“It felt like I was in a bicycle race, leading the pack, and all of sudden I got a stick in my spokes. Clak! I pedalled hard for nothing,” an unfiltered (and still bitter) says Adamo.

AdamoKnown for his modesty and straight talk, two qualities that helped him win the 2017 edition of Occupation Double (OD), this Longueuil, Québec, rapper released his first solo album, Préliminaires SVP, on May 1, 2020 – smack dab in the middle of this endless pandemic’s first wave. The summer lull helped him perform two drive-in concerts, but the man born Adamo Marinacci soon felt his interest in the project was “rather waning,” he says. “I got discouraged because I lost all the cash I had invested. Normally, performing shows would have helped me reimburse all that, but hey… Things could be worse, I could be closing a restaurant right now.”

On May 1 of this year, however, the release of the Préliminaires SVP album was a kind of liberation for this songwriter, who’s been a fixture of the Québec hip-hop scene for the past 15 years. “At that time, I knew I had to release it,” says Adamo. “I’ve always known that I was bound to release a first album somewhere along the line. I didn’t feel pressured, but deep down, I was aware of it. Ditto for my OD victory. In fact, I’ve always been like that, no matter the situation – confident without being cocky. I just know it’s only a matter of time, and that things will eventually materialize.”

The 32-year-old artist was simply waiting, “to have all the tools I needed to make a proper album,” he says. “At the time, I wouldn’t have been ready to release anything serious. I was more interested in hanging out in bars.”

That period coincides with the time he was going by the name of DisaronnO, in reference to an almond liqueur from Italy, his father’s country of origin. His colourful (and highly intoxicated) performances around rap battle leagues, like Word UP! Battles or Emcee Clash, brought him some notoriety on that scene. “That’s where the image of a drunk-ass party animal, who can still perform, came from,” he says, referring to the excellent shows for which he was known, in spite of frequent alcohol-related blackouts. “It feels like I wasn’t serious enough to take that seriously. I couldn’t see what involving myself more deeply could bring me in the long run,” says Adamo.

Previously, DisaronnO had made his mark on Hiphopfranco.com020m smack uin  by accumulating victories in the rap-battle audio of that popular forum. Later on, he felt the need to tackle deeper themes, more or less at the same time as he starting feeling like he ought to do what it takes to fulfill his ambitions. The young rapper then turned to former classmate Dostie, who invited him to his Exceler studio in Longueuil. A collective with the same name was created a few years later, and Adamo eventually made friends with J7, with whom he formed the Gros Big duo. “He and I stood out because of our somewhat crazy punch lines, and our eccentric personalities,” he says. “We were kind of clashing with the other members of the collective, who were more technical and less melodic.”

Then came the somewhat absurd idea of publicizing the duo by having Adamo take part in what was then Québec’s most popular reality show. “J7 registered me,” Adamo recalls. “At first, I was furious! I didn’t want to make an ass of myself in front of the whole province for the sake of our duo! However, when they phoned me to tell me that I’d been selected, I gave it a chance, planning all along to say ‘GROS BIG’ as often as I possibly could in front of the camera for the next two or three weeks. By the way, I almost quit the show before the end.”

The rest is history: the rap community rallied, and Adamo won the final. As anticipated, Gros Big got an impressive boost out of it all. “I’d never thought it could be that big,” says Adamo. “We embarked on a mad tour with a dumb CD! We’d recorded it super-quickly at Dostie’s, and it exploded.”

Then, following a second province-wide tour, both partners felt the need to recover their identities. “Let’s be honest, Gros Big still was a huge folly,” says Adamo. “It was fun, but I needed something more serious. I needed to find my balance.”

Supported by such recognized Quebec producers as Farfadet, Doug St-Louis, and LeMind, who built a pop, trap and R&B-coloured framework, Adamo created the Préliminaires SVP album without asking himself too many questions. “I see this as a kind of training, where I touch on lots of styles. This first album contained my ‘preliminaries’ before officially revving the engine for the second one,” he says.

While admitting to a few commercial trade-offs on that album, “so that it could play on radio and reach the public at large,” Adamo explains that he’s especially comfortable on more percussive tracks such as “Lonely” and “Laisse-les parler,” an introduction that dots the i’s in the wake of his OD participation. “People only see talent when it hits them in the face,” says Adamo. “Personally, I was lucky to have OD, a show that helped many people notice my talent. On the other hand, I’m sure there are some who are jealous, and even bitter, because I’m successful [on account of that]. But it doesn’t really matter to me at this point.”

