Mustafa softly sings his grief on Polaris-nominated ‘When Smoke Rises’ — ‘I wanted the songs to feel as beautiful as the people that I lost’

Mustafa sings softly but speaks volumes.

His critically acclaimed EP “When Smoke Rises,” shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, is an eight-song lament about close friends he’s lost over the years to violence in his Regent Park neighbourhood.

One of them, rapper Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart, fatally shot in broad daylight in Toronto’s Entertainment District in 2018, is referenced in the title, but there are more, and Mustafa Ahmed vents his grief through gently melodic strains of folk, delicate instrumentation and mellifluous vocal understatement that has won global attention and coverage in the New York Times, GQ, Complex and the New Yorker.

While the music may be mellow, there’s a seething in Mustafa’s mourning in songs like “Stay Alive,” “Ali” and “What About Heaven?” that is anything but. Not quite on a Rage Against the Machine level, but it’s there, swirling around in sorrow’s softness.

“Absolutely not Rage Against the Machine anger, but for me it is naturally how I’ve always spoken and how I’ve sang,” said the poet, singer, songwriter and activist, reached in Aswan, Egypt, over FaceTime. “But also, I can’t take away from the fact that all of my reference points were able to, with such grace and with such composure, communicate their anger, communicate their frustrations. If I think about someone like Joni Mitchell, who’s melancholy — she has such a melancholy voice — but whatever she was communicating, whether in falsetto or her high voice, felt always so composed and always so gently intentional.

“And I think I was taking on after the people like herself and like Richie Havens, that I admired, and modern-day influences like Sufjan Stevens, who also wrote a record about the death of his mother.

“I also wanted to be able to create something that felt beautiful to me and, so naturally, I was singing softer … I wanted the feeling and the sonic arrangement of the songs to feel as beautiful as the people that I lost felt to me.”

Did Mustafa find it comforting?

“No,” he responded. “I thought I would. But to be honest, in a lot of ways it felt regressive to my grieving process.

“The one wonderful thing that it did for me is that it helped me realize that I was indeed so much further behind in my grief than I made myself believe. Because when I wrote those songs, a lot of ideas that I never confronted prior to that point came through …

“And I think that it’s a journey that was critical to my survival. Because, obviously, all these things are tied in; like my emotional health is starting to bleed into my physical health, like literally. My sciatica, upon release of the record, reached a point where I had a bulging disc in my lower back and I remember the doctor telling me that this is as emotional as it is physical. You have to tend to all areas of your health, so I think that I’m grateful for what it was able to bring forward for me and that’s what music is supposed to do.”

“When Smoke Rises” isn’t the first time the 25-year-old Sudanese Canadian has made a favourable impression: while attending Grade 7 at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, his poem “A Single Rose” won him an invitation to perform at Hot Docs 2009 before a screening of “Invisible City,” a documentary about Regent Park. He received a standing ovation and was the buzz of the festival.

As Mustafa the Poet, Mustafa’s musical indoctrination began with a spoken word prelude in 2014 to “Rize Time,” a Lorraine Segato remix of her Parachute Club hit “Rise Up.” He met Frank Dukes, one of the producers of “When Smoke Rises,” through local musician River Tiber around the same time.

“Basically, Frank worked on a record by soul singer Charles Bradley,” recalls Mustafa, who cites Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, the Roches, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle among his influences.

“I was aware of him and he was following me through River Tiber, who connected me to music. This was when I was 18 years old, before I was even writing songs. I reached out to (Dukes) and told him I love what he did with Charles Bradley. He invited me over to his house and we began writing music, southern spirituals together, and he wanted me to sing because he heard me sing for like four seconds right before a poem …

“He became like my closest collaborator and mentor. As he grew as a producer — I watched him produce Kanye, Drake and Rihanna — I was also growing as a songwriter. It was a beautiful thing. He served as a real guide, introduced me to other people that mentored me like (hip-hop producer) No I.D. and James Blake as well. He’s always been someone that I’ve been incredibly close with.”

