Laurence NerbonneTenacious indeed is the age-old myth that inspiration, and inspiration alone, is what gives a song its power. Laurence Nerbonne never particularly subscribed to that notion, but she rejected it for good after participating in SOCAN’s 2018 Kenekt song camp in Nicaragua.

Every morning, alongside 17 other rhythmic and melodic craftspeople – some of them established beat-makers on the global pop scene – she did a bit of yoga, before being assigned to a team that would retreat to a seaside cabin, surrounded by howler monkeys. Their goal: crafting a song – with their laptops, smartphones, and rich imaginations –worthy of being presented during that night’s communal listening session.

“It’s crazy how impressive it is to rub shoulders with people who are in such top creative shape,” says Nerbonne, a few days before her sophomore album Feu is slated for release, an album where she penned all the music and lyrics. “It truly is a myth that songwriting is nothing but inspiration, an illumination. Most of the time, it’s a lot tenacity, and a lot of work. Thing is, even if you’re the recipient of some grand illumination, if you don’t have the tools to see it through, nothing’s going to happen.”

As an example, she cites Sia’s hit “Chandelier,” which “follows the rules of a great pop song, and will stand the test of time because Sia put emotion and instinct into it.”

On being a Poptimist

How to craft a good pop song
“Think about writing techniques, how a good chorus should summarize the issues brought up in the verses, the various shapes a song can have – all that allows you to highlight your inspiration, and make the result of your initial idea clearer for the listener. It’s like visual arts: Picasso had to become a master painter before he could start de-constructing everything. Picasso was in top shape! So to write a good pop song, you need to be in top shape, because it’s a lot harder than it seems to arrive to such essential clarity, and pour emotion into it so that it’s not too clinical.”
On being a Poptimist

 The word “pop” will be uttered many times during our conversation. And even though she does step into the ring of burning-hot hip-hop to drop several rebellious rhymes on few of Feu’s tracks – “Fausses idoles” and “Back Off” come to mind – Nerbonne is deeply motivated by her desire to sync the sound of Québec pop to the rest of the world. Flirting with rap is emblematic of this desire, rather than a desire to re-invent herself; it’s synchronous with the contemporary codes of the genre, which permeate all of the genres that are hip from one minute to the next.

“La seule foi qui me reste, c’est en nous” (“The only faith I have left is in us”), she chants on “Fausses idoles,” and that “us” is everyone who, like she does, loves their pop music to be synced with the rest of the world. Back in 2016, Nerbonne’s debut full-length XO was nominated for Pop Album of the Year at the ADISQ gala, alongside Nous autres by 2 Frères.

“I have nothing against 2Frères, but I did wonder whether we really were in 2016,” says the artist, who won the Best Francophone Album JUNO Award in 2017. “I don’t see any common ground between what I do and their folk sound. So if we’re going to consider 2Frères as pop music, ADISQ needs to create an Urban Music category, at the very least.”

It seems, at least from Nerbonne’s perspective, that there is a lot of work to do before poptimism – a critical movement that rid pop music of its reputation of being superficial everywhere in the Anglophone realm – takes hold in Québec. There are still too many players in Québec’s music industry who equate pop and glop.

“What worries me is the survival of the French language and of our culture,” says Nerbonne. “It’s increasingly difficult for young people who listen to trap music all day long to identify themselves with Québec’s music. When I get a message from a youngster saying they usually only listen to Anglophone music, but love my album even if it’s in French, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. One thing’s for sure, however: our tardiness is keeping us from attaining international fame.”

We should, in other words, collectively burn down all the prejudice that still plagues the word “pop” in Québec. That’s just one of the many ways one can decode the title of the album, one that’s constantly oscillating between an uppercut and a whisper.

“The infamous sophomore slump; I thought it wouldn’t happen to me, but it did, so much so that I wondered if I still had it in me,” says Nerbonne. “I decided to not be afraid of losing my past glories to avoid making the same album a second time, and that’s also playing with fire. What matters to me is that there’s still a communion, a fire that burns between my fans and I, and that communion is only possible through authenticity.” She pauses. “When you think about it, fire is both the most dangerous and the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Attention le feu, c’est chaud, c’est dangereux ? (Watch out, fire is hot, it’s dangerous) “Exactly! Shout out to Gabrielle Destroismaison! She had it all figured out.”

Despite its constant mutation, Québec’s hip-hop scene is still a male-dominated affair. Systematically relegated to the background, female rappers are still hopeful that things will change, and that the industry will lend them a strong hand in the near future.

“The time for female rappers to get more exposure is long overdue,” wrote journalist Yasmine Seck in VICE Québec back in January 2018. “Have women been left behind during Québec’s Golden Age of rap?” wrote La Presse journalist Stéphanie Vallet in an exhaustive special report that instantly turned into a hot-button issue on social networks.

For Frannie Holder of rap trio Random Recipe, this sudden media frenzy around women’s place on the local rap scene can only be beneficial. “We need to talk about it constantly,” she says. “If you ever hear people saying they’re fed up hearing about this, tell them that we’re even more fed up of having to endure this situation.”

