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Rock music was pioneered by Black artists. Here are 5 Canadian acts shaping the genre now

On the heels of the June 9 world premiere of The Onyx Experience, a new live concert film that traces Black rock music in Canada, the conversation around north-of-the-border genre trailblazers is rightfully reignited.

The Onyx Experience, which can be viewed above and on CBC Music’s YouTube channel, questions the lack of Black artists present in contemporary rock, despite the genre’s undeniable roots in the Black community.

“I produced this film to celebrate and shine a light on Black artists doing rock music in Canada,” says the film’s producer and Toronto-based music industry veteran David “Click” Cox. “There are not enough opportunities for Black artists to be heard and seen.”

So where can a complex, dynamic genre like rock ‘n’ roll go from here? Back to its roots, in the hands of innovative Black artists who are ready and willing to make some noise, we argue. 

Below, meet some of Canada’s most fearless new rock voices who are paving the way for the genre’s next generation.


Backxwash

Backxwash’s music is a riotous alarm — it snaps you out of anything you were doing before, demanding your undivided attention. Horrorcore, hip hop and industrial metal rule the sonic landscape Backwash (a.k.a. Ashanti Mutinta) plays in, creating music that is as bone-chilling as it is exhilarating. The Montreal- and Ottawa-based artist rose to widespread acclaim after her album God Has Nothing to do With This Leave Him Out of It won the 2020 Polaris Music Prize. 

That album found her rapping over Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin samples about gender, identity, her queerness and her upbringing in Zambia. The anger and frustration that comes forth in Mutinta’s guttural raps is an expulsion of resentment and pain, the lyrics a much needed cathartic release. As stated in her bio: “She is granting herself permission to be angry.”

These genres lend themselves well to Mutinta’s mission, as the bombastic drums, unrelenting guitar riffs and scathing synths collide fervently with the raw desperation in her voice. 

Aside from GHNTDWTLHOOI, Mutinta has released three other albums and a number of EPs, most recently I Lie Here With my Rings and my Dresses in 2021. Mutinta enlisted collaborators like clipping., Ada Rook, Lauren Bousfield, Nowhere2Run and more to flesh out her sound into what she told Revolver Magazine she calls “extreme rap … it’s like industrial music [taken] to the next level.”

Existing at the intersection of hip hop and metal, Mutinta has carved a particular place for herself in Canada’s music scene, one that’s helped her gain fans worldwide, leading to tours in Europe and the United States.

Backxwash | I Lie Here Buried | Polaris Prize 2021

Backxwash’s electrifying performance of “I Lie Here Buried” kicks off the 2021 Polaris Music Prize Winner Celebration.

Cam Kahin 

Cam Kahin is an artist on the brink of something special. The Toronto-based up-and-comer has a singular sound: part alt-rock, part lo-fi, part experimental sludge.

Kahin is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who grew up on heavy doses of Muse, Cage the Elephant and Biffy Clyro. He started making music when he was 12 years old, and has been honing his skills ever since, most recently participating in the Soundstock Academy program for emerging Black musicians in the GTA. Kahin released his first EP, Let it Sink In in March, working alongside his childhood hero, Nicolas Fournier, a well-respected engineer and mixer who has worked with both Muse and Biffy Clyro. 

There’s a tension in his songwriting — that of a young person faced with a world that doesn’t exactly seem made with them in mind. As he sings about smoking too much weed, everyone around him needing “four, five pills to sleep” and being his own worst enemy on his latest single “queen st,” the angsty lyrics become expert insight into the banality of life as a 20-something. 

Kahin’s music has a hazy, unpolished sound, and it’s in his live sets that the wild, guttural range of his voice really comes to life. He’s still getting his legs, but his opening performance for Irish band Inhaler at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre in April proved that he can most definitely hold his own. 


Jasmyn 

While Jasmyn Burke has been a staple in the Toronto indie-rock scene for over a decade now, the former Weaves frontwoman is still very aware of how rare it is to see women of colour onstage. In an interview with Exclaim! recently, to promote her debut solo album, In the Wild (out now), she said: “For me, sometimes, especially being in music, I might be the only woman of colour playing a festival or [being] in a certain atmosphere. You see how certain people are marginalized, you see how everyone has their own pain that they’ve been through that maybe makes them feel like they are not part of something.” 

In 2013, Burke’s band Weaves gained attention internationally for its out-of-the-box rock that felt like a kitchen sink’s worth of sounds, drawing from acts that ranged from Led Zeppelin to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The band released two critically acclaimed albums, 2016’s self-titled debut and 2017’s Wide Open, with the former earning Weaves a 2017 Polaris Music Prize shortlist nomination. Their last single dropped in 2019, and shortly before the pandemic hit, Burke disbanded Weaves. 

Now embarking on yet another transformation — prior to Weaves, Burke fronted another band called Rattail — Burke (who has relocated to Hamilton now) is seeking new beginnings on In the Wild. Burke’s comfort zone is still performing alongside songs built on rock foundations, but she’s also incorporating synth and dance elements into her new project. With every new era of Burke’s career, she’s vocally expressed doubt about continuing on in music — and we’re happy that every step of the way, she has continued to forge ahead.


Joncro 

Mississauga post-hardcore band Joncro has been making music “with a tropical twist” since 2015, as its bio reads. That twist refers to guitarist/singer Daniel Wilson’s Jamaican heritage, which seeps deeply into the band’s identity, including its name, which is patois for vulture, specifically turkey vultures that are native to the Americas. (The band is rounded out by drummer Matthew Mikuljan and bassist/keyboardist Kieran Christie.) 

Their mix of experimental noise rock, garage rock and post-hardcore is infused with Wilson’s personal storytelling, which draws from Caribbean music, culture and mysticism as well as his own childhood years spent living in Jamaica. For however much Toronto gets most of the glory for being a diverse, multicultural city, Wilson has praised Mississauga particularly for its ability to embrace people from different backgrounds and genres often on one bill. In 2017, Wilson told Now Magazine, of diversifying both the rock and Toronto/Ontario scenes: “I see the need for diversity, but I also don’t feel scared to add to it. One of the first ways of increasing our visibility is by not being afraid of saying, ‘Hi, I’m here.'” 

Last year, Joncro released its debut album, Richmond Station, via Get Better Records. 


Vagina Witchcraft

“You can watch me work twice as hard as my counterparts because this is how I was created. I was born and bred in a white world. My uniform was one of unison, and it was one of self-loathing. The kinks in my hair, and the power of those who paved the way before me, are my reason to succeed. I will no longer smooth out my complexion to suit your goddamn ignorance.”

This is a mere fraction of the extraordinary monologue Vagina Witchcraft vocalist and non-binary activist Kayla Fernandes delivered at a Winnipeg Black Lives Matter event in response to the murders of Black citizens by police officers in North America. A recording of the powerful speech, which was met with relentless roars from the crowd, is also the introduction to the band’s self-titled, Polaris Music Prize-longlisted 2020 EP — a ferocious six-song release that solidified the doom-metal band as one that will rip through the noise to ignite change, both in and outside the music scene. The band’s scorching, reverb-soaked guitars and Fernandes’ explosive delivery are at the sonic core of their hardcore anthems, but it’s Vagina Witchcraft’s supercharged lyrics around anti-racism and mental health that will pave the way for Canadian metal’s next wave. 

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