Welcome to uOttaKnow, [pause] a forward thinking, expert-driven podcast produced by the University of Ottawa.
Hello, I’m Gwen Madiba, host of uOttaKnow and a proud two-time graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. I am also the president of the Equal Chance Foundation.
uOttaKnow puts you in touch with uOttawa researchers and alumni at the cutting edge of their fields for thought-provoking discussions on today’s trending topics.
Season II of uOttaKnow continues with a focus on wellness and personal growth. As we mark February as Black History Month, today’s episode will explore the power of music for social change as well as healing with Afrobop musician Idris Lawal.
A bit about Idris. He’s a uOttawa alumnus with a BCom in marketing and entrepreneurship from the Telfer School of Management.
After graduating, he moved to Toronto, where he is now an account executive at the marketing agency Cosette as well as an Afrobop recording artist. He released his first EP, Young Black & Blue, to great acclaim in June of 2020. He was chosen as a finalist for RBCxMusic’s First Up concert series and his latest single, “Wallflowers,” was featured on CBC Fresh Air. With all of this on the go, he still makes time to support his alma mater as a member of uOttawa’s Toronto Alumni Council.
Idris, thanks for joining us from Toronto today!
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
So, in your bio you refer to yourself as an Afrobop recording artist. To start, it would be great if you could talk about what Afrobop is.
Yeah, Afrobop is a self-coined term. It’s what I call my music. Obviously, bop is a term that the kids use these days. It could substitute for being cool. You know, “I thought that bop,” and I would say it’s a combination of Afro music or Afrobeat music. I grew up in Nigeria. And when I grew up during this time, for the most part, I listened to African music. I don’t think I actually listened to, like, non-African music until I was like maybe 10 years old. So people like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, they influenced my early African influence.
As I actually started writing music, I moved out from Nigeria, and I ended up moving to Qatar, in the Middle East, which is a weird place to discover hip hop in the Middle East. But that is where I discovered hip hop. And that’s where I started writing. And I also think back then it was being a black kid in the Middle Eastern environment, I was trying to kind of find myself and my identity. And a lot of what I saw on TV then in regards to being black was, honestly, hip hop culture, which was from America, which was, you know, early 2000s, the time of the G-Unit and Joe Budden, and so I started writing as well. And really, that hip hop background really came from that time.
And then, you know, as I moved from Qatar and moving back to South Africa, kind of reconnected with my African roots and then moving to Canada, becoming an adult and, you know, purposefully reconnecting with my roots, I discovered more connections. For example, Fela Kuti Afrobeat was very much influenced by jazz and James Brown’s rock music. He made music a lot with James Brown, and they influenced each other. So, I started also looking into funk and jazz music. And I met Jelani Watson, who’s a saxophonist, and, you know, he’s a big jazz head. He became like my second voice, and really brought that jazz influence, which I just loved.
So, I guess, you know, Afrobop is that combination of, you know, Afro music, hip hop lyrics and that jazz and soul vibe to it and is a very much a product of me kind of moving around growing up and taking in all these cultures and meshing it into what is my own. So, honestly, as much as Afrobop is a genre it really is also like kind of, like, for me personally, like a lifestyle and my individual culture, I guess.
So, music is consciousness, you said, and you released your debut album, Young Black & Blue, last June during a global pandemic and a month after George Floyd’s death, which saw tens of thousands of people protesting around the world.
Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy because the music and I’ll say what I like, what I know about it and what everyone said about it, which is, like, it’s timely. But I mean, honestly, I started working on the project in, I would say, 2017, when I actually moved from Ottawa to Toronto, and really started, like, living life, got out of the school bubble, and really got to, like, as an adult, see what the world is, like, you know, really, as a black man. So work on the project was done in, like, December 2019. And, you know, in the early months of 2020, was really just, like, working on, like, things like the artwork, shooting the video. So, I mean, what happened with George Floyd is very, very sad, obviously, but also like, it’s been happening, and that’s what affected the project all the way from, you know, 2017 to 2020. So, I mean, it’s timely, but also, it’s bittersweet, because it shouldn’t be always timely, you know that. Yeah.
