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Interview: Canadian MC Xolisa and local rapper and promoter Emerald bridging gaps across the pond

07 Jul 2016 spotlight words by Terence Ill
Interview: Canadian MC Xolisa and local rapper and promoter Emerald bridging gaps across the pond Photo credit for original Emerald shot (right): Minimal ISO (www.minimaliso.com))

An in-depth Interview with Canadian emcee Xolisa and Melbourne rapper and event promoter Emerald ahead of their two upcoming shows in Melbourne.


1. Xolisa and Emerald, you will be playing two shows in Melbourne in the coming weeks, but you have met once before, despite hailing from different continents. How did you first cross paths?

Xolisa: This is true! We met at a venue in Toronto just about a year ago for a show. I happened to be performing that night and after the show, we connected and have been in touch since then. We dug each other’s music and continued to share each other’s music with our own friends and before we knew it, we were in discussions about making Melbourne a tour stop of mine.

Emerald: I was on passing through Toronto on tour and did a bit of research on the Hip Hop scene before arriving. I came across a gig which featured a few of the names which had been popping up, one of whom was Xolisa. I flicked her a message prior to arriving then my DJ and I approached her after the show and had a chat. Now we’ve built on that connection to collaborate on two Melbourne tour dates for Xolisa.

2. Xolisa, how did Emerald sell you Melbourne as possible destination for your tour?

Xolisa: To be completely honest with you, I don’t remember a moment of her actually having to sell the idea of performing in Melbourne to me haha. It really was a very smooth process. From what I remember, as we continued to remain in touch I learnt more of Emerald’s Hip Hop Sessions and Indigo Rising and just the work Emerald was doing in Melbourne as a promoter and an artist and through that, I was able to get more of a direct insight to what the vibe was like in Melbourne, especially when coming to the Hip Hop scene. At that time, my team and I were in the very early stages of planning the “Gaps To Bridges Tour” and we were thinking about where we wanted to go and at some point during that time the idea of Melbourne became a place we were seriously considering. Within a few short months we had a line up and venues confirmed.

All of my family, close friends and supporters have all asked the golden question, “Why Australia?!” They ask this with excitement, confusion and intrigue all balled up in one and my answer has remained the same: The purpose of this tour is to build roots of solid listeners in other places around the world where there is a strong Hip Hop culture and appreciation, especially when coming to the indie scene. I’m looking to explore new places, meet dope people and just share some good vibes through the music and messages of this new album. Melbourne looks like a beautiful place to begin that journey and it is the very first location on the tour!

3. Emerald, you have been putting on quite a few shows since you arrived in Melbourne last year. The vibe is very different from your ‘average’ Melbourne Hip Hop show. You are breaking a lot of the stereotypes of a hip hop gig. Most notably, there is more singing, more instruments on stage, there are more women - on stage and in the audience - and there is usually a great variety of styles. What are you trying to achieve with Emerald Hip Hop Sessions?

Emerald: Melbourne has so much talent begging to be discovered. I saw a niche for it. Emerald Hip Hop Sessions celebrate the art, build the community and offer a platform to up and coming artists. They are all inclusive, aiming to represent race and gender diversity. These shows will mark a dozen sessions, which is an achievement I’m very proud of.

The nights found their shape pretty organically. It began as a collection of my artist friends doing a mix of structured sets and informal jams. The performances were all under the umbrella of ‘Hip Hop’ but it was open to anyone who sang or played an instrument to join in. That sense of community is something I’ve tried to maintain as the brand evolves. I think that’s what sets them apart and draws people to them. They are created from within the scene for the scene.

4. Xolisa, how would you describe the scene in Toronto at the moment? Is it a supportive environment for a young artist like yourself?

Xolisa: The Hip Hop scene in Toronto has many layers. With the respected success of artists such Drake and the OVO team, you have that taking the main forefront when people from outside of Toronto look at our “urban” music scene.

If you are living in Toronto and are not really into the underground Hip Hop and arts scene, but prefer mainstream music- you are also likely going to be focused on and aware of Drake and his team as well as the mainstream artists of the U.S. If you are an underground and/or independent Hip Hop artist in Toronto, then you would know of the many DOPE artists that are from here and that have been making music for quite sometime in this city. You would know of the network promoters, shows, open mics, etc. that the city’s artists offer- There is just this thriving underground scene here of art and music in and out of Hip Hop that many who live here, don’t even know about, much less support.

Lastly, if you are not an artist yourself but are very into the underground movement of Toronto’s music and art scene (in and out of Hip Hop) then again, you will also be aware of the dopeness that resides here in our underground scene.

Though we all may be living in this city we call Toronto, I’ve learnt quickly that it does not mean we are all in tune with the same scenes. I have met individuals who are totally immersed in Toronto’s underground Hip Hop scene and others who don’t even know it exists and who are completely immersed in our mainstream scene. It all just depends on how open you are, or how closed you are to knowing the different depths of music scenes that exist within this city.

