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"The main thing that I wanted to do is be myself" - Shad reflects on career in hip hop

by Scott Roos

Shad photo by Justin Broadbent

Tanya Tagaq (at Yellowknife's Folk on the Rocks 2018) photo by Angela Gzowski

Shadrach Kabango aka Shad, although a very humble individual and likely to be the first to disagree with this assessment of his accomplishments, is perhaps what many would call a “Renaissance Man”. Born in Kenya to Rwandan parents, Shad and family emigrated to Canada where they settled in London, Ontario in the early 80's. After high school, Shad would go on to study business at Wilfrid Laurier University. Later on in life, he would earn a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts from Simon Fraser University. In 2015, he was brought in to host one of CBC Radio’s flagship programs, the much celebrated interview show simply entitled “Q”. Oh, and he’s won an international Emmy and a Peabody award for hosting the popular docuseries “Hip Hop Evolution”. All the while, though, he has been steadily crafting an important legacy within the Canadian hip hop scene. You might say that this genre, in which he has become known for though provoking and particularly eloquent turns of phrase, is his first love.

I didn't grow up with music lessons but grew up as a music fan who listened to music a lot in the house and I gravitated towards the radio and Much Music and all that sort of thing,” Shad tells NSMZ, “Eventually I got to an age of wanting to kind of mess around with music myself and express myself. Hip hop has this low barrier to entry where it doesn't cost anything. You don't need lessons. You can just sort of try and see if you have a bit of a knack for rhyming and flowing and putting thoughts to words.”

Born in 1982, Shad came of age during the height of the music video era in the 1990’s. He cites important artists of the era such as Lauryn Hill, Outkast and The Roots as key influences; all of which would have had videos in the rotation on Much Music, a Canadian music video station similar in nature to MTV, at the time. Artists, it’s important to note, who are most known for having what many would refer to as a “cleaner” approach to their words and an artful aesthetic to their backing tracks. Things that Shad himself has also become known for. 

“The other aspect that drew me to hip hop on a bit of a more of a more personal note is just seeing young black artists that could express the fullness of who they were. Seeing artists like De La Soul on my TV that could be goofy and spiritual and serious and political - all these things that we are as human beings but you didn't necessarily, at that time, especially these kinds of dynamic representations of black people in black life. So just seeing that and resonating with that caused me to gravitate towards hip hop,” explains Shad.

However, it’s important to note that Shad wasn’t necessarily emulating a “sound” but more of an ideal. These artists that he admired were all ones that were not afraid to make bold statements of who they were as people first. 

The main thing that I wanted to do, that I was really inspired to do, is be myself…. The reason my (lyrical) content is the way that it is is because that's the way that I am. And so I always wanted to represent that. I wasn't inspired to emulate any artist besides to emulate the fact that they were uniquely themselves,” Shad continues.

That unique approach has garnered Shad with a lot of critical acclaim in the time that he has been doing what he is doing. He’s been shortlisted for the esteemed Polaris Prize five times; a record for artists. It’s something the rapper sees, in part, as a validation to keep going on the path he’s forged since he began his career in hip hop.

“(The Polaris nominations are) definitely not to be all and all but we all need something along the path to tell us to keep going. I’m grateful for that and I'll never minimize that. I know that that's important to some extent along the way,” Shad explains, “You always want to be sort of confident in what you're doing and stand on what you're doing but you know we're social creatures and a little bit of affirmation is something I think everybody needs,” Shad says.

Shad is an affable guy. He radiates positivity and humility. These qualities no doubt are why he’s had success in university, in journalism and, of course, in the music industry. It’s also likely the reason why he’s been able to work and collaborate with other artists over the years making for a unique at, at times, genre bending sonic palette. Over the years, he’s made guest appearances on tracks by Said the Whale, Hey Ocean!, K-os, A Tribe Called Red, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Haviah Mighty, and Tanya Tagaq. Shad’s work with Tagaq can be heard on the track “Circles” on her 2016 Retribution full length. 

“It sounds cliche but it's not you know how tremendous of a performer Tanya is so it was really an honor to get to work with her,” Shad says of his work with Inuk throat singer and performance artist Tanya Tagaq, “Every artist is unique and has a unique kind of range of emotions that they're especially adept at expressing, if this all makes sense, and Tanya, to me more than any other artists has a larger spectrum of emotions that they can represent in a powerful way…. When you see Tanya perform it's like there's rage, there's beauty, there's humor. she takes you through the whole human experience in a show and it feels very exciting, live you know like this is really happening and she's really feeling all these things. I just think she's brilliant and so to be invited to connect on the song was an honor and I just I love her as a person”

*Tanya Tagaq performing at the famed Folk on the Rocks festival in Yellowknife (2018)

As part of the venue’s tenth anniversary celebrations, Shad will take the stage at the Capitol Music Club this Saturday, May 18th. For this event, the duo of Zhe the Free and Parab Poet, known as Moonbeams will open up the festivities. It’s going to be a memorable and exciting event. You can find tickets HERE.

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