Absolutely. And this album, it is very personal, about your own experience as a black man. Can you tell us what it was like to put your art out into the world at that moment in time?
It was overwhelming. I gotta be honest — it was very, very overwhelming. But everything that was going on, obviously, it’s like a lived experience. It’s something I’ve lived through, something, Gwen, I’m sure you’ve lived through your entire life.
So, and then it became very prevalent in social media, which was amazing to see, because I think that was the first time it had really been that prevalent on social media. It was the first time you actually had other races kind of admitting and checking their own privileges, and also forming the support groups to kind of speak on our behalf as well. So, it was overwhelming, in that sense, because like, I’ve lived it, but also as I scrolled through my social media, you were seeing it every day.
And then once I got off social media to like, let me work on my music, I was working on the same thing. So it was a little bit overwhelming, but it was also kind of healing, which, you know, like it was the whole process of it, you know, after, like, soaking it in all through all day on social media, I might even work on diversity initiatives, going home and then being able to kind of release all that through music, and express that through music was definitely healing and it was kind of like, like, just that, like, yeah, just that breathing moment. Yeah.
Yeah, healing through music is really powerful. Before we go any further, though, I want our listeners to hear this incredible music. We are going to sample the last track on your debut EP, titled “Healing.”
(Sample of “Healing”: I dream of sunshine, I dream of sunsets When I ain’t know how to feel. I look up and I heal. I dream of cool waves. I let my blues take, when I ain’t know how to feel I did deep and I heal. Ooooh…)
Beautiful. Idris, tell us what this song means to you. I’m guessing it is not accidental that you leave your listeners with it at the end of your album.
Yeah, um, yeah. It’s the song itself. Was it the first time I kind of maybe touched on mental health a little bit on a song? And it was honestly the last song I actually made for the album. And that’s why it made sense to leave it there. But also it was after I’d done the album, which kind of felt like a narrative of the Black experience through my like, my personal experiences, and also what I’ve seen other people kind of experience and kind of, like, what, what can you do after you’ve narrated everything that has happened?
It’s almost like what’s the “so what,” and for me, the “so what” was like, we need to heal, like I need to heal, I need to. Like, I’ve seen, I’ve accepted that all of this has happened. I’m aware about it. But I also need to be able to heal. And that is what my music was. So I was able to work so I worked on that song. And that was what it was, for me. It was just a healing after everything to heal. And when I created it after creating all those songs, it was a healing process.
And even to this day, when I listen to that the album and I listen to everything and I’m like, it gets deep, it gets deep and at the end that healing that song is really just like I said, it’s just like a breather. It’s why also at the end we have, like, the saxophone solo, that just goes, because it’s really just we purposefully ended that with a saxophone solo, because it’s a very wordy album and a conscious album. So the saxophone solo really just lets you kind of just sit back and just let, like, everything that you’ve kind of heard through the entire album. And even on that song, it’ll just kind of like marinate in your head. And just, it’s that time you kind of bask in it. So yeah, that song for me is, it was just healing, it was just like, like, yeah, you did it, you know, you lived it, the way you’ve experienced it, and you came out of it on top.
And yeah, you’re healing. And even, I’d say, outside of the black experience. At that point, obviously, we’re still going through it right now, this unfortunate pandemic. So there was also that it was not also like, the whole world also needed to heal. So I think what we’re going through also seeped into that song as well. You know, it was a mental, mental healing for me, but also actual physical healing for kind of the world that we need.
And also, I just want to, if I can, just give some shout outs to a few people who really helped me bring the project to life. First of all, I already mentioned Jelani, who, you know, was really like a second voice for me throughout the EP with the saxophone. And that was an amazing experience. Sydnee, who, I guess for me, when you’re creating music that is kind of, quote unquote, documenting or expressing the black experience, you can’t document the black experience without the voice of a strong black woman. So it was very, very important for me to have a black female presence on the song and Sydney was that and you know, she sang backup vocals on all the songs on the album. So a big shout out to her as well. Kyu, who helped me mix all the songs in the project, as well. That was amazing as well. And so thanks to Kyu. Thanks to Antoine, who produced some of the songs on there. Thanks, Dean, who played the bass. Thanks Lã, who played the guitar.