While waiting for cultural life to resume, Adamo is planning the content and direction of his next album. The songwriting sessions he held at his cottage. with friends like Benny Adam, Rymz, and Mad Rolla (a young pop singer he took under his wing) this past September cheered him right up. “I had to clear my brain,” he says. “I had stopped writing, moving around, or doing anything! At one point, I even wondered if I might not be going through a depression. I still don’t know what’s going to happen with what we’ve been creating over there, but it certainly felt good.”

As usual, Adamo is giving it time.

TOBi’s music has a knack for speaking directly to the times in which we find ourselves.

Earlier in 2020, the 27-year-old, Brampton-based hip-hop artist released a star-studded remix of his song “24,” that featured Shad,  Haviah Mighty, and Jazz Cartier unapologetically addressing systemic racism, stereotypes, and racial profiling. Released in early May with a powerful, thought-provoking video in tow, it arrived just weeks before the world was rocked by the brutal death of Black man George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The song’s lyrical exploration of the precariousness of Black life was a sobering affirmation of a prevailing reality.

Likewise, TOBi’s latest release of ELEMENTS Vol. 1, his latest, 10-track mixtape project (released Oct. 21, 2020) is palpably urgent and relevant, following on the heels of the deluxe version of his 2019 debut STILL, which conveyed the cultural dissonance he experienced after moving to Canada from Nigeria as a child. (The STILL+ remix project now boasts a combined total of 17 million streams across all platforms.)

“[ELEMENTS Vol 1] is more about my approach to my artistry, and exploring different sounds, and exploring the depth of my artistry,” says TOBi, stopping short of calling the project his sophomore album – instead  aspirationally likening it to Lil Wayne’s Dedication mixtape series. “Whereas STILL is a concise autobiographical story from start to finish. Boom, there it is. And [ELEMENTS] is more, like, for the mood, for the music, for experiencing different parts [of me] and seeing what comes up.”

The loosely exploratory approach on ELEMENTS Vol. 1 only underlines the impressive versatility and adaptability of TOBi’s vocals, which oscillate between singing and rapping with melodic ease, and lyrically draw on the poems or journals he writes before he enlists any musical accompaniment. While TOBi looks to Toronto collaborators like producer Harrison and singer Loony on the project, the connection with producers like London, U.K.-based Juls on “Dollars and Cents” is more emblematic of how the project sonically connects the global Black diaspora.

“I had these songs for a little while, and I wanted to get them out, but not in a traditional album format because they’re more experimental, you know, I’m trying different things on there,” says TOBi. “You know, there’s the grime record, the Afrobeats record. There’s the more contemporary R&B joints on there, too. But, you know, the overarching theme of the project is Black joy as a form of resistance. It’s been a lot of year for everybody, but especially I think the struggles of Black folk have been pretty evident this year. Even with COVID, compounding that the [George Floyd] protests going on, and with the [#EndSARS] protests in Nigeria, it’s just a lot going on. And I was just like, I gotta get to work. I’ve recorded so many songs in the past few months, it didn’t make sense for me to just keep it to myself.”

“We want to change the narrative without being martyrs”

“Made Me Everything” crystallizes the resilience that TOBi is talking about. While the song possesses an infectious energy, and is accompanied by a joyfully effervescent and eye-popping video, the song is ultimately about persevering to overcome the depths of despair.

“I definitely took heed from the sample at the beginning,” says TOBi, referring to Words of Wisdom-Truth Revue’s 1971 vintage soul track, “You Made Me Everything” which underpins the track. “In the song, [the lead vocalist] is lamenting, but it feels so spiritual, and it takes me into this ethereal space,” says TOBi. “I was reflecting on what pain meant to me, and not letting it keep me down, and acknowledging that it exists, but being better for myself, and being better for the people around me, and envisioning a brighter future. That’s what it’s all about.”

While intensely personal, TOBi’s music has wide resonance. The lines “Well-spoken for a Black man / That’s how you serve a compliment with your back hand,” that open the second verse of “Made Me Everything,” offer a perfect example.

“It seems every time when I talk to a Black man who’s heard the song, that line always comes up, because it’s just such an interesting phenomenon that you just can’t escape. You know what I mean?” says TOBi. “The fact that so many people have experienced it, it just means that it’s indicative of something that we can’t escape, which is white supremacy… It’s just what it is. And sometimes when I put the line like that in the song, I’m not even trying to make a point. I’m just being honest about what’s going on and how I feel. And I feel like, if so many people can resonate with it, there’s got to be truth to it, right? It’s not fabricated.”

