Monk.E seems excited and a little out of breath when we reach him by phone in Uganda. It’s shaping up to be a special day, since not only will it be the coda to his six-month-long trek in Africa, but it’s also the end of recording of a collaborative album with Nutty Neithan, a star of the Kampala music scene, and rising star of the international dancehall scene.

“We already have eight songs in the can, and we’re recording the last two,” he says. “It’s going really well so far, we’re totally on the same vibe. He’s in a spiritual and philosophical mindset that’s deeply influenced by Rasta culture. We really connect on that.”

A few months ago, the Montréal-based artist connected with Zex BilangiBilangi, another singer with a rising star. Launched in May, Souffrir avec le sourire aux lèvres (Suffering with a Smile on Your Lips) – an album that includes songs sung in French, English, Luganda, and Spanish, with music at a crossroads of dancehall, afrobeat, and rap – is also the fruit of an intense cultural and human connection.

“We started freestyling the minute we met,” says Monk.E. “It was magical. He introduced me to new forms of music that I would never have explored otherwise. I don’t want to sound cliché, but I feel like there was some divine intervention in that acquaintance. Music naturally drew me to talk with Zex about his culture. And as I always do when I collaborate with someone, I adapted my discourse to his.”

In this case, the adaptation process was quite a challenge for the thirtysomething rapper and graffiti artist who, over the course of eight solo albums, had us accustomed to his shrewd, lucid lyrics full of social, political, and spiritual reflections, all shaped by his extensive travel. “Let’s just say I was not used to talking about women that much,” he says. “But with Zex and dancehall, it was appropriate for an album.”

Marketing was another laboratory filled with discoveries. “Marketing in Kampala is miles apart from what we know in Québec,” says Monk.E. “Your number of streams doesn’t mean much. Everything is street-based, you have USB keys going from one Internet café to the next, and their content is loaded onto cell phones. You don’t spend money on videos, you give it to promoters and DJs so that they’ll play your music.”

The rapper astutely used his “new entries” to have his music heard all over Kampala. “I saw people repeating the syllables of my lyrics in the street, which is funny and quite surprising, because French is barely understood here,” he explains, stressing the universal appeal of music, and the close proximity between his state of mind and that of his fellow citizens. “I feel like I can express myself more, here, even though we don’t speak the same language. Ugandans are very colourful, and they do everything with passion. I made a lot of people uncomfortable in Québec with my high level of expression, but over here, everyone cultivates that kind of eccentricity.”

Monk.EGood old Monk.E – the one who delivers his message songs with biting intensity – can be heard on “Le changement,” the opening track of Souffrir avec le sourire aux lèvres. The title refers as much to his new musical colours as it does to his perspective on international politics, especially those of Uganda.

“We have to question ourselves more than ever about who we are and the way we interact with the planet,” he says. “It’s a little more taboo of a subject here, but the president has been in power for over 30 years [Yoweri Museveni, since 1986]. The people are hungry and they want change, and Zex is actively campaigning for that change.”

Dubbed the “Prime Minister of the ghetto,” Zex BilangiBilangi has many affinities with Bobi Wine, a pillar of the Ugandan dancehall and afrobeat scenes, who’s dubbed “President of the ghetto.” Elected three years ago, Wine is one of the youngest representatives in the Ugandan parliament, and he’s the leader of an opposition party to Museveni (People Power, Our Power).

As a matter of fact, it’s in Wine’s studio – he’s still active on the music scene – that Monk.E and Zex recorded their album. “I painted three or four times for him, and he let me record at his place in exchange,” says the Montréaler who, because of this association, had to go through a few hardships the last time he visited Uganda. “Some people thought that my music was financed by the Ugandan opposition… And it’s partly why, after talking with people in the industry, I quickly understood my association with Bobi Wine would need to remain purely artistic. I have to be very careful not to involve his party in this.”

So, after visiting the country seven times, Monk.E is growing accustomed to Uganda, a place he now considers his home. “I’m really happy with the choices I’ve made,” he says. “I’ve grown artistically, socially, and on a human level, here. I love feeling supported by the public. People are adding me on social networks, I’m often recognized on the street… All this recognition, this sharing, and these friendships feed my creativity and permeate my art. I hope that’s also what awaits me in Québec.”

