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Canadian rapper Shad on spirituality, profanity and the right for Black people to be average

Shad. (Justin_Broadbent)
Shad. (Justin_Broadbent)

When Canadian rapper Shad began producing his latest album, he thought about a skit where Chris Rock pokes fun at the idea of Black excellence.

Rock, in his 2008 comedy special, talked about the three Black people who live in his neighborhood — Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. But the white neighbor next door? He’s a dentist.

“He ain’t the best dentist in the world. He ain’t going to the dental hall of fame. He don’t get plaques for getting rid of plaque. He’s just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist,” Rock said. “See, the Black man gotta fly to get to something the white man could walk to.”

Rock’s joke was the jumping-off point for Shad’s latest work, which interrogates the idea of Black excellence. Shad basically says: Black people should be allowed to be just average.

“Black Averageness,” one of the singles off his latest album, “Tao,” talks about the pressure of these expectations.

Watch on YouTube.

And while Shad, who CBC Music named the second-greatest Canadian rapper of all time, wants to create good music, it’s not about rising to the top, he says. Music should be about tapping into one’s individuality as an artist and inspiring listeners, he says.

“I love being a part of a festival lineup or even a regular concert lineup where all the artists are different, and they’re sharing what they have to offer,” he says. “It’s not about who’s best. It’s really a beautiful thing and a microcosm for what all of society should be.”

In his personal life, Shad has said he’d be happy if his daughter were average. It’s what his parents wanted for him when they moved from East Africa to Canada. He pushes against the notion that being average carries a negative connotation because, at its core, Shad believes the choice to be average coincides with the freedom to be fully yourself.

“What I was taught was that average means that, practically speaking, you can do anything,” he says.

While there are limits to that — not everyone will walk on the moon or win an Olympic gold medal — it’s about offering what you can uniquely contribute to the world, he says.

“I think the message there is, yes, liberation to be who you are, to try things, to fail,” he says, “and I think also liberation from this obsession in our society with achievement.”

Watch on YouTube.

Interview Highlights

On what he conveyed by having his mother and father’s voices on the song “God”

“What my parents do that I think really helps the song communicate what I really want to communicate is they’re talking about what it means to be a human being. Because what I’m trying to say ultimately with that song is that spiritual practice — whatever that may look like — is not about taking you away from humanity. There’s a sense that this spiritual practice, religion, all this stuff is about looking up and away from life. And what I’m trying to say is what it should do is it should bring you closer to humanity.

“In between my verses that are kind of talking about spirituality more, my parents are grounding it with their thoughts on what it means to be human. I was really pleased with what they were able to bring to the song, really grounding it and really bringing home the message that I wanted to communicate with that song.”

On rapping without using profanity and breaking down cursing in hip hop

“I’m not sure if it’s industry pressure as much as it’s how the form works — like when you become an artist, you start as a fan and you start by just internalizing what you’ve heard. And [profanity is] what we’ve all heard in hip hop, right?

“But for me, I’ve always loved being myself. That’s what I’ve always loved most about music is it was actually the space where I could be myself and I could be free, you know? I don’t curse in everyday life unless I’m playing basketball and I’m missing all my shots. Other than that, I keep it pretty clean. And so why not do that in music, especially with hip hop, with lyricism, like this is something I work at. I craft these words over a long period of time, so there’s no reason that I can’t communicate in a way that allows me to be heard and understood by as many people as possible.”

On using music to encourage people to be more in touch with their emotions

“I think music is for whatever reason, it’s this place in our culture where you still are allowed to feel and get in touch with what you’re really thinking and feeling. I say this not as an indictment of other people. You know, I’m included in this. It’s like, I’m not great at talking about my feelings. I’m not great at feeling my feelings. But music is a place where we are allowed to do that. And so, yeah, I think it’s my joy. It’s also my responsibility to just speak my mind, to put a level of feeling in my music where people can listen and feel as well.”

On how he sees hip hop evolving and the assumption the genre represents youth culture

“I actually think — whatever you want to call it, grown man rap or adult rap or old head music — it’s actually kind of a new frontier in hip hop like Jay-Z on ‘4:44,’ for example. These are actually new frontiers. This is stuff it’s never been discussed. These are like identities that have never been unpacked and presented in the music. So I think it’s starting to change, or at least it should change that assumption that hip hop is youth culture. It’s youth culture, but it’s also adult culture now.”

On how he has grown since he first started rapping

“I thought that I wouldn’t still have things to say at this point. I really did think I would be done by now, but there’s still so much. Our world changes so much for one thing and changes so fast. There’s so much to reflect on. And it also just feels like new frontiers. It feels like a new creative challenge every time. How can I reflect how I see the world, our ever-changing world? How can I reflect on what’s going on within myself? I don’t feel any less than I did when I was 22 [and] 23. My feelings are still as there still is heavy, there still is complicated.

“So where do I see myself? I see myself as someone still unpacking that and unpacking it in the tradition that I grew up on, which is really lyricism and soul and musicality in the beats. And I’m inspired by what’s new, but my music will always be rooted in that.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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