The approach speaks to a larger goal in TOBi’s creativity. Not only does he want his music to be timely, he wants it to be timeless. “I wrote it [“Made Me Everything”] in 2019, before the protests this year really took off, right? And whether I wrote it in 2019, or 1996, or, like, 1984, the sentiment would still be the same, you know, it carries over through time,” he says.

“I think like so many other people in this world we’re, like, tired of re-living the same tropes, the same narratives, and we want to change that without being martyrs, or sacrificing our own inner peace and inner sanctity in the process. So, that’s, that’s really how the song makes me feel. It makes me feel motivated, it makes me feel empowered, it makes me feel validated. And I think a lot of people feel validated by certain lines in there. But this is just strength, man. Like, I’m grateful for the things that are going well, and the things in my control.”

It’s not too often that Canadian music and the American political world intersect, but when they do the Canadians are certainly beneficiaries. In the olden days (the ‘60s/’70s), caustic commentary was the form it usually took. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Ohio” (with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), even The Guess Who’s “American Woman” were all hits – especially if you count Lightfoot’s song being banned in 30 states as a badge of honour. For the Trump Administration, the enduring popularity of the Obamas’ annual Spotify playlists have been a thorn in its side, a playful reminder of the previous president’s popularity and strong connection to younger demographics. Several Canadian artists have found themselves among Barack and Michelle’s favourites over the last five years.

Both Joni Mitchell (“Help Me”) and Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”) appeared on Barack’s very first playlists (the Summer 2015 Night list) but more contemporary artists have been on his and his wife’s lists in recent years. Drake, of course, has made several appearances, but some lesser-known lights have made the grade as well. This year both Barack and Michelle chose Canadian artists who – including Drake, Shay Lia, Liza (with Carnyval), and Andy Shauf – were both surprised and thrilled to find themselves among the chosen.

The news almost killed Liza. Driving with some friends for a weekend getaway, the singer received a text sharing the scoop. “I was worried about crashing the car because I almost had a panic attack. I’ve loved Michelle Obama since I was about 12,” she says. Her song, “Consistency” with Carnyval, made it onto the former first lady’s Summer 2020 list, as did Shay Lia’s “Good Together.” Andy Shauf’s “Neon Skyline” made it onto Barack’s Summer 2020 list, and previous lists had several written or co-written by SOCAN members, including Drake, Daniel Caesar, Partynextdoor, and T-Minus.

The how and why of being chosen for the lists can only be answered by the Obamas themselves, but Shay Lia thinks the synergy between two popular podcasters helped her make the grade. “It was a combination of many factors,” she theorizes. “My music has been supported many times by The Joe Budden Podcast since last year, and Ms. Obama also happens to have a Spotify podcast, so there was an alignment there. I also think that ‘Good Together’ speaks to some of the values she’s trying to convey in her show – like in the conversation she had with Conan O’Brian, about marriage.”

Through a representative, Andy Shauf shared that he had no idea how President Obama came across his song, but being on the list “Is one of the coolest things to ever happen to me.” While Shauf’s publicist says there was no appreciable bump in sales, both Lia and Liza have noted an uptick, at least in streaming.

As Liza says, “With streaming, there’s always a monetary increase. It’s directly related, so there was that, of course, but it [the honour of being selected] was less about my career and more about myself. Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating.”

“Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating” – Liza

Shay Lia feels much the same way. “As a new artist and as an independent artist,” she says, “I’m totally aware of how hard it is to get attention in the music industry! Having such an incredible opportunity is making me proud. I feel like I’m doing something right, and that I’m going in the right direction… It’s even more flattering when it’s coming from Ms. Obama.  I love her, her values and what she represents as a Black woman of excellence!  I feel incredibly honoured and thankful!”

Lia also points out that a major collateral benefit of being on the playlist is that the increase in publicity, and the resultant higher profile has a significant impact. “I think it helped strengthen my position as an International act,” she says. “The media response has been amazing. It really helped us prepare the roll out for my new EP, Solaris.” Liza concurs: “There was a lot of people covering the actual Michelle Obama playlist, so I got mentioned in a lot of publications I look up to as well. So that was really cool.”

In the end, all politics and international borders aside, being selected by the Obamas is a win-win situation for all involved. As Liza enthuses, “It was definitely the highlight of this year – and potentially, my life!”