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Toronto’s Polaris 2022 shortlist nominees on their latest albums

Shad and Charlotte Day Wilson are up for the prize. Get to know them better here

By Daniel Reale-Chin
Shad
Toronto's Polaris 2022 shortlist nominees on their latest albums
Photograph by Justin Broadbent

Shadrach Kabango, a.k.a. Shad, has been in the rap game for nearly two decades. Since his 2005 debut album, the Toronto rapper has toured North America with fellow Canadian k-os, beat Drake at the 2011 Junos and hosted two shows: the CBC radio program Q and the docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution, which won the 2017 International Emmy Award for best arts programming. Six studio albums later, Shad’s music has remained uniquely fresh and distinctly Torontonian. His 2021 album, Tao, is shortlisted for a 2022 Polaris Music Prize. The nomination marks Shad’s fifth Polaris shortlist nomination, the most any artist has received. Here, he reflects on the inspiration for the album, the pitfalls of Black excellence and his journey in the industry so far.

This is your fifth Polaris Prize nomination. Does this time feel different? It’s clichéd to say, but it’s an honour to be nominated. The first time I was shortlisted for a Polaris, in 2008, it was a different era in music. Now, there are so many more Canadians making rap and hip-hop music. Not that it wasn’t an honour then too, but I’m grateful that people are still listening and interested in my music.

I read that the image of a circle helped inspire Tao. Can you tell me more about that? I had a dream of a circle one night, and I’m not a super visual person. So I took that as a sign. When it came time to work on a new album and write the songs, that image made sense as a guiding principle. To me, the circle represented fragments of the soul that together make up one unit, or wholeness. Looking at the album as a circle gave me the freedom to dissect each song as an individual piece that fits into a whole. That way I was able to go to a different place with each individual song and talk about different aspects of the human condition.

Most of the songs on the album, like “Out of Touch,” have upbeat melodies, but the lyrics deal with heavy topics. How do you balance these two forces in your music? I got into music first as a performer—freestyling with friends and seeing their reactions in real time. A big part of who I am is someone who makes music that makes people happy. I love that. But, at the same time, our world is what it is. Music is where I get to grapple with all the negative events that are happening around us. I try to talk about heavy topics in my songs while still trying to make people happy. For example, the track “Storm” touches on environmental themes. There’s not a lot of room for levity with a topic like that, but the song has party sounds in the background.

Let’s talk about the song “Black Averageness.” The lyrics are humorous, but it also clearly holds a deeper message about what it means to be Black today. The song is a response to the idea of Black excellence. Being proud of Black excellence is great because of how much our accomplishments have been diminished or erased, but at the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we don’t need to be excellent in order to experience dignity and safety. Excellence shouldn’t be the prerequisite for survival or respect. My family comes from Rwanda, and what my parents loved about Canada was not the idea of excellence: Oh, my kids can be doctors and lawyers. What they loved about Canada was that they saw all these average white people just living.

You host Hip-Hop Evolution, which is now in its fourth season. You’ve travelled to the Bronx and Harlem to explore the origins of hip hop for the show and interviewed industry heavyweights like Timbaland and LL Cool J. What’s that experience been like? Man, I lucked out being invited into that. When I got the offer, I immediately said yes. After the first season, it became so much more than we thought it would be. At first, we thought it would be just a one-season show about the origins of hip hop. But then HBO got involved, and later Netflix licensed the show and wanted more seasons. We expected it to run for four episodes, so I don’t think me or Darby Wheeler, the producer, or anyone else who was involved with the show from the beginning expected it to grow into four seasons. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s awesome how we’ve been able to explore hip hop’s evolution and the way the genre has developed in different places like the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, and New Orleans. I just feel lucky with the opportunities I’ve had.

Charlotte Day Wilson
Toronto's Polaris 2022 shortlist nominees on their latest albums
Photograph by Othello Grey

Charlotte Day Wilson is happy to be back at home in Toronto after touring 18 cities across the US and Canada to promote her massively popular debut album, Alpha. The R&B singer returned to the city in June, playing Massey Hall four years after opening for BadBadNotGood at the iconic venue. Her album, which dissects the breakdown of a queer relationship, is a blend of silky melodies, good old-fashioned soul, and moody hymns that have been compared to gospel. Alpha landed at number eight on the Billboard Top 10 Best R&B Albums of 2021: Critics’ Picks, earned four Juno nominations and is shortlisted for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. Here, Wilson shares her cautious optimism about the prize and how it feels to celebrate queer love on stage.

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Your EP, CDW, was longlisted for the Polaris in 2017. Does being shortlisted this time around feel different? Alpha was nominated for a lot of Juno Awards this year, and the album didn’t win any of them. My honest answer is that I’m a little bit hesitant to be excited about it because I know how it feels to lose. I’m learning to just be grateful for the process. But I’m a competitive person, so winning would be nice.

Alpha is your first full-length album. Tell me about taking on your biggest project to date. The album represented a specific time in my life. It took nearly three years of writing and recording. And some of that time was during the pandemic. The album reflects what I was going through then. All I can do as an artist is write my truth and try to figure out what the through line is between all of the songs—the overarching themes that expose themselves during the process of writing. I’ve met some artists who have visions or concepts before they start. But I write and see where it takes me.

Do you have a favourite song on the album? My favourite song to perform right now is “Wish It Was Easy.” It feels really good. It’s honest and vulnerable, and I think audiences feel that. I wanted people to be able to connect emotionally but not be exhausted by the album. Healing was a big thing for me throughout the writing process. I want it to feel like a delicious cleanse. Performing is weird for me: I often don’t want to be the centre of attention in my day-to-day life, but I like getting on stage. I like hearing people sing my lyrics back to me. I’m typically introverted, and people often interpret that as me being cold, but I have a very strong desire to connect. My music has become the arena where I’m able to do that. If I didn’t have that, I would be a lonely and unhappy person. Performing and seeing that person crying in the crowd—and sometimes we’re both crying and feeling the same thing at the same time—is powerful.

You played Massey Hall in 2017 with BadBadNotGood, but in June you headlined for the first time. How did that feel? It was the climax of the whole process. First, putting the album out was a huge relief. But then you have a whole cycle of promoting and touring. Since I grew up in Toronto, I’ve always had Massey Hall in my head as the pinnacle. I put a lot of pressure on myself before playing there because I had built it up so much. The acoustics are just incredible—there’s a natural reverb that is ideal. But there’s also so much history, so many legendary performances happened there. And it was amazing to feel all the hometown love.

Much of the album centres around queer relationships. How does it feel to be able to represent that? The album has a lot to do with difficult relationships and how the queer community has informed how I think and love. I’m super grateful to be part of the community; it made me want to celebrate that and celebrate lesbian love and loss and insecurity and doubt and failure. We also have some great queer DJs here in Toronto, like Nino Brown and Bambii, who are doing so much here, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the audience at queer events like theirs. So to be on the other side just feels natural.

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After Polaris, what’s next for you? I can’t say for sure. There’s critical-acclaim benchmarks that I’m hoping to achieve with my music, whether or not that’s a healthy thing. I think a lot of people are probably lying when they say that they don’t want those things. There’s still many things that my music hasn’t achieved. But, for now, it also just feels like, yes, this is where I should be.

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