Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.


For Meryem Saci, defining her identity is never a one-word answer. 

"More often than not, I just say North African," she said. "Maybe the best thing is Afro-Arabian."

Saci, a Montreal singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist known for her work with the band Nomadic Massive, came to Canada from Algeria as a refugee when she was 13, during Algeria's civil war.

"I think that I found my identity more in Quebec than anywhere else," she said. "I've always been a little bit of an outcast in my own country. The way I look was not the accepted standard."

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That accepted standard is part of a post-colonial hangover that places a high value on fair skin, light eyes and European features, according to Saci.

Her curly hair, inherited from her father's southern Algerian people, was just too wild.

"I choose to not hide my hair, neither under hijab or hair relaxers. I just wear it naturally," she said. "And that's a huge statement in my country, because that's not accepted. That's made fun of. It's considered unkempt."

An 'exotic thing'

Meryem Saci music

On her upcoming solo album, her first, Meryem Saci tries to fuse sounds from all over Africa, including her native Algeria, into North American hip hop. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

 Saci felt more accepted in Canada but still faced a lot of confused looks from people who tried to suss out her ethnic origins. She often gets mistaken for Latin American.

"I don't look like a typical Muslim woman, and I don't look like a typical Arab woman."

That incognito status, she said, means that she's often not as subject to negative attitudes that others may face.

"My Algerian sisters and Moroccan sisters or Muslim sisters who decide to wear the head scarf have shown me that I'm in a position of privilege in this society because they can't identify my religion by looking at me."

"I've seen it through the looks of people," she said. "I've seen it in the way they struggle with their workforce where they  consistently have to prove they're nice people, that they're not submissive, that they're thinking for themselves."

Still, Saci said she struggled for a long time to feel at home anywhere, because she felt like "an exotic thing" both in Algeria and in Quebec.

"Because you're not white in a white world. You're not really black, but you're part of that world, but you're not fully black. You're not really Arab to the Arab world ... and within your own country, you don't look like what you're supposed to look like."

Music 'therapeutic'

Meryem Saci

Montreal singer-songwriter-emcee Meryem Saci says she struggled to feel "at home" in her native Algeria or in Canada, despite feeling accepted here. (Ainslie MacLellan/CBC)

 Saci said music has been a way for her to build a bridge between all of the facets of her identity.

In her upcoming solo album, her music is firmly rooted in North America –hip hop, soul, R&B – but she fuses in rhythms and sounds from all over Africa, including her native Algeria.

"These are [sounds] that make me feel at home and that speak to me loud," she said.

While she sometimes deals with expectations from fans who want to hear a more traditional sound, she said her music helps her "detach from all these labels."

"It's actually a therapeutic thing to have music in my life," she said. "To have had the possibility to express all of what makes me as an individual, that is not limited to where I come from, my race, or the religion I was born into."