Thanks for sharing that, Idris. Well, we have a spotlight question for you today from a fellow alumnus who graduated from the Faculty of Social Sciences, Liautaud H Philogene. Liautaud, who works under the artist name King H, is a Haitian Canadian who has been active on the cultural scene since 2012 as a musician and spokesperson for the Haitian community. His debut album, Mon Heure, will be released this year. And he’s currently working on his marketing strategies to promote the album within the Francophone community across Canada.
Liautaud H Philogene
Hi Idris, it was a pleasure to listen to your music. And after listening to your album, I have a question for you. As a Black artist, do you feel like there are enough resources to teach our communities about the Canadian music industry? Thank you very much for having me.
Thanks. Yeah, also, by the way, I gotta say, I really love your album title, Mon Heure. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right but I love the name. But anyway, back to your question. Yeah, I think, like, I think there are resources for artists in general for sure to learn how Canadian music works. Um, I think where it kind of differentiates is a lot of these, like, resources and a lot of these books do it for albums that you know already exist, like, you know, like your pop or like your country. I mean, even hip hop, there’s ways, but like, like you were saying, you know, like your album, your music is influenced by Haitian culture, and kind of just like me, my music was influenced by my African culture.
So I think when I was trying to really market that’s when I found that oh, there’s not enough resources for people who make those unique kinds of music even down to, like, what do you call the genre? What do you call it, you know? Afrobop is something I invented, which is what I call my music. But when I upload it to streaming and stuff like that, or when I’m marketing it, for the most part, I do have to say it’s a world-sounding album. So even down to those unique things, like being able to just uniquely identify your album would be nice, as well as the ability to uniquely identify our albums.
But some resources that I’ve been using personally, you know, websites like Baxter, the [Canada Council for the Arts], the Ontario Arts Council, they do have a lot of resources, down to information or even funding opportunities and grants. A lot, I would say also, is maybe a by-product of what happened last year with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, but a lot more organizations are also aware now.
And they’re being a lot more attentive and purposeful in the opportunities they’re offering us, Black people and POCs. There’s a lot more opportunities, you know, programs like CBC, they now have Errol Nazareth, who’s a CBC radio host who just started launching his own program called Frequencies, which is dedicated to sounds from unique cultures that you might not hear. But that’s one great way. I definitely recommend sending your project to him, because he would definitely love to hear it, check it out and amplify that.
And yeah, I mean, the way I really, the way I marketed myself, honestly, was I reached out to outside of Canada. For a while I reached out to back home in Nigeria, I reached out to where Nigerian, Afro music is really popular, which is in the U.S. and in the U.K. And I marketed myself there, and I networked there and then eventually brought it back home.
But yeah, there’s that we live in a virtual world and COVID made it a lot more virtual. So it's definitely gotten a lot easier for us to kind of manoeuvre and find those resources. But yeah, the resources available. I think they’ve got to get better at uniquely identifying our unique sounds and our unique talents versus grouping us into certain categories, like maybe world or urban because the resources that might work for us, or the strategies that might work for hip hop parties would not necessarily work for me or probably for you as well. And yeah, yeah, I love the album name and I can’t wait to check out the music.
Idris, talking about looking to the future, what is motivating you right now in your music looking ahead?
So, like, I guess going back to this whole pandemic thing, we’ve all been spending a lot of time at home — so have I — and I’ve just really gotten into a groove of production and producing music and I kept producing brighter sounds as I look personally look towards brighter times for all of us in the world. So I’m really excited about that and just released some new music that you know, hopefully, just continues to help the world heal.
