The first song Aqyila ever wrote was about her mom. The then 10-year-old performed the tender track at a school recital. “Of course, she was a huge fan – she had her phone out, recording me,” Aqyila tells us over videochat, smiling. “It was the first time I ever sang on a stage, too.”

Now, at 22, the Torontonian R&B artist born Taahira Aqyila Duff has been heard more than six million times on Spotify, and garnered 14 million views with three million likes on TikTok, over on the strength of her track “Vibe for Me (Bob for Me).” She posted it to her TikTok page, which went viral after Lizzo shared it.

As Aqyila tells it, she posted the song back in November of 2020, then went on with her life – as she would after posting any of her TikToks – but then the notifications started accumulating on her phone. She was stunned, but even more so when Lizzo came through to post “love you” on her page. Since then, some famous fans of the track have included ‘90s icons Monica and Brandy, TikTok star Charli D’Amelio, and Bebe Rexha – who appeared in Aqyila’s DMs with praise, and now follows her.

Aqyila tells us the story of her virality after a writing session where she’s working on a fresh batch of songs. She recently signed to Sony Music Canada. When Aqyila started her TikTok page at the outset of the pandemic, it was for fun, she says, a place to be creative and test out the tracks she whipped up in GarageBand. It’s clear that the major-label signing is the most impactful part of this dizzying journey. She says this is the first time she’s used professional studio microphones, and, as someone who wrote solo for a while, she’s enjoying working with collaborators who understand her vision.

Aqyila was raised on R&B: she cites Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and Fantasia as key influences in shaping her musical palette. Gospel, too, informs her artistic path: singers like Fred Hammond, Donnie McClurkin, and the duo Mary Mary. All performers who invoke vivid emotional depth, something important to Aqyila as a songwriter.

“I write out my emotions”

“I write out my emotions,” she says. “Whenever I’m thinking, or going through something or other, maybe [something] a little bit more difficult… I would just write it up and sing about it. And, usually, I feel like a weight’s lifted off my shoulders.

So much of Aqyila’s brief musical offerings are characterized as “feel-good,” something she herself seems to wholly emit: Aqyila is kind, tender, wise, and generous in her time and her work. “Vibe For Me,” she says, is a song that glows, or allows the people listening to it to glow.

“I want people to know that no matter what you look like, where you’re from, you are an amazing person,” she says. “That it instills and reminds people, OK, regardless of what standards may be out there in society today, when I look at that mirror, I’m still going to feel like I am that girl, that I am awesome.”

Even though Aqyila’s a decade-plus removed from that first song she wrote, the thread through it all is her desire to empower the listener, making people feel good, seen, or heard with her music. This hearkens back to her influences, and what she values as a performer: deep emotional expression. She alludes to a love song she was working on, just before our call, as something she’s so wildly proud of, a “pretty little track,” as she calls it.

And while she’s still using TikTok, still connecting with new and old fans, Aqyila doesn’t feel the need to keep her momentum if it’s inauthentic. “I don’t want to ever put that pressure on myself to be like, ‘Okay, I have to do something that’s going to go viral.’”

It truly seems like that won’t ever have to be the case.

We’re pleased to continue our Upstarts series, featuring profiles of very young SOCAN members making a name for themselves with their music.

Jay JayBy the mere fact of growing up in the Appartements St-Pie X complex, Jay Jay already had one foot in Québec’s hip-hop culture. Previously known as Tours Bardy, the iconic apartment towers of Québec City’s Limoilou neighbourhood have been the epicentre of the city’s rap movement for three decades.

At 12 – having just graduated from elementary school a month ago – Jay Jay is the latest up-and-comer of one of the province’s seminal rap neighbourhoods, one which has already given us Shoddy, Webster, Souldia, Les Sozi, and many more. Bloc 2000, his debut EP, is geographically anchored in Limoilou-land, its title referring to 2000, rue Désilets, the address of one of those two emblematic housing project towers, where a plethora of cultures co-habitate in a vibrant, warm, yet sometime impetuous, climate.