Listening to the emotional intensity of the material on “When Smoke Rises,”it’s almost difficult to imagine that Mustafa has been involved in writing pop smashes like “Monster” for Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, “Sucker” for the Jonas Brothers, “Attention” for The Weeknd’s smash “Starboy” album, and “All These Years” and “She Loves Control” on Camila Cabello’s 2018 “Camila.”

“Honestly, it’s how I began,” said Mustafa, who also counts Daniel Caesar among his close collaborators.

“In the beginning, I didn’t even know that that path was there for me. I wrote an idea, “Attention,” and then the person who produced it, Cashmere Cat, sent it over to The Weeknd. He liked the song so he wanted to use it and I got introduced to the world of songwriters. It just broke open the gateway to the potential to write for other artists.”

Mustafa says the pop world “helped inform the way I wrote my songs” to address “the memory and the legacy of people that are no longer here.”

“I think that for me, as a poet and as a writer, my greatest gift, I’d like to believe, is my ability to expand my empathy.”

While there are many emotionally powerful and provocative lyrics on “When Smoke Rises,” one particular grabber on the song “Come Back” is the line “I miss not knowing I was poor.”

Mustafa said it’s about nostalgic innocence.

“When I was young and in the hood, everyone was poor,” he said. “I think that poverty was normalized for me and I didn’t understand that I was living in poverty, and so there was this bliss around that not knowing and bliss around everyone struggling in the same way …

“That was a part of why people in communities like mine resist the world around them because, in the world of Regent Park, people are great and are achieving, and are able to coast and navigate it because they know it and they understand it.

“And I think that as I slowly started to venture into the world outside Regent Park, I began to realize that my trauma was not normal and that a lot of my missed experiences, my poverty, the days that I couldn’t eat when I was younger and my living situation, was not something that was recognizable for other people. I also had to come to grips with the fact that being from Regent Park wasn’t even something to celebrate.

“In a lot of ways I do miss Regent Park feeling like glory to me. Sometimes I resent that that glory had to dissipate by way of how people compared the world that they’re from to the world that I’m from.”

As far as the Polaris Music Prize is concerned, Mustafa said he’s honoured to be shortlisted and, if victorious, will donate $25,000 of the $50,000 prize to “this organization called Wanasah that provides free therapy for people affected by violence, all forms of violence.”

“I felt this urge to start seeing a therapist when I completed this record, and I realized that it’s such a luxury to be able to see someone and have those conversations,” said Mustafa. “So I’m really excited by the idea of this organization existing and providing therapy for people, and want to be able to provide for as many as possible.”

He has a Dec. 1 date at Massey Hall, one of the few times he expects to perform the 24-minute “When Smoke Rises” in its entirety, along with other original material.

“I’ve done two shows — a 700-person cathedral in New York and Gower Studios in Los Angeles — and those set lists were an hour long because I was just telling the story of the people that I lost, people like Smokey and Ali (Rizeig), and what they meant to me and their families … the politics and the logistics of death and grief, forgiveness and love.

“With Toronto, I think it will be easiest because I’m from there and a lot of people watched this story unfold even before I wrote this record. This record was so critical, I don’t imagine myself performing it a lot of times in the future. And it’s important to get as many people from the city (as) are able to share that with me. So I’m really excited about that.”

As for Regent Park, Mustafa believes there are solutions to the violence in the ’hood.

“It’s about finding much better and much more empathetic and careful rehabilitation and reintegration processes for people that are coming out of prison,” he said. “It’s about mentorship programs. A lot of us grew up broke without having anyone to guide us: no older siblings; parents that are immigrants that are still trying to navigate and understand the western world that they’re moving into.

“I’m doing my best on my end to try to create that for a lot of the kids that are coming up, but I can see very clearly when someone doesn’t have those resources to pull from and what that does to them.

“And for the people that do, I see how they benefit from it in such wonderful and holistic ways. A lot of those efforts are underway and I think that as they continue to grow we’ll see more people finding their way outside of those systems and not succumbing to them.”

The Polaris Music Prize will be awarded Sept. 27 in a celebration that begins at 8 p.m. and will be broadcast live on CBC Gem, CBC’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages, and around the globe at


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