'Just make the music that you want': The meteoric rise of Polaris Prize-winning rapper Backxwash
The Montreal-based artist is redefining her genre — and paving the way for others in the process
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
There's a chance you missed it in the bombardment of news related to the U.S. election or the pandemic, or if you were rightfully just tuning out the world altogether. But a few weeks ago the Polaris Music Prize — arguably Canada's most prestigious award for independent music — announced its winner: Montreal-based rapper Backxwash for her album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. Beating out the likes of Jessie Reyez, Caribou, U.S. Girls and Kaytranada, it was a surprise win that even she didn't see coming.
"I didn't expect to win at all," Backxwash tells me over the phone. "I felt like the underdog going in because there were so many great projects on the list — incredible projects, and I was already very grateful to have made it that far."
Making the win even more exceptional is that Backxwash has only been pursuing a music career for a few years. Born and raised in Zambia, she moved to British Columbia in her late teens to pursue a computer science degree. After graduating, she moved to Montreal, where she soon started to explore her interest in hip hop on the city's stages.
"I guess I've always been into hip hop from a totally fan perspective," she says. "I used to [do] a little bit when I was younger ... I'd make beats and stuff and rap a bit, but when I came to Montreal, that's when I started pursuing it. But I didn't come into it for the purposes of creating a career out of it. So I was kind of shocked by the progress I made in the last few years, but I was happy that it stuck."
Stick it did. In 2018, she started to introduce the world to her gothic, dense and entirely singular take on hip hop through her debut EP F.R.E.A.K.S., following it up a year later with another EP Black Sailor Moon and her first LP Deviancy. It was only a few months ago that God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It was released — to rave reviews saying she's "turning hip hop on its head," I might add — and now it's the winner of Polaris's $50,000 prize. Not everyone is having a bad 2020.
"Would it have been better to have happened when it wasn't COVID? Sure," she laughs. "But we can't control that aspect of it."
Backxwash's win represents a pretty remarkable feat in Polaris Prize winners: it's the fourth time in the last five years that the award has gone to an LGBTQ artist (following Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta and Jeremy Dutcher).
"It's awesome to see the representation," she says. "It really is."
But despite her prolific success, Backxwash hasn't exactly felt welcomed by the communities you might expect.
Not a lot of the hate surprised me. I think it's something that is very expected. I was just more surprised by how embraced I was, putting out music like this. I was kind of surprised non-queer people listened to it, honestly.- Backxwash
"When you look at how hip hop in Quebec looks at it, it's more I'm the first trans rapper to make it to Polaris," she said in an interview last month. "They'd rather say that than claim me. It's funny how in the Montreal hip hop scene I'm a bit isolated."
When I asked her about that quote, she explained that she is anomaly in Montreal "in terms of not really being ingrained in the hip hop scene."
"Montreal has a hip hop scene, but I'm not really included in it," she says. "I don't know why that is. Maybe it's because I predominantly rap in English, but even in the English part of the scene it's kind of like, 'That's the weird one.' Like, I feel like the weird kid at school. I guess I'm more embraced the alternative scene. We do have a few alternative artists that are doing all this experimental hip hop, and I'm more embraced by them than by the general state of the Montreal hip hop scene."
As for the transphobia Backxwash has experienced during her increased exposure?
"Not a lot of the hate surprised me," she says. "I think it's something that is very expected. I was just more surprised by how embraced I was, putting out music like this. I was kind of surprised non-queer people listened to it, honestly. That's the shocking part."
As Backxwash moves beyond Polaris, one of the most important things to her is to maintain her independence as an artist (she has made a conscious choice to not sign with any label).
"I like to have control over the work that I'm doing," she says. "I feel like sometimes working with labels limits the amount of stuff that you can do. Just the idea of, say, label clauses ... somebody's able to say, 'You can't drop that project until you work with this person or that person.' I guess for them, they're making an investment from a business perspective, which just doesn't really work for me."
There's also the fact that some of labels work on reimbursements.
"It doesn't really appeal to me either," she says. "It feels like I'm taking out bank loans, and I don't really want to owe anybody money, especially in the times that we're in. I'm hoping Polaris would open the door to grants for me, and help me push that independence further."
It's an inspiring ambition that surely gives hope to folks trying to follow in Backxwash's self-sufficient footsteps. Her advice to them?
"Experiment as much as you can, find yourself and more importantly ... just make the music that you want."
Listen to Backxwash on Bandcamp here.