Retourne chez toi / Juste au cas où / Y’a des bagarres de partout, cours / On pourrait dire des loups-garous” (Go home / Just in case / There’s fighting everywhere, run / They’re like werewolves), raps the young artist, of Congolese origin, on the hard-hitting “Feu rouge” (“Red Light”). The title refers to the flashing police-car lights that he saw illuminating the window panes of Bloc 2000, early on in his life.

“Limoilou is like a big family,” says Jay Jay, who we reach on the phone alongside Sami, his manager, who occasionally jumps in on the conversation to direct his young recruit’s train of thought. “But if you’re a newcomer, it can be scary. It’s a neighbourhood with lots of crooks… but if you were born here, you grew up with them.”

“I think what we can take away from it, is that Limoilou is like a family,” Sami adds, with a smile in his voice.

And if there’s one thing we all know, it’s family that matters most. The adage of Alaclair Ensemble, a band that has some of its many roots in the neighbourhood, embodies what comes out of Bloc 2000, an EP marked by Jay Jay’s love for his mother, his crew, and his friends.

One of them is Izo, a young teenager from the block who made him want to pick up rapping about a year ago. “I could tell he was really good,” says Jay Jay of the man he cites as a major influence, alongside big names like Koba LaD, Souldia, and 50 Cent. “We started rapping together about a year ago. He’s the one who introduced me to Sami.”

Sami quickly picked up on the talent of the two youngsters. “I invited them over to my humble studio,” he says. “A friend had stored his equipment in my bedroom. The result was ‘Recompter,’” says the young manager, who also grew up in Appartement St-Pie X.

The video for the first song by Jay Jay and Izo quickly reached 10,000 views on YouTube. The success was promising, but sadly “Izo’s mom deleted the video,” Sami says. “I got in touch with Jay to do a solo track. And this time, I took him to a real studio. We recorded Bloc 2000 with a different beat from the one you hear on the album.”

Sami then had the stroke of genius to send the song to a friend of his cousins: Souldia. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, the rapper immediately took Jay Jay under his wing. “I struggled to keep my emotions inside,” says the 12-year-old rappe,. who sees Souldia as a role model. “He said that from that point on, the one goal was to make a full album in a real studio. It was totally professional!”

Released by Disques 7 ième Ciel and Altitude Records – Souldia’s brand new record label – the mini-album was recorded in Montréal at the studio of Christophe Martin, Souldia’s loyal producer and sound engineer. The song “Malewa” – the EP’s first single, launched in March 2021, praising the virtues of his mom’s restaurant – established the basis of Jay Jay’s style: fiery trap, led by rather dark music, that contrast with radiant and candid lyrics, that are nonetheless rather mature and conscious for his age.

La drogue, nah, ne prends pas de tout ça / Ils croient que je dors, mais nah, je ne connais pas le cousin / Tu sais où que j’ai poussé, la jeunesse est dégoûtée / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, dis-moi est-ce que tu sais où c’est (Drugs, nah, don’t touch any of that / They think I’m asleep, but nah, I don’t know any pillow / You know, where I grew up, the young’uns are disgusted / Bloc 2000, St-Pie-X, tell me, do you know where that is), he raps with a precise and exhilarated flow that’s perfectly aligned with current trends.

Elsewhere, as on “Jeanine” – a touching homage to his mother – Jay Jay shows he’s also capable of being sensitive and emotional. “J’espère que ma musique pourra te faire vibrer / Maman je pars faire du rap / J’ai un combat à livrer” (I hope my music can move you / Mommy, I’m leaving to make rap music / I have a battle to fight), he confides.

“I wanted to thank my mom for the career she gave me. I adore my mother,” says Jay Jay. “I thought she’d put a stop [to my ambitions of making music]. It could’ve ruined all my dreams.”

