie there are five songs that I’ve got to sing, and I didn’t actually know that I was supposed to create these songs until the first day I got on set. They asked me, ‘Hey, do you have that song written for this scene?’ And I was, ‘What song?’ So I ran back to my green room, and in five minutes I wrote a song for the scene. I was already in the emotion of the scene, so it made it a lot easier, I believe, to write that song while I was in that moment. That happened five times, where I need to go write songs right now for this scene. It happened so naturally. It worked for me. ‘Give me a half an hour, max, and I’ll write the song.’”

Not to say he thought the songwriting came easily. “Songwriting is always a challenge. Every single day is a challenge. Some days you don’t even write a song because there’s nothing there. Some days you write two to three songs. It’s not like it’s harder now to write songs, it’s always been a difficult challenge.” And Shaw sometimes sets the challenge himself.

Recognizing that most of his songs are the romantic sort, on Intuition he set out to broaden his spectrum. “I love ‘love,’ I think everyone is a sucker for ‘love’… It’s very relatable, but at the same time, so is life in general,” he says. “The majority of the songs I write are love songs, but I love the angle of not writing [another one] and talking more about things that aren’t about love.” He’s gotten e-mails from fans saying that songs like “Help Me” and “Anybody Out There” have helped them through some hard times.

Shaw’s experience, smartly deployed at the SOCAN Songwriters Circle at the 2019 JUNOs, has taught him what attitude works best when starting out on a new collaboration. “I’m an open book,” he says. “I have experience coming at me from the songwriters, from the producers, so I wasn’t offended when someone said, ‘Oh, this lyric in this verse could be better.’ I just took it as a challenge. It wasn’t hard to hear that stuff. Everyone has their opinion, and I write the best I can, so if someone comes back and says, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ that’s cool. I’ll challenge myself to make it better, and make more sense.” What else is there to do? That’s what evolution is all about.

Laurence NerbonneTenacious indeed is the age-old myth that inspiration, and inspiration alone, is what gives a song its power. Laurence Nerbonne never particularly subscribed to that notion, but she rejected it for good after participating in SOCAN’s 2018 Kenekt song camp in Nicaragua.

Every morning, alongside 17 other rhythmic and melodic craftspeople – some of them established beat-makers on the global pop scene – she did a bit of yoga, before being assigned to a team that would retreat to a seaside cabin, surrounded by howler monkeys. Their goal: crafting a song – with their laptops, smartphones, and rich imaginations –worthy of being presented during that night’s communal listening session.

“It’s crazy how impressive it is to rub shoulders with people who are in such top creative shape,” says Nerbonne, a few days before her sophomore album Feu is slated for release, an album where she penned all the music and lyrics. “It truly is a myth that songwriting is nothing but inspiration, an illumination. Most of the time, it’s a lot tenacity, and a lot of work. Thing is, even if you’re the recipient of some grand illumination, if you don’t have the tools to see it through, nothing’s going to happen.”

As an example, she cites Sia’s hit “Chandelier,” which “follows the rules of a great pop song, and will stand the test of time because Sia put emotion and instinct into it.”

On being a Poptimist

How to craft a good pop song
“Think about writing techniques, how a good chorus should summarize the issues brought up in the verses, the various shapes a song can have – all that allows you to highlight your inspiration, and make the result of your initial idea clearer for the listener. It’s like visual arts: Picasso had to become a master painter before he could start de-constructing everything. Picasso was in top shape! So to write a good pop song, you need to be in top shape, because it’s a lot harder than it seems to arrive to such essential clarity, and pour emotion into it so that it’s not too clinical.”
On being a Poptimist

 The word “pop” will be uttered many times during our conversation. And even though she does step into the ring of burning-hot hip-hop to drop several rebellious rhymes on few of Feu’s tracks – “Fausses idoles” and “Back Off” come to mind – Nerbonne is deeply motivated by her desire to sync the sound of Québec pop to the rest of the world. Flirting with rap is emblematic of this desire, rather than a desire to re-invent herself; it’s synchronous with the contemporary codes of the genre, which permeate all of the genres that are hip from one minute to the next.

“La seule foi qui me reste, c’est en nous” (“The only faith I have left is in us”), she chants on “Fausses idoles,” and that “us” is everyone who, like she does, loves their pop music to be synced with the rest of the world. Back in 2016, Nerbonne’s debut full-length XO was nominated for Pop Album of the Year at the ADISQ gala, alongside Nous autres by 2 Frères.

“I have nothing against 2Frères, but I did wonder whether we really were in 2016,” says the artist, who won the Best Francophone Album JUNO Award in 2017. “I don’t see any common ground between what I do and their folk sound. So if we’re going to consider 2Frères as pop music, ADISQ needs to create an Urban Music category, at the very least.”

It seems, at least from Nerbonne’s perspective, that there is a lot of work to do before poptimism – a critical movement that rid pop music of its reputation of being superficial everywhere in the Anglophone realm – takes hold in Québec. There are still too many players in Québec’s music industry who equate pop and glop.

“What worries me is the survival of the French language and of our culture,” says Nerbonne. “It’s increasingly difficult for young people who listen to trap music all day long to identify themselves with Québec’s music. When I get a message from a youngster saying they usually only listen to Anglophone music, but love my album even if it’s in French, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. One thing’s for sure, however: our tardiness is keeping us from attaining international fame.”

We should, in other words, collectively burn down all the prejudice that still plagues the word “pop” in Québec. That’s just one of the many ways one can decode the title of the album, one that’s constantly oscillating between an uppercut and a whisper.

“The infamous sophomore slump; I thought it wouldn’t happen to me, but it did, so much so that I wondered if I still had it in me,” says Nerbonne. “I decided to not be afraid of losing my past glories to avoid making the same album a second time, and that’s also playing with fire. What matters to me is that there’s still a communion, a fire that burns between my fans and I, and that communion is only possible through authenticity.” She pauses. “When you think about it, fire is both the most dangerous and the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Attention le feu, c’est chaud, c’est dangereux ? (Watch out, fire is hot, it’s dangerous) “Exactly! Shout out to Gabrielle Destroismaison! She had it all figured out.”