Unmistakable in a cream kaftan and his trademark white kufi cap on the Junos’ red carpet, Canadian musician and poet Mustafa wore an unusual accessory to the annual awards: an armour-like vest with the word “poet” stitched in large letters across the chest.
When the 25-year-old was asked by Eli Glasner of CBC News if his words are his protection, the singer said, “Absolutely.”
“Naturally, I always feel like I’m defending my heart, defending myself from all forms of violence — you know, violence against my heart, violence against my community, violence against my faith.”
WATCH | Mustafa tells CBC News about using folk music to tell stories about his community:
The singer-songwriter, who is Muslim, said he feels Islam is in a vulnerable place, with those who practise it seen and portrayed as perpetrators, rather than victims of violence.
“I decided to throw it on because it felt good to me, you know what I mean? I’m from the hood, but I’m also, like, I practise my faith, and all forms of defence and all forms of worship really matter to me.”
Having grown up in the underserved Toronto neighbourhood Regent Park, Mustafa has described his debut album, When Smoke Rises, as “inner-city folk music.”
The project’s success has resulted in a series of highs. Most recently, Mustafa won alternative album of the year at this weekend’s Junos in Toronto, but it was born out of the artist’s grief upon losing several friends to gun violence.
Inspired by Canada’s singer-storyteller greats — Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell — he tried to meld their poetic sense for songwriting with his community’s underexplored narrative.
“I listened to their ability to tell stories. I just wanted to do that for myself, for my community,” Mustafa said.
“That it feels like I’m contrasting one reality with another is the reason that I feel it’s so important that I draw that intersection, that I continually remind people that we are deserving of that as well.”
As a producer, the Toronto-born artist has made a name for himself in Canada and beyond, working with internationally successful pop artists like the Weeknd, Camila Cabello and Usher.
But folk music has his heart — and it’s starting to grow on his friends, too.
“At the beginning, I think it was a little bit jarring for them,” he said, as an entourage of close confidants gathered just behind him on the Junos’ red carpet.
“They were made to feel alien by the selection of that genre, but, you know, slowly but surely, they arrived at a place where they were able to appreciate it.”
Putting his arm around Mustafa, one friend looked into the camera. He told CBC News that the young musician is “one of the greatest to ever do it.”
“He’s the hope; he’s the voice.”