That same song also leaves its mark because of its heart-wrenching chorus. “Papa où es-tu ?” (“Where are you, Dad?”), he repeatedly asks, in a way that is reminiscent of Stromae’s international hit. When we touch upon that question, Jay Jay becomes unequivocal: “I can’t even say he’s my dad… He never took care of me!”

Then again, why rely on a deadbeat dad when you have a whole neighbourhood behind you?

Where is home for someone who “had everything he knew about the world ripped out from under him”?

That’s a question John Orpheus has been trying to answer for most of his adult life. It’s a quest that’s led from dabbling in punk to exploring myriad Black music styles, in an attempt to find his identity.

“I built home around music,” the Trinidadian-born singer and musician says. “Every time I’d get on stage and perform – that was home for a very long time, that sufficed, until I found a deeper connection to myself and I was comfortable in my own skin.

Haus Orpheus
John is passionate about Haus Orpheus, co-founded with bandmate Sarah Jane Riegler. It’s an event series, a movement, a community, and a vibe rooted in Pan-Africanism, intersectional feminism, and de-colonization, based in Toronto yet never defined by birthplace – an inclusive space where people can gather to connect with art and be unapologetically themselves. So far (pre-pandemic), it had been holding a twice-monthly dance party, Afro Haus; a monthly open mic night, Speak Ya Truth; and Haus  Orpheus Presents, to promote one-off special events.

“Now, anywhere I go can be home. Home is in my heart,” he adds. “For me, it’s about connection to self and the memories and the stories that made me.”

The “stories and memories” that made him, his journey of transformation, and his search for home and identity is in your face in his powerful memoir, Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming, that Penguin Random House Canada published earlier this year. Bearing his real name, Antonio Michael Downing, it’s accurately been described as searing, heartbreaking, and emotionally captivating.

It’s all those things, but above all, Saga Boy is a story of resilience and survival. Saga King, the book’s accompanying album, which also addresses those themes, will be released on July 30, 2021. Interestingly, between the end of 2019 – when he finished the book – and the summer of 2020, Orpheus questioned whether he would ever make music again.

“Then suddenly, last summer, I felt I’d arrived somewhere,” he says. “I felt a sense of sovereignty over myself and I was like, ‘Okay, I have something to say.’” He calls Saga King “a celebration of my journey, a representation of healing and wholeness.”

By all accounts, the album came together organically and smoothly. “I demoed 15 songs on my own, took them to the recording sessions, and in three weeks we had an album that was ready to be mixed and mastered,” he says.

Saga King is a potpourri of sounds, embracing everything from soca to Afrobeat to rock and rap. “It’s a funky Caribbean pop soundclash!” he says, chuckling. “Inter-textuality is a term that’s used a lot in literary criticism. I’m interested in doing that in my music,” says Orpheus. “Some people like to stick to blues, or Afrobeat, or rap, but I want to be the place where all the different sounds meet.”

Orpheus says “Fela Awoke,” one of the songs on Saga King, is one of the most personal he’s ever written. In it, he refers to the death of three people who made a massive impact on his life – Miss Excelly, his grandma who raised him in Trinidad; Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti; and Bob Marley. “‘Fela Awoke’ is “about embracing your heroes, but letting them go so that you can become your own hero,” he says. “Each verse features a couple of lines each of those people said that have stayed with me.”

“Olorun,” named after the most powerful God in Yoruban mythology, is another song that’s close to his heart. “It was the easiest song to write,” he says. “I’d listen to Shango Baptist hymns and end up singing the melodies and words of all the songs.” Orpheus says he woke up one morning singing “Olorun,” adding that the vocal take on the album is the original: “What you’re hearing is the first time I sang it from start to finish. It’s the only song we didn’t re-do.”

“Olorun” sees Orpheus reconnecting with his Yoruban roots, or as he says, “reaching into my West African legacy. It’s about embracing my past to create my future.”