“Any life that revolves around me, inevitably makes me sad. That’s one curious thing I’ve noticed…What that tells me is that, most times, happiness comes from being able to forget yourself.”
Within today’s mainstream hip-hop culture Shad K is an outlier. He shy’s away from the spotlight, he refuses to compromise his religion in his rhymes, and he prefers humility over Hennessy.
On paper, Shad K has all the right ingredients for an unsuccessful career in rap music. On record, however, he transcends the stereotypes, and has managed to obtain a high degree of success, respect, and critical acclaim.
Born in the small Kenyan town of Kakamega to Rwandan parents, Shadrach Kabango (a.k.a. Shad or Shad K) has been heavily shaped by his upbringing. Though he moved to Canada, and was raised in London, Ontario, he remains a global citizen, concerned with global issues.
Before entering the music industry, Shad was an undergraduate business student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. However, after he entered and won $17,500 from “The Beat’s Rhythm of the Future” talent competition, Shad decided to independently finance a debut album.
In 2005 he self-released “When This Is Over.” It was met with widespread buzz, and praise. The album cemented Shad as not only a brilliant wordsmith, but also a man with a message. One standout track on the album called “I’ll Never Understand” was about the Rwandan genocide, and included excerpts of his mother, Benadette Kabango, reading poetry about the tragedy.
From this initial introduction, Shad’s career has steadily risen to new heights. Since 2005, he has released two full length studio albums, 2007’s The Old Prince, and 2010’s TSOL. Both of those albums were nominated for the Polaris Prize (Canada’s most prestigious music prize), as well as various other sought after industry awards. In 2011, his latest album, TSOL, won the Juno (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys) for rap recording of the year, beating out Drake’s Thank Me Later.
Instead of attempting to explain what Shad does, it’s best you just listen, and watch, for yourself. Below is a cut from TSOL called Rose Garden. I believe it encapsulates all the best qualities of Shad’s music: clever wordplay, smooth flow, great production, and meaningful lyrics.
As well as carving his own lane in hip-hop, Shad has also been keeping his mind sharp. In June of 2011 he completed his masters degree in liberal arts from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.
When I started this website Shad was one of the first people I wanted to speak with. Finally, after seven months I got the chance.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of the most inspiring and talented artists in music. I was lucky to catch up with Shad while he was in Toronto attending the Canada Reads launch party at CBC headquarters.
Big thanks to Tendisai Cromwell for helping set this up. And, thank you to Shad’s amazing manager, Gaurav Sawhney, for graciously fitting me into Shad’s hectic Toronto schedule.
From literature, to Rwanda, to the global Occupy movements, to faith and hip-hop, to Drake, to Shad’s masters degree, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: We’re here at the CBC studios in Toronto today. You’re promoting the book “Something Fierce” by Carmen Aguirre for Canada Reads. Tell me a little bit about this book, and why you chose it?
Shadrach Kabango: It’s incredible because every two pages you remind yourself that this is someone’s true story. In summary, the book is a personal memoir, a coming of age story of a girl becoming a woman in these really unique circumstances. Her parents were part of the resistance movement in Chile, and they moved to Canada as exiles when she was a kid. When she was still very young she moved back to South America, and lived there as part of the underground resistance.
Incredible, incredible story. She paints the whole picture of the South American political landscape, as well as her story growing up. There’s a lot of depth, humour, and historical context, and it’s all true. What I think is amazing about it too is that this a person you could pass on the street any day. She lives in Vancouver now.
RK: It seems like the empowerment of women is an issue that you are keen to promote. You had a great track about women on “TSOL” called ‘Keep Shining’. Do you think you were drawn to this book at all by your desire to promote women who have stories that need to be told?
SK: Yeah, exactly like you said: I think it needs to be heard. There’s a big feminist element to this book where she’s growing up under these circumstances and she talks candidly about being a woman. I think it’s powerful to share those stories too. It’s cool.
RK: What other books would you recommend that people need to read?
SK: My favorite books of all time are mostly non-fiction. But, as far as fiction goes “The Brothers Karamzov” by Dostoyevsky is up there.
I’m also a C.S. Lewis fan – “Screwtape Letters” is my favorite. Also some of Tolstoy’s later stuff.
RK: You were recently in Rwanda playing a show. How often do you get to visit?
SK: My parents live there, so I go back just about every year. It’s great. It’s a real privilege to stay connected to the place I’m from. I know a lot of people don’t get that chance, so I feel lucky.