Jenie Thai isn’t panicking… yet.

Like practically every performing Canadian musician who’s found their livelihood decimated by COVID-19’s shutdown of the live music industry, the acclaimed blues pianist is in survival mode,  weathering a hand-to-mouth existence.

Jennie Thai

Jennie Thai

One of the tools she’s employing to help make ends meet derives from a concept that’s been around since the earliest days of classical music: Patronage. Its modern-day social media application, Patreon, is allowing fans who are interested in supporting Thai to pay a monthly stipend ranging from $1 to $300, with the musician offering exclusive creative content in exchange.  That varies from unreleased music made while recording her Night Fire album to – for the highest donation – a private Zoom concert.

“I decided to go for Patreon because when the pandemic started, I realized pretty quickly that there was going to be no income for who knows how long,” Thai said recently. “I have some pretty loyal fans, so I just decided to see what would happen if I essentially moved my career online.”

Thai calls the venture “an interesting journey” and admits there have been learning curves a-plenty involving technology and fan engagement.

Thai’s Patreon site numbers 44 subscribers so far: is she able to make a living? “No,” she laughs. “It equates to about $900 CAD a month, which is pretty amazing. I’m making some money that’s really helped out, and I’m always brainstorming new ideas.”

Thai admits that CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit ) – the temporary, supplementary income program created by the Federal government – has been a lifesaver. She says she’s also fortunate that her fiancé, Andrew Scott, is an in-demand session drummer.

Thai, who was scheduled to tour with Downchild this summer, hopes that high Toronto rents won’t force her, and Scott, to work outside music. “This is the only job we’ve had for the last 10 years,” she says.

Julian Taylor

Julian Taylor

Julian Taylor, who recently released The Ridge, feels Thai’s pain. He also recently launched a Patreon account, although he’s been busy focusing more on live-stream opportunities.

“When the album came out, I applied for Canada Performs sponsored by the NAC [National Arts Centre] and SIRIUS XM, and got that,” Taylor says. “They allowed me to put up a tip jar, whether it was GoFundMe or PayPal, hired me do a live-stream performance on my own Facebook page, and I was able to make tips from that performance.”

Taylor said he received tip jar income that was reduced from his usual fee, “but it is sustainable,” although he admits that the amounts paid by admirers to watch him perform online “have calmed down.

“I think you can only go to the well so often, which is why I’ve slowed down,” says Taylor, who – aside from  performing at the recent 500-car capacity drive-in RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa this summer – has spent his time performing for the Virtual Music Festivals that have supplanted the in-person versions of Mariposa, Hillside, and others. He’s also made inroads with U.S. publications, offering them to host virtual shows and promote his tip jar concept on their sites. But he admits his stint as the afternoon drive host on Toronto radio station ELMNT-FM is “the only thing keeping me alive.”

Toronto’s Mike Evin is also going back to basics with his online approach: the pianist is teaching music lessons but is also thinking of expansion. “I’m starting an online songwriting side-hustle that I think I’ll call, ‘Songwriting with Mike,’” he says. Evin admits that conducting any tutorials on Zoom offers challenges as a musician.

Mike Evin

Mike Evin

“There’s the time lag – and you can’t play music at the same time with someone over Zoom or any kind of platform,” Evin explains. “Whereas, when you’re together in person, you can demonstrate something, play together, and really get a vibe off each other.”

Technical difficulties aside, Evin appreciates the potential reach of online lessons. “I could be working with anyone in the world right now because it’s an unlimited playing field,” he says. “It’s not just limited to your local neighbourhood, or people where you live. That led me to have the confidence to say, well, I don’t have to work for someone else’s teaching business: I can use my contacts and my fan base through my own music as a singer-songwriter.”

As for the multi-media world, which includes films, TV shows, videogames, and commercial spots, Michael Perlmutter – the founder of music supervision firm Instinct Entertainment – says production has slowed dramatically for those songwriters and artists hoping to get songs placed, or “synched,” onscreen.

“For music supervisors, activity has certainly slowed down,” says Perlmutter, also the founder of the Guild of Music Supervisors Canada. “The American productions aren’t coming here.  Canadian productions – only a couple have started up.”

