There’s a Jenny Holzer quote that struck Saif Musaad during one of his visits to London’s Tate Modern museum: “When there’s no safe place to sleep, you’re tired from walking all day and exhausted from the night because it’s twice as dangerous then.” Part of the English artist’s ‘Survival Series’ of truisms, the words speak to the 20-year-old Toronto-raised Eritrean descended Abu Dhabi native, now living in New York. “It’s nostalgic to my life, it made sense to me,” he says. Musaad, who goes by SAFE as an artist, became one of Toronto’s most prominent young rappers when the Sade-sampling single “Feel” became a Soundcloud hit in 2015. Though sold-out club dates followed, the then-teenaged Musaad quickly tired of his local fame. “It just kinda got annoying cause I’m a lowkey guy so I was like, ‘bro, I need to move around in peace,’” he says over the phone from New York City, where he’s lived for about a year. “Toronto is very small, especially after living there for 19 years. I basically know everyone, whether through music or not.” Combined with a slight dissatisfaction for his artistic output (“I wasn’t talking about things that mattered in my life, it was just draining and shit” he admits), Toronto’s newest golden boy saw it fit to make himself disappear for a time.
Now two short years removed from that frenzy, SAFE is making his return with “No Diamonds,” a typically moody cut that’s fuelled by Jodeci-esque vocal melodies. Recorded in Jamaica with production by ADP and Toronto beatmaking veteran T-Minus, Musaad says that the song is about “being out here and flexing without flashy things like diamonds. I just want the youth to understand that you don’t need that.” The nocturnal, NYC-shot video is the rapper’s first time providing a treatment for one of his visuals, and he says he’d gladly do it again. “I wanted to capture the grittiness of New York and though I’m not from here, I still feel it’s similar to Toronto,” he says. “I just felt like I needed a scene in front of a corner store at night. I needed the project buildings and I needed nighttime action.”
“No Diamonds” is a new record off of SAFE’s upcoming project, which he says is coming out “in the next few weeks” following a release show in his hometown. “When you listen to this project, you’ll be thinking, ‘this kid is really versatile.’ I really express myself in different forms.” It’s a reassuring thing to hear, as Musaad talks at length about traveling between Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, and London while recording constantly and taking an interest in art and fashion to help re-energize his creative drive. “When we are not in the city anymore it’s a breath of fresh air. We’re able to create. Not saying we can’t do what we do in the city, but it’s a lot harder,” Musaad says, emphasizing that he would have been “distracted” by his hometown neighbourhood.
Musaad came up as part of Halal Gang, a collective of Muslim rappers from Toronto’s Esplanade neighbourhood. Among the members of the group was Smoke Dawg, who achieved similar prominence as Musaad before the former was killed last June in a drive-by shooting in Toronto. The highly-publicized murder brought negative attention to the local rap scene as pundits and outsiders sought to make a connection between the music and the violence. For Musaad, this kind of cluelessness is nothing new. “This shit’s ongoing. I feel like nothing can change, it’ll be the same shit,” he says. That doesn’t mean he’s pessimistic, though. If anything, the troubles have only reaffirmed his beliefs. He says that his new goal is to “wake up every day and try to be as genuine and pure as possible” as a way of keeping Smoke’s memory alive. “Everything me and Smoke talked about is real. We didn’t come from the hills or the suburbs, we’re from the streets and a lot of people don’t understand that. They think of Toronto [as] being a beautiful place but everything we talk about is what we go through.”
Though he’s still young by any measure, Musaad has his mind focused on the youth and how he can be something of a mentor to them. “When I think of Toronto, I think of family and the kids that are now 14 to 17 that are seeing what’s going on out here,” he says. Musaad sees “No Diamonds” as a lesson to these teens. “If you’re working in this city you don’t need to be out here wearing jewelry and stuff. I feel like a lot of people who work hard don’t get the credit because they’re not rocking the crazy chains. I’m just trying to be a better person and a better Muslim so the younger generation knows. That’s what ‘No Diamonds’ is about. It’s pushing forward as a person and an artist, but as a Muslim most importantly.”
It’s clear that Musaad thinks of the song as the linchpin of his next era, where he’s both a hardened veteran offering experienced advice and a fresh-faced alternative to the hollow, Instagram-ready rap that dominates the culture. More than that, though, he’s happy to represent his hometown, no matter how far he is from it now. “Toronto is just naturally in me,” he says. “It’s just the way I am as a person. I let the slang into my music [and] people out here are like ‘what the hell is that?’ and I’m like ‘you don’t know for a reason.’ I say it with pride.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.