Photo By Jah Grey
In the wake of, or perhaps in spite of, the tragic murders of Mike Brown or the Ferguson riots, it's disturbing to think that time and time again we're almost cursed to re-live and re-watch a never-ending cycle of unnecessary shootings and tragedy. Like clockwork, the killing of another black person becomes top story as mourning gives way to outrage and protest before, more often than not, the cycle begins once again. At a glance these issues seem to be only stateside, but with rising gun violence becoming just as big a problem in Toronto, as well as the hotly contested issue of police carding, the state of affairs we’re leaving for children in our communities is troubling—a fact that has not escaped Toronto rapper Spek Won. Father to a newborn son, Spek is ever presently reminded that the gift of having a child now comes with a greater weight of responsibility. “Before [when I use to hear of these shootings] it was like 'that could’ve been me,' now it’s like 'this could be my son,'” Spek explains. “This is a life that you bring into the world and nurture and for no fault of their own they can be taken away."
Born of Ghanaian descent, Spek was raised in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale. Raised primarily by his mother, his relationship with his father was strained after his parents divorce, he would hear the likes of Michael Jackson and Kool Moe Dee to more traditional West African music played at home. “Being of Ghanaian descent I would listen to ‘highlife’”—an uptempo genre created in Ghana, punctuated by sharp percussion drums and jazz-y horns that has since evolved into more modern hip-hop rhythms —”and that was what really influenced me,” says Spek. But it was only until seeing people in his community go from local heroes come into their own as prominent Canadian hip-hop artists that he realized being a musician was a possibility. “I would see guys like Ghetto Concept, Redlife and Kid Kut from Baby Blue [Soundcrew] coming up in Rexdale and it gave me the motivation to think I could do it too.” However, Spek’s new found interest in music would be a source of conflict with his “straight-edged button-up shirt” academically-focused father. “My parents never had real conversations or got along and because of that [my father] was always on the outskirts so we weren’t close—he was always against my life decisions,” says Spek. Unfortunately, as their relationship deteriorated so would his father’s health. After suffering a stroke due to diabetes, his father would be put into the hospital to be further monitored. There Spek would have his first real conversation with his father.
“He had just suffered from his first stroke and at that time everyone else in the family had left to get something to eat so it was just me and him, before that we never really [talked],” Spek explains. “And I remember he told me how [Canada] had trampled his spirit, how the colour of his skin had cost him jobs and from advancing in his fields and how he was just tired and wanted to go back home. And just hearing that [from him] hit me hard to the point where I was like man, I just never wanted– I don't want my life to be like that.” After his father passed, buried back home in Ghana, Spek fearing living a life unfulfilled would further hone in on his craft as rapper before dropping the single “HipLife.” A homage to the “highlife” music he listened to as a youth wrapped in deceptively simple off-the-cuff drum snares, the track would garner frequent spins on local radio. Soon after he would drop his 2010 debut mixtape
which would gain him even more notoriety in the city and catch the attention of multi-media/artist collective 88 Days of Fortune. “When I first came into the music industry, I realized that everything is so cliquish but with 88 Days that was the first situation that wasn’t about the bullshit. Everyone was there to make art and have a good time.” Attracted by the family like dynamics of the group he would meet and develop relationships with future collaborators like
Cola from The OBGMs
. But as time went on the democratic nature of the group shifted in a direction Spek no longer wanted to be a part of. “It just reached a point where I didn’t like the direction the group was going and I decided I was just going to do my own thing,” says Spek. “I had some of the greatest moments of my life with then and creatively it helped me so much so I like to look at it sort of like taking residency [in school] and eventually I graduated from it.” And taking the time to mature as an artist with his follow-up and well titled
Sofa King Amazing.
Released earlier this year, the 12-track release is a mix of two sonic palettes. Songs like “E(ART)H ” and “ PA$$PORTS & CAMERAS,” which comprises the first half-otherwise known as “the Hawk side” according to Spek—emphasize higher frequencies with jazz-y inspired boom-bap chords punctuating the self-reflective lyrics. Whereas the latter half—”the Fox side”—hosts lower frequencies with combative basslines and cocksure boasts over “LICK HITTERZ.” But it’s “Black Body” and its accompanying video that best reflects the unjustified shootings of black youth while still holding onto the belief that better days are on the horizon for the next generation, including his son. “I think [singer-songwriter/partner and mother of Spek's child, Shi Wisdom, director Mark Valino] and I wanted the video to send the message of resilience and love in the black community. And though the dancing character [in the video] symbolizes the unfortunate deaths that happen in our community we didn't want it to be grim and morbid throughout the whole video. We wanted there to be a resolve, like this is life, this is hope.”