RK: When I visited Rwanda it was evident that the country had made massive improvements post-genocide. What are your thoughts about the country’s recent progression under Kagame?
SK: It’s amazing. You can see it. He has a clear vision for the country, and he works extremely hard. Everyone you hear talk about Kagame always talks about how hardworking he is, and how serious he is about executing. If there’s an idea he’ll work on it fast. I think that’s part of what’s driven the progress there. One day he’s like, “Plastic bags are no good. Banned. Done.” It’s a very safe, and clean country – especially for that region. Economically it’s been growing at a pretty crazy rate.
RK: What are your thoughts on the military presence in the country? Many see Rwanda as a military state that has neglected democratic processes.
SK: You always have to take context into account. What’s going on there seems to work at this particular time, in that particular place.
RK: Romeo Dallaire’s “Shake Hands With The Devil” was shortlisted for this year’s Canada Reads, but it was not chosen. Seventeen years later, how well do you think the story of the Rwandan genocide is known, and understood outside of Rwanda?
SK: If you talk about our awareness here in Canada, I think it’s extremely limited. But that also goes for any political situation anywhere. That’s just the sad reality. I think that book has gotten a lot more exposure than others have. Like I said today, just exposing people to the realities of political situations around the world, and how we’re involved is important. The world is one place. National sovereignty is a thing, but it’s also kind of an illusion – we are all connected in this world. That book has gotten good circulation, but at the same time a lot can be done to improve our awareness here. It probably starts with education, and the next group of kids coming through school. I’d love to see them get educated in world history.
RK: When talking about Africa the issue of inequality often comes to mind. The Occupy movements have illuminated this global problem, and I feel Africa, perhaps, gets the brunt end of inequality. What are your thoughts on the movement in general, and its place in Canada?
SK: My perceptions of the movement, and what I tried to get across in that Vancouver Sun article, is that there seems to be a lot of confusion obviously, because it’s not your typical protest where it’s about a specific thing, with a specific outcome that people want. This, to me, seems like a movement that’s about a general awakening around inequality and important issues that at this particular point in history are no longer acceptable to a lot of people. That is what the movement is about to me. Really what I tried to do with that blog post was get that statement of unity out there in front of at least a few more people, so they could see how entirely sensible it is. That’s all I was really trying to do. I think everybody who feels connected to it, in someway, relates to it in their own way.
RK: As we speak, the Occupy Toronto camp at St. James Park in Toronto is being taken down. Do you think there is some injustice being done here? And, can it continue on regardless?
SK: I think so. It’s a peaceful protest. Hopefully, some things have been accomplished by this. Specifically, that politicians know that their citizens are concerned with certain issues. I do think there are good politicians out there, and they need to know that there is a base of support out there if they want to advance certain ideas.
I think the movement can continue on. It’s an idea that might have its time right now. The movement can continue if there’s the right people, and creative ideas around it.
RK: Looking at the inequality stats for the world can be extremely depressing. What role does your faith play in providing hope for the future of our planet?
SK: I still believe it’s important to try. I think that’s how it plays in. Can we do anything? I don’t know. I was at this workshop on climate change, and this economist who was there said, “You know, the problem is that the people that oppose this stuff have a lot of money, and don’t care about the truth. We unfortunately don’t have money, and care about the truth.” So, the odds seem against us. The most important thing though is to continue to try, and think it’s possible. On a fundamental level, it’s important that we keep our compassion, and our faith in the truth and caring for people alive.
RK: In blunt terms, would you say that that hope, and attitude is mediated by a Christian/Biblical perspective?
SK: I think so. If you look at the story of Jesus in the Bible that’s a counter cultural narrative that is about hope. It literally symbolizes love’s inability to die – as I understand it. That’s what it symbolizes to me. Love can’t die. That’s why it’s important to face the facts, and though they are daunting the important thing is to continue to care. The truth can’t die. It can’t be crushed.
RK: Your faith also plays a big part in your music. Do you feel that you still face any adversity as a Christian/religious rapper?
SK: I don’t think so. I’ve never really felt that. My faith is a lens through which I see the world. It’s a part of my education. It’s my spiritual education, which side by side with my musical education, and education-education, informs my perspective. I’m inspired by spiritual metaphors, and the kind of rich spiritual history I’ve grown up with, and continue with in my life. It’s not a hindrance to me as an artist, it actually inspires me in my life and work. I’ve never considered it a hindrance.
