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.”

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.”

Joyce N'SanaDesignated a Révélation Radio-Canada (an emerging artist recognition), Montréal-based singer-songwriter Joyce N’Sana has just launched her second EP, Obosso – on the occasion of her show at the 35th edition of Montréal’s Festival international des Nuits d’Afrique. The word obosso means “going forward” in Lingala, one of the main languages spoken in her native Congo (Brazzaville). Which is fitting, because one of the EP’s main themes is hope, which is particularly on-point as the world gradually returns to a modicum of normalcy. Behind that message, the music broadens the horizons of N’Sana, who’s generally associated with the groove of African reggae.

“A lot of people think of me as a reggae artist, but I dabble in everything,” says N’Sana. “At the root of my work are blues and gospel — my very first stage was in church.” That’s where her parents – especially her father, a composer and guitarist – took the young girl, who now describes her style as “afrobluehop.” “He’s the one who taught me to harmonize over a voice,” she says, and informed her musical tastes. He turned her on to, among others, the legendary Papa Wemba – a monument of Congolese rhumba, and its hybridization with rock, and other musical stylings of her native country, such as ndombolo and soukous.

A good example of those gospel roots can be heard on “Mâma,” the surprising first single from Obossa, on which a blues organ sneaks behind her piercing voice, while splashes of electric guitar dance atop African percussion, rock drums, and even a drum machine. The song, and album, were produced by her Dakar (Senegal)-based collaborator Fred Hirschy, who’d noticed N’Sana’s talent while visiting Montréal. “It all happened naturally,” she says. “The first lockdown had just been declared when we started working on this project. The whole EP was done remotely – we sent each other tracks over the internet. We didn’t have any other choice, but it worked out well.

“All those influences give a special colour to my music and who I am today, just as reggae does, and it’s true musically as much as the message is concerned. I didn’t understand English when I listened to Bob Marley as a child in the Congo. But I would memorize key lines here and there, like ‘Get up, stand up / Stand up for your rights.’ Obviously, when you live in the Congo, you end up asking all sorts of questions about what’s going on [in society], and in that context, some songs speak to you more than others,” she says, alluding to the civil war raging in her country at the time.

“I don’t think I chose to make protest music, it was unavoidable,” says N’Sana. “I was moved by reggae’s message just as much as I was by the person delivering it. Whether it’s Marley or Lucky Dubé, one can only become one with that state of mind when you listen to their songs. Plus, there are incredibly few female reggae artists in Africa!”

Elsewhere on Obosso, listeners will find a duet with rapper, author, and public speaker Webster, “Chaînes,” about “breaking free of one’s chains, the mental ones, first and foremost,” says N’Sana. “It’s a song about liberation, quite simply; part of my verse talks about shame and the undue dominion it can have on us.” Obviously, the analogy also evokes the chains of slavery and, further into the song, immigration.

N’Sana herself left the Congo at the age of 17 to study applied foreign languages at the University of Orléans, an hour from Paris, “because my mother absolutely did not want me to go to Paris, even though I had family there!” says N’Sana. “I wanted to become an interpreter, but music never left me. Except telling your parents you’re dropping out of school to make music just doesn’t fly,” she says, laughing.

While pursuing her studies, she joined an Afro-soul band, which gave her a chance to perform outside the church. In 2006, the musician settled down in Montréal. “Canada was also one of my mom’s choices,” she says. “When there was a student strike [in France starting in 2005], there were no classes being taught, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not Québec?’ I have to say I was happy to get out of France for awhile. I felt pressure and a shock – a cultural one, granted – but that was the shock of racism. It was the first time in my life that I had to contend with that. So off to Québec I went!

Joyce N'Sana“When I arrived in Montréal, it was immediately clear that as far as culture is concerned, this is where it was happening,” she says. N’Sana then became part of the small but tightly-knit local reggae scene, and particularly the band of composer and director Dan Fiyah Beats. “Some friends told me about this place, Le Balattou, so I checked it out,” she says. N’Sana registered for the Syli d’or showcase competition organized by the Festival international des Nuits d’Afrique, which then invited her to give a performance on one of the festival stages.

Her parents eventually found out about her career as a singer-songwriter without her having to tell them: when she participated in the Syli d’or five years ago, a portrait of her was published in the Journal de Montréal, “and a Congolese newspaper picked up the article – that’s how my father learned about it,” she says. “He wasn’t surprised. He called me that very day and said, ‘Apparently you’re a singer? So, what do you sing?’ He didn’t really care whether or not I chose the right trade, because he knew it was my passion, but he did want to know what I was singing and what message I was carrying. That’s what mattered most to him.”

Inspiration visits N’Sana at any given moment, “and that’s why I don’t go anywhere without my phone,” she says. “I record everything: sometimes a melody will come first, or a theme, or even lyrics. Then, alongside a composer or producer, and some musicians, things fall into place naturally. I share my ideas with him and play those recordings. I’ll say stuff like, ‘In this section or that song, I hear a balafon or another instrument, this or that rhythm.’ I strive to achieve a final result that’s as close as possible to what I hear in my mind.”

Obosso is an EP that the musician and performer describes as “a return to the languages of my home: Lingala, Kikunga, and Tshiluba, adding, of course, English and a bit of French,” she says, already announcing a forthcoming “more Francophone” EP for the fall. The visibility afforded her by Radio-Canada’s Révélations program will undoubtedly give her a precious and considerable boost.

“I can feel things are taking off, because everything is moving very fast,” she says. “It’s OK, because we were prepared, we worked really hard to get here. We’re making the most out of it, and we’ll go beyond Montréal and Canada. We’re planning on exporting this to the States, Europe and Africa, too; why not?”