When coming to support in Toronto, I’ve come to realize that it is really just up to each artist to build their own support group and community of listeners or fans, from the ground up – you really gotta work the scene and develop your own following as a Toronto artist and once you do, in most cases you’ll find you’ve grown a loyal circle of people who will continue to rally for you and your music. I don’t believe there is a general open armed welcoming blanket of support from Toronto Hip Hop consumers that is extended to just any and everyone…you really have to work to build that for yourself. We’re pegged as the “screw face capitol” the place where your audience members are very serious, where your audience members have this wicked attitude and are not willingly going to turn up to your music – but instead will gladly and unapologetically stand still and straight face you as you pour your guts out on stage lol – I’m being a bit dramatic, but you get the point. I personally don’t take on the whole “screwface capitol” thing too hard and have come to not generalize the entire city that way, as there is a growing awareness and general openness that I’m beginning to see in our music listeners here, especially when coming to the underground scene. I’ve slowly begun to see more and more people ditch that screw face mentality and just become more focused on seeking out QUALITY music to receive and invest into.

5. Emerald, what was your impression of the Toronto movement? What’s similar to Melbourne? What’s different?

Emerald: My time was brief, but the show I caught Xolisa at was honestly one of the coolest I’ve ever been to. I was impressed as a promoter and as a fan of hip hop. For a small underground show the acts were solid af and the crowd showed so much love. Xolisa and Dynesti Williams both blew me away. There are also several acts who have caught my attention since like Keysha Freshh and Lex Leosis. There are a lot of strong women in the scene which is fantastic to see!

6. Xolisa, you are touring to promote your new album "And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges". What are the gaps you would like to see bridged? And do you feel your music can help build some of those bridges? Or identify gaps? Or both?

Xolisa: Well the “Gaps” spoken of on this album are the challenges, obstacles and hurdles that we as humanity have been and are still facing on a day-to-day basis. It is the obstacles that we are trying to overcome as individuals on our own journey’s but also the obstacles that humanity faces as a collective. This album allowed me to voice a lot of the frustrations, hopes, beliefs, observations, amazements, worries, confusions and faith I have in us as people and that I have been internalizing for sometime now. Through speaking openly on topics such as racism, discrimination, politics, corrupt governments, police brutality, healing and letting go of pain – my hope is that I can play some role in helping us move forward across those obstacles as a unit and just elevating as a people. I do believe that my music can help be a bridge to overcome those gaps and I believe my music has been that long before this new album. Being a bridge is a part of my purpose and is a part of my own growth and overcoming of obstacles.

7. It seems music has already bridge a gap between two artist from different corners of the globe. Is this the start of a friendship?

Xolisa: I’d say so. Emerald and I first connected through our appreciation for Hip Hop and through that have been able to do business together. For me personally, I love when I am able to have an actual friendship with those I connect with whether in business or through that artist-listener relationship. I’m all about long term connections so my hope is that we of course rock out two DOPE shows but more so that we continue to collaborate, connect and work together as we move forward in our artistry and businesses. I believe there is much we can help eachother with, learn from eachother and do together to continue to give life to Hip Hop music.

Emerald: Cute question. Luckily the answer is yes or that would be awkward! I have a huge amount of respect for Xolisa the artist and the person. She’s been awesome to work with. We will definitely stay in touch and look at future opportunities to collaborate.

8. Xolisa, you said in an interview last year, when you were still working on your album: “There will be more risks, more risks in my production, more risks in my lyricism and my delivery…” Is there any particular song on the album where you feel you took the greatest risk?

Xolisa: Every song on this album is made up of some level of risk taking, whether anyone else notices it or not – I remember the hurdles that I had to overcome mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally in order to truly execute each of these songs to the best that I could and to encompass the vision that I held for each song. Out of all of them however, I believe, “Are We There Yet?” possesses the greatest risk I took when coming to using my vocals. All vocals on this album minus the featured artists, D.E.Z and Yafet El Yah, were done by myself, so that means both the rapping AND the singing. In my 4 years of creating music, I have never sung on any of my songs (minus the very casual, “run away” adlibs in my single, “Dig Me”). Recording the singing vocals on this song was such an excruciating process of utter vulnerability, rawness and truth…I mean, I ended up crying on the track and you hear it. The greatest risk was taken with this song because, it really embodied the internal struggle that I’ve dealt with for a long time now, a struggle that all of us deal with on some level- the battle of our ego and of our higher selves and I knew that I could not make an album speaking on the actions and struggles of humanity without looking at the actions and struggles within myself, seeing as I am a part of this human collective as well.

9. You have been referred to as a spoken word artist in the past, a label that you don't seem to identify with. Why do you think people see you as a spoke word artist, when you are not actively trying to present yourself that way?

