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.”

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.

Is Québec’s hip-hop scene tighter than ever? Such is the firm belief of the architects of QCLTUR, a compilation produced by the media outlet of the same name that was released in two volumes by Disques 7 ième Ciel.

QCULTURIn total, it offers about three dozen artists – mainly producers and rappers, but also R&B artists such as Barnev, and Nissa Seych, the only female presence in this endeavour. If you add up all of the artists’ metrics, the total is a staggering 45 million plays on YouTube and Spotify, and more than 250,000 Instagram subscribers. Statistics like those are proof, once again, that there’s strength in numbers.

But bringing together so many people, from so many different backgrounds, required a unifying spirit. Which is where QCLTUR comes in.

Led by Koudjo Oni, Benjamin Akpa, and Létizia Exiga, the Montréal-based media outlet has become, in merely two years, a go-to stop on Québec’s hip-hop circuit. Thanks to dynamic and sophisticated videos showcasing successful artists from the local rap and R&B scene, QCLTUR [pronounced “culture”] now has 24,000 subscribers on its social networks (primarily YouTube and Instagram), but more importantly, unparalleled credibility in the community it represents.

“It’s a super-important hip-hop media outlet in Québec,” says breakout artist Raccoon, featured on the compilation. “Their format is uber-modern, super-efficient and totally adapted to our generation.”

“It’s one of the most high-quality and rigorous media,” adds young rapper Nawfal, also featured on the project. “Their videos are straight to the point, and they cover the whole underground scene.”

“It’s a platform created by and for culture,” explains director Koudjo Oni, a renowned producer, who’s made his mark with Kery James, Booba, Souldia, and Sans Pression. “In my 20 years in Québec, I’ve seen the mainstream media take an interest in a few rappers, but for emerging artists, and even many established artists, it’s not easy to get coverage.”

QCLTUR thus gave itself the mission of reversing that trend, with a more neutral editorial approach that strives to highlight all of Québec’s different rap styles. “Everything stems from the name we chose: QCLTUR,” says Oni. “With a name like that, we had no choice but to have a clear editorial line that would make space for all movements, regardless of our tastes and preferences. We’re not ‘Guardians of the Culture.’ but we strive to be authentic.”

And it’s this authenticity that’s given the platform the legitimacy to unite vast swathes of the scene it covers.

The first phase took place in the Fall of 2020, when the media brought together a dozen artists in a major Montréal studio (of the video production company La cour des grands) to produce the video Up Next, an initiative aimed at highlighting the up-and-coming rappers “who are going to make noise” in the coming months in Québec. “The reception from the public and the scene alike was amazing!” says Oni proudly. “From that point on, we felt like we needed to give back to the artists, one way or another. That’s when the idea of putting together a compilation was born.”

It didn’t take long for Disques 7 ième Ciel, one of the two major hip-hop labels in Québec, to signal its interest in the project. “Initially, we thought of releasing it independently, to preserve our authenticity and neutrality,” says Oni. “But after talking with Steve [Jolin, the label’s director], we were convinced that he truly believed in the project, and he would only be there to support us, rather than limit our creative freedom. He totally got our philosophy as a media enterprise.”

QCULTUR’s initial idea was to have established artists collaborate with the 12 up-and-comers on Up Next. All were able to make it except Emma Beko. “Here’s hoping that’ll happen the next time!” says Oni.

“We wanted to put Québec rap on the map. We took the meaning of the idiom at heart” — Koudjo Oni of QCULTUR

Some highly interesting pairings happened, notably those of Gnino and Shreez, Levrai and Souldia, Sael and FouKi, and, on the project’s title track, Raccoon and Connaisseur Ticaso featuring Barnev (Céline Dion’s backing vocalist).

“I kinda see it as a passing of the torch,” says Raccoon proudly, about this collaboration – to which he’d been looking forward. “Connaisseur represents the old guard, I’m the newcomer. We both have a lyrical essence and rigorousness.”

But beyond these inter-generational collaborations, QCLTUR has given itself the mandate to present the diversity of the scene. Between trap, drill, R&B, and Afro-trap, the compilation also draws a representative portrait of the main urban centres of the Québec rap scene. To wit: Souldia represents Limoilou, FouKi reps Montréal’s Le Plateau, DawaMafia represents Brossard, Misa is from Gatineau, JPs reps Laval-des-Rapides… “We wanted to put Québec rap on the map,” says Oni. “We took the meaning of the idiom to heart. Rap has a strong territorial element to it, and we wanted to bring back that aspect of it in our compilation. It stokes a sense of belonging and pride.”

“When I listen to the compilation, I hear the sound of all of Québec’s musical palettes,” explains Raccoon, who represents the sound of the East end of Montréal (Rivière-des-Prairies on the North side, and Pointe-aux-Trembles on the South side). “It made me realize how versatile we are, and how there’s an audience for all genres of rap. We’re all super-different, but super-united.”

A true and organic unity, far from superficial, according to Nawfal. “I think COVID accelerated things,” he says. “We couldn’t go onstage anymore, so that made people want to collaborate more,” says the rapper who represents Montréal’s Ville Saint-Laurent neighbourhood, in the West End. “We’re slowly moving towards a union. An increasingly solid union that draws everybody upward.”