Last year, I think we saw a lot of like bridging of technology music from AR to VR experiences to video games. We saw like Travis Scott and Fortnite for example. I’m so like, I’ve, personally, I’ve always been like a techie. I’m a big nerd. I love comic books. I play video games a lot. So I’m personally also looking for how I can bridge my music more with, like, the things I love in regards to technology, digital experiences, music, musical experiences. I’m so looking forward to that as well. Hopefully, things open up with the vaccine and everything.
The funny thing is, when I released the album in the midst of the pandemic, I didn’t get to tour, I was hoping to like release it and then go out and perform the shows and things like that. But honestly, looking back, if I had gone ahead and just done that, my band, we hadn’t had enough time to, like, practise together and get really tight as a band. So maybe they wouldn’t have been the best shows.
But, I mean, throughout this whole pandemic I’m humbled and blessed to have had these opportunities to do these virtual shows and virtual performances to a point where we as a band, where now I would say we’re in, like, our groove is tight. When we perform it, we just go and we perform it. And it’s like it sounds very good. Like we’ve been doing it for a year, which we have. So I’m excited to, hopefully, do some live performances with them, and give these and just really showcase from a live perspective, all the music that we’ve been working on. So I’m excited for the world to heal. And for me to continue to create and for me to, like, create music that also continues to help the world heal. Yeah.
I really hope once this is all passed, we can have you come back on campus for a show! I know I really would look forward to getting to see you play live.
Yeah, I would love that. It’d be great, great experience to come back, especially to uOttawa and perform, or even just speak, I would love that for sure. And I look forward to that as well.
Idris, could you let our listeners know where they can find you online?
For sure. I’m everywhere online. I am at Idrisxlawal. So that’s IDRIS x LAWAL. My website is also idrisxlawal.com. So from there, you can access all my Instagram and Twitter and also Spotify and Apple links, where my music, obviously the album, resides as well. And yeah, I’d say my website is the easiest hub.
Thanks, so much for joining us today and sharing your music and your story! To end today’s episode, I want to leave our listeners with a sample of one more track from your album. Idris, what have you chosen for us?
So I have my song “Wallflowers.” It’s, first of all, it’s a dedication. It’s a celebration of the little black boys and little black girls who fell victim to police brutality. And honestly, when I started writing the song, it started off as an inner reflection. Growing up, I had, I had protective parents and obviously for good reason — I’m a black man living in the world that we live in. So I spent a lot of time at home.
Moms say, you know, “Stay at home, just watch TV or something.” Luckily, I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I instead spent a lot of time consuming music books or maybe creating my own music and I’d say that set me up to be the man that I am today.
But as I started working on the song, with everything that happened last year, I couldn’t help but reflect on those who were not able to grow into the people that they could have been, that they were destined to be. The wallflowers never got to bloom for your Breonna Taylors, your Ahmaud Arberys, your George Floyds, who was obviously an older man, but also his life was cut short as well. So that song is really about that — it’s about, I’m giving them their flowers. First of all, I’m memorializing them. So like I literally say their names on the song. So when people sing the song, yes, though, your names will hopefully forever ring on.
And, you know, like in a lot of cultures, in my culture, death is not the end. It’s a new beginning. And we actually celebrate when, like, our funerals are a lot more celebratory. So in my way, it’s also like celebrating their new beginnings as well. So yeah, that is what the song “Wallflowers” is. It was produced by my friend Antion, and it features Jelani, obviously, on the saxophone. It features Rocsi with some backup vocals. And as always, it was mixed by Kyu. Thanks to you guys for listening and bringing me in for this conversation. And thanks to everyone who’s listening. And yeah.
Thank you very much again, Idris, for joining us today. And now, here’s “Wallflowers” by Idris Lawal.
uOttaKnow is produced by the University of Ottawa’s Alumni Relations team. This episode was recorded at Pop Up Podcasting in Ottawa, Ontario. We pay respect to the Algonquin people, who are the traditional guardians of this land. We acknowledge their longstanding relationship with this territory, which remains unceded. For a transcript of this episode in English and French or to find out more about uOttaKnow please refer to the episode description.