There are a few bright spots in terms of potential income generation. “I think the one thing that hasn’t slowed down as much is the advertising world,” he says. “Videogames are always being made – and labels and publishers are still licensing music for that.  And I think animation is going to be a big deal.”

However, Perlmutter is concerned that “because there’s not as much new programming out there” that the values of future back-end performance royalties may suffer, and that film and TV production music budgets may be negatively impacted by added COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

“Everything is changing, week by week,” he says.

It’s been nearly a month since the Polaris Music Prize short list reveal, which named DNA Activation by Witch Prophet’s (née Ayo Leilani) in its Top Ten, but Prophet is still in disbelief. “That was a complete shock to my system,” she explains. “I’m slowly getting used to it. It was really, really exciting.”

Witch ProphetAs a co-founder of hip-hop artistic collective 88 Days of Fortune, and member of hip-hop group Above Top Secret, one assumes Prophet is too cool to be giddy. But for years she wondered if she’d release solo music. The collective – one of many voices – was where she felt comfortable. Until it wasn’t.

“I spent years, before the The Golden Octave [her 2018 debut], trying to figure out my sound and overcome stage fright, internal insecurities and different things,” says Prophet. “My focus was on helping other people so I wouldn’t have to focus on myself. It’s easier to help other people than to deal with your own issues. At first it was wonderful, but then it became a crutch to my own growth, [not] recognizing that, ‘Hey, I’m an artist who also wants to create.’”

After a decade of underground influence that went beyond Canada, 88 Days of Fortune dispersed. People moved on. Some abandoned music, others made it a part-time thing. And friendships ended. It was a loss, but also an opportunity to step out on her own. Prophet says she couldn’t have done it without DJ/producer, Sun Sun, her wife, co-creator, and the quiet force behind The Golden Octave, who helped her take the album one song at a time.

“It’s such a simple piece of advice, but I wasn’t thinking like that,” she says. “I was thinking too grandiose. I was hyping myself up to be stressed. But there was no need to be stressed.”

The widely-praised debut sounded ahead of its time, though most tracks were written a decade prior. Prophet’s voice was front and center. She was now ready to begin DNA Activation — originally intended as her debut. Inspired by her family tree, including her teenage son (to whom she gave birth when she was 18), Prophet calls it “an intimidating process.”

“What we’re trying to do is to really make our actions match our words”

“I don’t really share stuff about my family,” she explains. “And culturally, Ethiopian-Eritrean, it’s taboo. That’s private.”

The moving album birthed love songs like “Darshan,” about her son. And, tear-jerkers like “Ghideon” about her estranged father.  “Sun was playing the beat. I got on the mic. She hit record and I just freestyled. And at the end she pressed stop and her eyes were so full of tears,” says Prophet, becoming emotional as she recalls the experience.

Now, with two celebrated albums, and a history of underground influence, Prophet and Sun Sun are creating indie label Heart Lake Records (inspired by the road on which their 50-acre farmland home sits). They’ve had the dream for years and they’re determined to make it a reality.

“We’re grown adults. We have a space. And now we’re trying to get some real funding and real money,” she says. “With 88 Days, we only ever got one grant and that was for $3,000, for our one-year anniversary, and then I won a pitch contest from ArtReach. For a lot of grants, you have to be an incorporated business, or a non-profit. The point is to make profits and allow people to make a living. We’re not a charity. This is business. I’m like, ‘Hey, give us money to actually help people.’ I’m surprised – we’re almost at $7, 000. That’s the most we’ve ever made. Ever! It’s like, Wow! People care and want to see this happen.

“There’s many conversations about the Canadian music industry not actually funding the most popular genre in the entire world, and most influential: hip-hop and R&B,” says Prophet. “It’s important not only for the Canadian music industry, but Canada to recognize the influence of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour] artists.  It’s important to do it now because the time is now. The time has always been now, and it will always be now. Black Lives Matter is more than just the posts. Actions speak louder than words, so what we’re trying to do is to really make our actions match our words.

“Heart Lake records will do [that], and the first person to go somewhere with Heart Lake is Witch Prophet,” she says with a laugh. “We’re independent. We’re a queer-woman-led label. We’re Black-owned, and we can do this. The ability to amplify voices is something people take for granted. We don’t take that for granted we’ve never taken that for granted.”