No matter how far from Toronto he goes, SAFE's music always embodies Esplanade
The neighbourhood's dynamic vibe, which he calls 'beautiful but grimy,' runs through Saif Musaad's songs
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people. While Amanda is away on maternity leave, a different writer will be featured in a guest edition of the column each month. This month's edition is an essay by writer Huda Hassan.
Walking through Esplanade, one of the remaining community housing projects in downtown Toronto, is a scenic experience. Located near the shore of Lake Ontario, the neighbourhood is a blend of decades-old low-rise buildings, recently developed condos, a playground, and a large basketball court that's swamped every summer. It's where Saif Musaad, the 24-year-old Eritrean artist who goes by the stage name SAFE, grew up.
"My [music] sounds beautiful, it sounds good — but the lyrics, a lot of the time, [are] grimy," SAFE tells me over the phone after iftar, the ritual feast Muslims partake in after a day of fasting. "It reminds me of where I grew up: it looks beautiful, but there's some grimy stuff that goes down here. It kind of goes with each other — it's a dynamic experience. It's Esplanade."
SAFE is a rapper, singer, songwriter, and member of the collective Halal Gang, a group of childhood friends turned artists, mostly from Regent Park. The collective includes artists Mustafa, Puffy L'z, and the late Smoke Dawg. SAFE's career took off when he was working at the OVO store, where Drake's manager Oliver El-Khatib encouraged him to record and release his work. His first hit single "Feel" (2015) took off on Soundcloud and has racked up over 4.6 million plays to date. Since then, he has released a full-length album and worked with globally-revered artists like singer-songwriter Khalid and rapper YG.
During his childhood, SAFE met future Halal Gang members who would visit from Regent Park. The two neighbourhoods were one another's backyards: "I used to go to Friday prayers at UBK (a popular mosque in Regent Park) in their hood, and you know how small the Muslim community gets, especially downtown." When SAFE later met OVO's Oliver, he was the one who introduced other Halal Gang members to the OVO team. "[Halal Gang is] just a brotherhood," says SAFE. "We were with each other every day [growing up]; we shared the same clothes."
SAFE has generated further buzz online with his recent singles, such as "Trap Smarter" (2021), a gorgeous ballad where he talks about making music with substance and fearing nothing but a higher power. One song, "Contagious," was featured in Shaka King's recent Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). His manager, Steven Carless, was putting together the soundtrack when he decided to reach out to SAFE. "I wrote it in 15 minutes," SAFE says. "Sometimes they come to me like that; sometimes it takes me a couple of hours." Despite his success, coverage of the artist in Canada has been minimal — symptomatic of a gap in coverage of Black arts and culture here.
By 2015, SAFE was selling out 650-person shows in his hometown; since then, he's opened for Drake and sold out shows in other Canadian cities. But notoriety in Toronto lately has come with a price for local artists. Many generate buzz and then are met with premature death, as we saw with Houdini and Halal Gang's Smoke Dawg. Growing safety concerns and access to resources has led to many Toronto artists relocating to new cities, mostly in the U.S., to continue making music. SAFE, who has lost many friends in the city, including the late rapper Smoke, tells me that staying can be distracting — and destructive — to the artist and their work.
"As much as I love Toronto, it's just one of those things where I just know that it's better for me to relocate and create and not have to have to watch my back every second," says SAFE. Relocating to New York has given him the leeway to focus on his creativity: "I can go for a walk without having to panic. It's that level of being free at some capacity."
Embracing his East African roots in his music
There's been a recent shift in Toronto's music scene, where young east Africans have become major contributors to the city's rap and R&B landscape. Much of Toronto's East African diaspora arrived in Canada after fleeing war-torn states that had once been colonized by the British, Italian, and French, and make up some of the largest diasporas in Toronto and across Canada. Many of the members of Halal Gang represent these roots and routes, from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. And for SAFE — who said it "feel[s] like there's no one really [naming] the east African community" — it has become incredibly important to claim that identity more actively.
In the summer of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd protests and calls to address global anti-Blackness, SAFE released a music video for his song "Hashtag." Dancing on the Brooklyn Bridge, where the artist currently resides, he sports all-black as he stands with a fist in the air, declaring: "East African n*gga, you know I'm Black and I'm proud." The song, which quickly went viral, spoke to a particular experience amongst Black Muslims in his hometown: being regarded as too Muslim to be Black, too Black to be Muslim. The song delves into the unique experience of being a Black Muslim from Africa, challenging the idea of a monolithic Black identity in Canada.
"Growing up, people would hear that I'm Muslim and they instantly thought I was brown. You know what I mean?" SAFE laughs, and tells me he suspects I, a Somali woman, understand him exactly. I do. "Because [of] my appearance or [where I'm from], they would say: you're not Black; you're not Black enough. And they would try to take [that identity] away from me. But I'm like, 'Wait, I'm African ... ' I'm Black and I'm Muslim. So I have a target right in the middle of my head." The target he's referring to is the hyper-surveillance and criminalization specific to communities that encompass both Muslim and Black identities.
Making music that sounds like Esplanade
A career in music seemed inevitable to SAFE given his upbringing. "Growing up in the hood, you always kind of have bars," says SAFE. " I feel like everybody from the hood has written or spat some bars, but I always was attracted to music in general." Esplanade has produced other artists such as Ian Kamau, the collective PRIME, and up-and-coming producer Sticks.
"Esplanade, from the outside world looking in, is a beautiful place, but at night, things change," says SAFE about the atmosphere of his neighbourhood. "As beautiful as it looks, as beautiful as it is to see the CN Tower [and] basketball court, there's still grimy stuff going on. It's not like a lot of hoods in Toronto."
But it's clear that leaving was the best route for SAFE. It's given him the leeway to explore new sonic and aesthetic pathways in his current work. "I've been experimenting [in my new work], and I've been producing my own records. I'm unlocking a new self that I've never even known I had in me. And it's just a really beautiful experience."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.