Rapper Sarahmée has recently launched her second album, Irréversible, and she wants the current debate to turn into concrete action. “All has been said in the media, now is the time for bookers to show us what they’ve got,” she says. “Things are moving very slowly, so far… It’s always the same headliners at festivals. When I look at what all those events are offering, it feels like we’re three years behind. In the long run, it’s going to get boring for audiences. A lot of people have written to me saying that I’m not getting booked enough despite the excellent media coverage I’ve been getting.”

This situation also bothers Frannie Holder. “Festivals argue that they’re at the tail end of the production chain, and that they depend on what’s on offer, but ultimately, they often book only popular artists in the hopes of seeling as many tickets as possible,” she says. “I find that hypocritical, because if a booker only goes for what’s the most popular, they could easily be replaced by an algorithm. How does that deserve public subsidies [grants]? In Canada, there is an educational duty that comes with the arts. The arts must embody social change, and meet the needs of the people. I performed in an equal representation festival in Brazil, and I saw a ton of great female rappers that inspired me.”

Gatineau-born, Montréal-based battle rapper Honie B is also preoccupied by the issue of female representation in hip-hop. However, the 22-year-old rapper – who’s working on her first solo project – says she wants to avoid any kind of positive discrimination. “I wouldn’t want to be booked for a show just because the promoters have to meet a female quota,” she says. “I’d find that insulting.”

To her, it’s only a matter of time before women take the place they deserve. “Rap is still in its infancy here,” she says. “We’re slowly getting accustomed to the culture, and that means women need some time to emancipate. Whether you like it or not, it’s still a rough scene. You need to be very self-assured to stand out.”

That’s precisely what’s happening to Naya Ali. As the only rapper signed to the heavily hip-hop-oriented label Coyote Records, the Anglophone Montrealer has enjoyed new-found success since the release of her debut EP, Higher Self, last fall. Label President and founder Rafael Perez was instantly on board. “She’s fresh, she has a strong personality and a lot of drive,” he says. “As soon as I heard her demo, I was like ‘Wow! Where did she come from?’ We weren’t looking to sign a female rapper, but when you’re as impressed as I was, it’s awesome.”

But he’s the first to admit he doesn’t get a lot of demos from female rappers. “There’s probably a lot of great music that never makes it to my ears, young artists doing exceptional music in their basement,” he says. “And quite frankly, try as I might, I don’t find a lot of new female rappers… I believe keeping the conversation going in the media is a good thing, because it might inspire others to want to showcase their music.”

“We need projects that correspond to the reality of women… We need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.” — Frannie Holder

All this talk has gotten the ball rolling. Recently, Fondation Musicaction – a Québec-based organization that supports the production and marketing of a fair share of albums by Francophone artists in Canada – launched a pilot program supporting the mothers of infants (0 to 2 years old) in the development of their international careers. “This initiative came about because a lot of women musicians felt hindered professionally because they had a child; going on tour became way too expensive,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay, Musicaction Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs, about this exploratory measure that “allows the expenditure for an assistant entirely devoted to caring for a child while travelling.”

Sarahmée welcomes such an initiative with open arms. “I was told time and time again that having a child when you’re a female rapper is difficult,” she says. “People close to me were told stuff like, ‘Are you sure? How are you going to manage?’ It’s a truly great idea that’s in sync with the lifestyle of women, which is a lot less sedentary than it used to be.”

Frannie Holder agrees: “It’s like telling women that they don’t have to give up their careers to be a mother. I’ve seen many women delay their career way into their thirties, while men are often at their peak by then.”

According to the 34-year-old singer-songwriter, it’s through such initiatives, centred around women’s needs, that female rappers will be able to stand out more. “We need projects that correspond to the reality of women,” she says. “Helping each other out as female rappers is great, but we need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.”

One source of financing for the development of a specific skill – whether it’s through a conference, a course, a workshop or a seminar – is the SOCAN Foundation’s Professional Development Assistance Program. Just as accessible to young female rappers, the Foundation’s Travel Assistance Program covers a sizable portion of travel expenses when participating in a showcase or residency, for example. As a matter of fact, Frannie Holder and Montréal rapper Hua Li have both taken advantage of that subsidy in recent years.

Also available are training sessions provided by the Société professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ), which allow artists to fine-tune their trade (training sessions in writing, interpretation, stage presence…) and develop their business-related skills (legal advice about contracts, and how to protect their songs against theft or plagiarism). The over-600-member-strong organization is constantly looking for new artists who want to “professionalize” themselves.

Otherwise, two of the most accessible subsidies for Francophone female rappers are Musicaction’s emerging artist support and song production and promotion programs. The first program is for self-produced, emerging artists, while the second is aimed at independent or signed artists who want to produce four songs “for immediate promotion.” Beyond that, Musicaction’s grants are often geared towards, and more easily obtained by, established record labels. Bear in mind that currently, the three main hip-hop labels in Québec – Disques 7ième Ciel, Explicit Productions, Joy Ride Records – are recognized by Musicaction, and as such receive a yearly stipend from that organization to produce their roster’s albums. Yet none of them has signed a female rapper.