Noisey: Alright so first off, congratulations on being a father. How does it feel?
Spek Won: Thank you, you know when people say it's indescribable they're right—it can’t be put in words. It’s a gradual feeling and [my love] for the baby just grew more and more throughout [Shi’s] pregnancy process. Watching her stomach grow and then watching my child come out and seeing him develop into a human being. Every day, it just changes me in different ways. I find myself thinking of things that I wasn't thinking about before.
What are some of the things that you feel have changed?
Man, 10-year goals all of a sudden become five-year goals. I definitely feel like I’m obligated to achieve certain things much quicker now because someone is here and I have to set that example for him.
And that idea of setting an example for the next generation, to me at least, seems like one of the key concepts in your video “Black Body.” Could you talk about what inspired you to make it.
Well, the idea for the song was conceptualized when Shi and I were in Jamaica. We didn't have access to cable or TV but we saw images and news of the shooting of [Mike Brown] all on our timelines— Facebook and Twitter just going off the chain over the situation that had happened. And just seeing all of that just touched us so deeply to the point that it changed our whole mood for the rest of our trip. So, when we got back [to Toronto] we were like we have to do something. Our strongest weapon is our voice and we were fortunate that we've been given a platform in music for the city and that we have people who listen and pay attention to us and will come out to show support for our shows and the video. I think we all know that this is an issue we need to bring to light and it was important to us to show people how we feel about it.
Despite being inspired by the shooting of Mike Brown last year the video doesn't have any police officers in it. Was this intentional?
Absolutely, I feel like we all know the situation. We’ve all seen it. Some choose to be ignorant to it but most of us know what’s really happening out there and all over the world with authority and the BlackLivesMatter movement. We specifically chose not to put any police officers in it because I mean we didn't want it to be anything where we could have one person saying you guys are going against someone or something. It was more of looking inward into our own community and show ourselves and other people that there is love in this community. The other day [Shi and I] were having this conversation while we were watching the video and talked about how we don't think we've seen any other videos come out of our city that shows the black community [and solidarity] in the way that we've shown. I mean we went to the corner of Oakwood and Vaughn, we went to Eglinton where it's primarily Caribbeans and African so it doesn't get any blacker than that. We just wanted to portray that our community is more than the average music video you see today with the champagne and the cars and all that stuff. Our community is a beautiful loving black community.
Now, that you have a child how has your frame of mind changed when you hear about these shootings furthermore, police shootings?
I think the biggest change for me is now knowing what the parents of these children are really thinking. Before it was that could've been me, now it's like this could be my son, you understand what I’m saying? This is a life that you bring into the world that you nurture and for no fault of their own they are taken [away] just because of a misconception that authority may have with them because of their skin colour. That’s ridiculous.
I think it’s also interesting this perception that these aren’t issues that are happening in the city?
Absolutely. And ironically the day right after we finished the shoot for the music video just a couple minutes away from us on Allen Road they were holding a black lives matter protest. That just goes to show you that this isn’t just an American problem it's happening to black folks everywhere in the world– we all feel the same, we all feel that tension. So to me it’s just a situation where no one can tell me just because we live north of the border that it's not happening here. It is happening here, right here at home in Toronto. What do you want people to take away from your video but also your album Sofa King Amazing?
I just really want to spark conversation. These videos, songs are all thoughts that I have. These are things that I think about from the perspective of an African-Canadian black man from the city and I know there are other people out there who feel the same way as me. On the flip side there are also people who are going to see this and be like why are these people complaining all the time and talking about this and my response to that is we are talking about this all the time for a reason. This happens a lot and it shouldn’t be.
So then what do you want to accomplish and what’s the energy you want to leave in the community?
I just want to build with people who are about taking risks and about… not just prosperity in the form of like wealth and money, but I mean build things so that others; the next wave that are coming can benefit from it. I’ve had so much fun in life, not saying my life is over, I know there is so much fun for me to have in the future, but I feel like I have to focus some of my energies and my gifts into organizing and setting things up so my son, other young black youth or youth that don't have certain advantages can benefit from. That's the energy I want to put out in the air, I want to give more.
Jabbari Weekes is the Noisey Canada Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.