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Halfway through our conversation with young sensation Emanuel, whose debut album has been called “one of the most anticipated R&B albums of the year,” we’re both furiously googling Ethiopian jazz legends.
The London, Ont., singer’s parents came to Canada from Ethiopia about 40 years back, so we casually asked if he’d heard any EthioJazz growing up. “Oh yes, yes!” he says, excitedly. “I love tapping into Ethiopian jazz and Tizita [Ethiopian ballads].” We rave about Hailu Mergia and Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, and offer to send him links to their music. “I love that you brought that up! And your pronunciations are right, too. Damn!” he laughs. “My mom would be laughing at both of us right now.”
Emanuel says that one day he’d love to make music inspired by that era. Family and roots are paramount to the singer-songwriter, who’s signed to Motown, had his own gigantic billboard in Times Square, and who appeared on the world’s radar last April thanks to Idris Elba. “Those things [billboards and rave reviews] are great,” he says. “It’s amazing to feel the support from the label, but nothing beats that human connection, whether it’s people responding to you being onstage, or telling you how they felt when they heard your music.”
And how does he keep his feet on the ground? “It’s easy to stay grounded when you’re close to your roots, but I do have my moments when conversations need to be had,” he says. “My mother’s a wise woman, and she has a beautiful way of reminding me to stay humble.”
Emanuel has been hearing from a lot of listeners since his debut single “Need You,” which Elba helped promote with his legion of followers on social media last year, and his album ALT THERAPY, dropped on June 16, 2021. Emanuel says he intended the album to be “something people can sit with in times of stillness, or if they’re seeking healing – and people have responded to that. There have been days when I’ve woken up to some really beautiful messages.
“The song was speaking to a deep yearning, of how much I needed the people around me”
“Nobody can take that away from me,” he says. “Nobody can take away those moments of pure love. I’m talking about how the music healed me, and I love that people can hear that. It’s definitely a blessing.”
Emanuel, who says his interest in music has always been based on hearing people’s stories, shares some deeply personal ones on his debut album. The super-catchy “Addiction,” which he says is about “the life of addiction I was living,” is just one example. “I was reflecting on some of the bad relationships I’d been in, and my past toxic behaviour,” he says, recalling the song’s genesis. “The way I was approaching life, I wasn’t leaving room for help, and room to grow and be present.
“It was easy to scrutinize my behaviour, but ‘Addiction’ acknowledges that feeling of stopping a cycle and realizing how much it took from me. When I came up with the lyrics, it reminded me of that fear and anxiety” some of us feel when we’re in a plane that’s descending, he says, adding that the song came together shortly after his producers played him the beat one morning.
“Prodigal son fell asleep with the swine,” is one of the heaviest lines in the song. “Yeah, that’s a visceral bar,” Emanuel says quietly. “I wanted to speak from that place without wallowing in it. I wanted to show the vulnerability, without co-signing bad behaviour.”
The joy he gets from connecting with listeners, and offering his music as therapy, became evident when he released the aforementioned “Need You” one month into the pandemic. Kardinal Offishall had sent the song to Idris Elba, who was recovering from COVID. Emanuel recounts that Elba said it really helped him, and that he wanted to share it so it could help other people. The movie star asked his followers on social media to submit images showing how they were coping with self-isolation, to create an “inspirational collage.” Within a day, more than 3,000 submissions for the collaborative video were submitted by people around the world.
Emanuel calls that chapter of his life a Cinderella story. Describing the song, the singer-songwriter says he was “speaking to a feeling, a deep yearning, of how much I needed the people around me, how much I needed God, and all the other things in this world that give me life.”
He says the pandemic helped him learn how to appreciate stillness, and to embark on a road to self-discovery and healing. “I’ve been taking time to think about how I can have better relationships and build stronger ones, and it’s given me time to think a lot about my future,” Emanuel says, adding that it’s also provided time to “heal from having a negative view of myself, and a chaotic lifestyle [he once led].
“I strongly believe that everybody goes through this on the road to self-discovery, and so I felt it was the perfect thing to talk about on the record.”