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.”

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.”

“Against all odds, we made songs in French, and I’m proud of it,” says Jake PST, songwriter, singer, and producer in the quartet Ragers. The ex-punk, who delved into EDM before coming to rap, had an epiphany during the pandemic: “If we’re going to be stuck here, might as well do stuff in French and take advantage of the (Québec) market,” he says. La vie joue un tour (Life plays tricks on you), is the title of their first 100%-Francophone EP, to be launched in September of 2020.

Truth be told, the members of Ragers dipped a toe in the “Francocean” two years ago, by proxy, through the words of Rymz – who rapped on “Jeunes & fly and “All I Need,” two songs from their album Raw Footage; neither Jake nor MC Billy Eff had dared to work in French up to that point.

“We’ve always written in English,” says Jake PST. “I remember that, right from the get-go, we agreed on that choice: we would write in English because we couldn’t find ourselves in French. We never thought of making music in French – not because we didn’t want to, but because we weren’t confident enough writing in that complex language. And I needed to take a step back to make sure the lyrics were good. So after a few tries, we felt the time was right.”

The pandemic also afforded them some time, since the band – who made a name for themselves with its stage shows – was suddenly stuck at home (as we all were, starting in mid-March). “Ragers is an energy,” says PST. “It’s raw energy, a punk attitude, but with [Roland TR] 808s and a hip-hop vibe mixed with ‘chanson’ and pop. Yeah, ‘urban’ pop, but with a punk energy, especially onstage, which is where we really stand out. I always feel bad for the bands who play after us. We’re a very tough act to follow! We’re always striving to deliver a high-quality show, and surpass ourselves.”

RagersRagers had even planned on organizing their own outdoor festival, two days of camping and music with an all-local lineup, except for one band of friends from Italy. They were supposed to announce the even at the end of March… So, instead, they worked on the new EP, temporarily setting aside work on their fourth English album (now slated for 2021) to work on music carrying their newfound French eloquence.

“We had a lot of fun doing that, even though we had to go through a lot of trial and error before we felt like the songs were going in the right direction,” says PST. He believes that La vie joue un tour is Ragers’ poppiest project to date, one where pop sounds sometimes flirt with R&B (“Peekaboo”), trap (“Goût cerise, Ma fête”) or even tropical dance (“Hasta la vista”).

Ragers’ songs are either born in PST’s computer, or when the band jams. “About 90 percent of the time, it starts with a beat,” he says. “I compose the majority of them, and then Phil [guitar] and Jay [PST, his brother, the drummer] add their instruments. But when the vibe is more organic, the song will take shape in our rehearsal space, and then we add the other ingredients.”

For Ragers, it is a long process, “not so much when it comes to writing and composing as such, but because it takes us a while to take a song to a level we’re satisfied with,” says Jake PST. “A song often evolves so much over the course of this process, from the mix to the mastering. It can be tough. Mastering is important; it’s at that point that we detach ourselves from that project, and feel ready to move on to another one.”