Xolisa: Great question. A lot of the spoken word references and comparisons come from my style of lyrical delivery. I am aware that I do not rap in what are seen as conventional ways, I am aware that I do not rap using predictable rhyming schemes and that my flow can often be very free flowing, unpredictable and unorthodox- depending on the song. A lot of those elements are what you would find in certain spoken word deliveries. Add in the fact that my lyrical content can be very descriptive, abstract, metaphorical and full of imagery and yeah- I definitely understand the reference and I’ve learnt to embrace it more rather than fight it. My flow is a huge part of what makes me, me so while some receive strong spoken word tones from it, others don’t and it only solidifies the truth that music is SO subjective and is interpreted differently by everyone.

10. Since you are both rappers and you’ve already shared a stage once and will a few more times soon, any plans of collaboration?

Emerald: Melbourne will be the first time sharing a stage actually. In Canada my gigs were separate. I was just the fan girl. Yes. We have chatted about making music together. Things have been hectic with organising the tour, but we do have a track in the works!

Xolisa: Yes! Emerald and I have been bouncing around ideas, topics and music for a collaboration that she has self-produced. With the hectic schedule of the album release, the tour and with how quickly things have approached, we haven’t had the chance to truly solidify all of the details of the collab, but it’s definitely something we are giving energy to.

11. Xolisa, for me personally there were a few standout artists a long (looong) time ago who got me interested in Canadian made Hip Hop - the likes of Saukrates, K-Os and Meastro Fresh-Wes. Are those artist still around? Who do you think the future ambassadors of Canadian Hip Hop music will be? Yourself maybe?

Xolisa: Yes, those artists are definitely still around and are 3 very respected emcees to come out of this city- I’m not sure where they each were at when coming to music releases when you fist learnt of them, but they are all still very active. K-os recently released his dope project, “Views From the Stix” which actually features a couple tracks with Saukrates. I’d definitely consider myself a future ambassador of Canadian Hip Hop music! In my mind, an “ambassador of Canadian Hip Hop music” is a Canadian artist who has made such an impact on the world with his or her music, that they become a spotlight or another person of reference when thinking of Canadian Hip Hop music. When I think of that personal definition, I think of the other artists that I believe have such a unique and solid sound that truly stands as its own foundation. Those artists that come to mind, like myself, are the individuals that really have the potential to be so much larger than Toronto alone. Those artists that come to mind are: Erik Flowchild, Blake Carrington, Sean Leon, Shi Wisdom, Spek Won, Dynesti Williams – these are all solid emcees and singers who I know will only continue to peak.

12. Emerald, you are maybe the only person on Melbourne who has seen Xolisa play live. How would you sell me what Xolisa delivers at a show?

Emerald: In a word: 'captivating’. Myself, Pete (DJ Kayboku) and our friend Zanna were all lucky enough to catch her in Canada. So it’s a special honour to be able to introduce over here as an Emerald Hip Hop Session exclusive. Her style and elegant and fluid. Lauren Hill but smoother. My own musical style is pretty laid back, so it was inspiring for me to see her ability keep a crowd engaged without the need for hype. No ‘When I say HIP'. Just her presence.

13. Are the shows going to be the same? Should I go to both?

Emerald: Both definitely! I’ve put a lot of thought into making each as unique as possible. Two different line ups, two different vibes, two different sides of the city. There will be something in there for everyone and you’ll want to catch both halves of Xolisas appearance here! July 9th will be an intimate evening show at West African themed Bar Oussou in Brunswick. I’ve teamed up with Scott Sneddon of Ruckus Slam to mix Hip Hop with Spoken Word. There will also be support by local legends Elf Tranzporter, Morganics, Tumi, Jacky T and myself Emerald with Dj Kayboku. I’m going for vibe with this one. The July 15th show will be rowdier, with a big bill or international acts at Grumpy’s in Fitzroy. We have support from Raiza Biza [NZ], Paco [US], Vida Sunshyne, My group Indigo Rising, Walla C, and for the freestyle community we have Hip Hop/Soul/RnB band La Hazel retuning after their popularity at my last event with Jonny Freesh, The Brunny Boom Bap Block Party. In addition to playing originals they will jam loops for an open mic session.

Xolisa: You’d better come to both! Emerald and I decided to create a split in vibes for both shows so that audience members could experience two different styles and approaches to Hip Hop. The first night – July 9th inside of Bar Oussou is set to be very intimate, very mellow and chill. That night will be opening up with some spoken word before moving into the music. For this night I’ll be doing a much more intimate set, performing songs from the new album but also diving into quite a few songs from my previous EP’s. The second night – July 15th inside of Grumpy’s will be more high energy, fast paced and will offer a more aggressive side to Hip Hop. For this set, I’ll be focusing on additional songs off the new album and yeah, really providing a space for myself and my audience to turn all the way up!

Both, Xolisa and Emerald, will be performing at Bar Oussou on Saturday, July 9. and Grumpy's on Friday, July 15.