To counter-balance this male domination, Frannie Holder suggests following in the footsteps of the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), which recently tabled an action plan to achieve gender equality in film before 2020. From now on, a producer can only present two fictional feature-length projects “if one of them is written or directed by a woman.”

“It has made a world of difference in only two years,” says Holder, who’s been sitting of the SOCAN Foundation Board of Directors for about a year. “Now, it’s time to look at the financing offered to musicians by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), and other such bodies, to gradually move towards gender equality.”

That idea is making progress at Musicaction. “The latest versions of our forms include a male-female survey question, so that we get accurate data on the projects we finance,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay. “Our short-term goal is not gender equality, but we are aware of this issue in top management. We do make an effort to have more female juries. It gives us different ears.”

Without going as far as supporting gender-equal financing for Québe hip-hop, Rafael Perez welcomes change. “I’ll leave that question to the Boards of Directors, because it’s a sensitive issue for me,” says the man who’s signed on Laurence Nerbonne and Marième, two singers with marked rap influences, to his Coyote imprint. “But at the end of the day, I appreciate that the people involved are making more and more efforts [towards the representation of women on the local rap scene]. I think it’s a good thing.”

“Speaking French is a choice we make on a daily basis,” says Mario Lepage, a.k.a. Ponteix, a Franco-Saskatchewan person who chose music as the vehicle for his minority status. Bastion, his first full-length album, was written in his small town of St. Denis, a Francophone community in a sea of prairie, where speaking one’s language is a decision that’s renewed daily.

Ponteix, Mario LepageTo talk music with Lepage, we have to talk about the Francophone minority outside Québec. “For a lot of people, living in the language of their choice is a given, but for us it’s an issue,” he says. “You can catch English like you catch a cold, if you’re not careful,” he says laughing. My grand-dad would say ‘Aaaah, the Anglos!’‘

Speaking French was a struggle for Lepage and his family, which is why the subject is still so important for him, to this day. “When my dad went to school, he’d be bullied because he spoke French,” he says. “A lot of people of his generation chose to not speak French because of that.”

He promised himself that he’d write Bastion at home, where his roots naturally took him toward those musical themes central to his culture. “The more I wrote, the more I realized I had a deep relation to the place,” says Lepage. “My native village in the Great Plains really connected me to my heritage, the source of my Francophonie.”

Ponteix songs are part and parcel of the landscape that gave birth to them. “I had more and more songs that spoke about my relation with that place, so I figured it all had to go that way,” he says. “Wide-open spaces, endless skies, I felt my music was suited to travel in those wide-open spaces. Looking at all that, at the horizon, I got the feeling my music was like a screenshot of it.”

Linguistic duality is at the heart of Ponteix’s lyrics, exploring the numerous dilemmas attached to the local culture. “In ‘Alamo,’ I also talk about mental health,” he says. “It’s a double-entendre: the effect of that voice inside your head that won’t shut up also represents the pervasiveness of English. In my reality, it’s unavoidable,” says the artist.

Inevitably, family ends up at the heart of the portrait painted by Lepage. “I found old cassettes at my grandmother Irene’s,” he says. “She would record all kinds of random stuff when we were kids. At the beginning of my album, you can hear my cousin Ginette reciting a poem about 40 years ago. And at the end, that’s me at three years old, talking with my granny. She tells me that we’re going to learn a song together, and that she’s going to teach me good manners.”

It’s not happenstance that Ponteix isn’t a Montréal-based artist from Saskatchewan. For Lepage, there are just some things that mustn’t be transplanted. “There’s something truly special, culturally, at home,” he says. “No matter where I am, home will always be there.” The internet allows him to be a part of what’s going on without having to move. “We’re taking back control of our career, now,” he says. “Not everything is necessarily in the hands of a record label, and there’s a lot that can be done remotely.”

A movement of young artists, growing in numbers, is tearing down geographic and linguistic barriers – one by one. “There were a bunch of us who really enjoyed playing music in French,” Lepage explains. “We’re all friends, and we encourage one another. We had the chance of having great models who had to struggle before us: Folle-Avoine, Hart-Rouge, Anique Granger… They had to fight even harder than we do.

“It’s easy to forget that we’re Francophone. In my band, there’s this one guy who has Franco roots, but his parents struggled so much because of French that they simply decided to not transmit that part of their culture. Bastion is the source of my Francophonie. The song ‘Prud’homme,’ from the album, is my community choir singing in the church where my ancestors attended. That says it all.”

Whenever he feels limited, Lepage sees it as a challenge. That’s why he built his album on his own, with the help of only a few collaborators, notably Fred Levac, who co-produced, while always remaining firmly in charge. “I’m the son of a farmer,” says Lepage. “My father was just like that. He didn’t have the best equipment, and used ingenuity to make things work.”

The album, released in March, will travel about in various guises over the coming months, before both Franco and Anglo crowds. “Music does not need a language,” Lepage concludes.