RK: Considering many of your fans are likely not Christian, and may in fact dislike the faith completely, is there ever a tension in how explicit you want to express your faith in your rhymes?
SK: I’ve always understood it like a conversation. How do I talk with a friend? I don’t speak to people in a language they don’t understand. If you and I were to talk about faith, there is certain ways I could talk to you that we would both understand. If I wanted to open up the conversation and speak to more people, I have to speak in a language more people understand. That’s how I think about it. It’s less about being blunt or not being blunt, but speaking in a language that people get.
RK: I recently did an interview with Malice from the Clipse, and we spoke a lot about his spiritual conversion, and his desire to distance himself from the drugs-and-money lifestyle he once endorsed. The same thing happened to Mase years ago. I’m wondering if you think that it’s inevitable that rappers who reach that level of success will ultimately crash and burn?
SK: Yeah, I think so, because money or whatever it is, is something you can never really get enough of. You can’t. For whatever reason there are people that can see that end game and opt out at one time or another.
It’s hard to talk about someone else’s experiences, but one thing I’ve noticed is that even when something great happens to me the more I think about it, it will become bad. So, any life that revolves around me, inevitably makes me sad. That’s one curious thing I’ve noticed. Say something great happens like winning an award, if I think about it for more than five minutes it turns into “I’m happy about it. Oh, well what’s next? What’s the pressure? What are people thinking?” Automatically it transforms in my mind. I’ve always found that funny. What that tells me is that, most times, happiness comes from being able to forget yourself.
RK: Canadian hip-hop is in a good place right now. This week, Drake’s “Take Care” will be the biggest record in the world. What are your thoughts on Drake the artist, and his latest album?
SK: Well, what I applaud about Drake is that he’s got good taste. Second, I think he’s talented. And, thirdly he’s always gone after his own lane. He’s not just at the top of hip-hop, I think he’s also at the forefront in a lot of ways. Creatively he’s pushing a lot of boundaries in mainstream hip-hop. So, I respect him for what’s he’s doing.
I haven’t taken in the whole album yet, but sonically it’s really interesting. It’s moody. It’s cool.
RK: You should snag a beat from 40.
SK: 40’s killing it. He’s stepped it right up. This, to me, sounds like the last album but better.
RK: I’ve always thought of you as an “anti-celebrity.” Is the level of success, and attention, that someone like Drake has achieved something you want?
SK: It’s not something I want, but it’s something that can come with the work I like, and do. To me, celebrity is not something that I’m interested in, but it can come with this work. In my opinion, you can’t complain about celebrity. What do you think will happen if you’re good? You work in entertainment.
It’s not something that I like, or would want to encourage. I think the culture of celebrity that we have is really bad. Pretty plain and simple: I don’t think it’s healthy.
RK: One artist that you’ve collaborated with in the past is Ian Kamau. His buzzing is building these days. Can you tell me a bit about him?
SK: I first heard Kamau when I was doing my undergrad, and he was touring with K-OS. He was amazing. So, I was a fan of him before I was even doing anything. He’s deep in the scene and community in Toronto. He’s super talented. He just dropped an album called “One Day Soon.” Check it out if you get a chance, it’s real music. He’s hands-on in every aspect, there’s a 32 page booklet that comes with the CD with all his designs, and lyrics, and everything.
RK: You just completed your masters degree at Simon Fraser University in the liberal arts program. What kind of things were you writing about during the degree?
SK: One of my last papers was about Canadian hip-hop actually, and new cultural identities. If you take the artists we spoke about – Drake and K’naan for example – those are new cultural identities being expressed. So, Somalia refugees that have come here since the 90s. That’s a new cultural identity in Canada, and K’naan is the face of it. Drake is that kid from north Toronto, grew up with hip-hop and other cultural influences. That is something unique to Toronto, and new in this time. I think that’s why he’s connected so well to the culture. They all grew up in the same area listening to hip-hop.
I was also writing about several Tolstoy essays.
RK: Finally, should we be expecting any material soon?
SK: No firm plans yet, but I’m always writing and thinking about what I might have to contribute next. And, I’m always working to get better. In the meantime other things have come up that have been enriching in different ways.
For more information on Shad:
1) Check out his official website at: www.shadk.com
2) Follow Shad on twitter: @shadkmusic
3) Follow his manager, Gaurav Sawhney – @thefacultyof