'I was speaking honestly to what interested me.': Shad remembers his Canada Reads experience

The musician and broadcaster discusses his experience and what he hopes to see for the future of CBC’s annual battle of the books. The 2023 edition of Canada Reads will take place March 27-30.

The 2023 edition of Canada Reads will take place March 27-30.

Shad is a Canadian musician and broadcaster. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

The 2023 edition of Canada Reads will take place March 27-30.

The year 2023 marks the 22nd edition of Canada Reads.

Canada Reads premiered in 2002. The first winning book was In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which was defended by musician Steven Page. In 2021, CBC Books put together a retrospective to look back at the show's biggest moments and its impact on Canadian literature.

LISTEN | Canada Reads celebrates 20 years:

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them.

Something Fierce by Vancouver-based actress and author Carmen Aguirre won Canada Reads 2012. The memoir, about how Aguirre's family fled Chile after the rise of General Augusto Pinochet, was defended by musician and broadcaster Shad.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

At the time, Shad convinced his fellow panellists — Stacey McKenzie, Alan Thicke, Arlene Dickinson and Anne-France Goldwater — that despite Something Fierce's international setting, it was a deeply Canadian story. He extolled the book's depth and humour, relying on his "level-headed" style to defend a book that can "stand on its own merits."

Shad is an award-winning Canadian rapper and broadcaster. He has released several studio albums since 2005 including his latest album Tao, which was named by CBC Music as one of the best albums of 2021. He also hosted CBC Radio's Q from 2015 to 2016 and currently hosts the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution.

CBC Books spoke with Shad about his connection with books and his Canada Reads experience. 

You were on Canada Reads 2012. What was that like getting the call?

I didn't know a ton about the show. I was aware of it, but I didn't know much about the process and stuff like that. Canada Reads sounded like fun, like a live book club debate that felt cool. It wasn't something that I get to do every day, so that was pretty much why I said yes. 

I always like to have at least one book on the go. Even if I'm not devouring it, it does feel weird for me when I don't have a book with me.

The book is kind of like how Canada is — somebody up the street has this story in them right now.

I was sent a lot of books, out of which to pick one. I settled on Something Fierce and I remember it wasn't that hard of a choice. There was something about that book where I was like, "This is amazing." Then I learned that Carmen actually lived up the street from where I was living at the time. That reinforced it even more for me — I got this sense of, "This is a book people should be reading." 

The book is kind of like how Canada is — somebody up the street has this story in them right now. I like the idea of reading a book that puts us in touch with that curiosity about each other. 

What was your strategy for Canada Reads?

I read all the books. I remember really liking The Game. That book has stayed with me. I still think it's the best sports book I've read. I read a lot of basketball books, but they're not that good! So I read all the books and also because Carmen lived up the street, we had some good planning sessions.

That year featured some intense debates and conversations, particularly a moment when fellow panellist Anne-France Goldwater made some pointed comments about your book and its author. What do you remember about that time?

My initial reaction was feeling that it was a little bit of that reality TV show energy! I imagined myself on Big Brother or something like that. It was very much the opposite of my natural energy. I actually appreciated Goldwater's presence a lot because this is how you raise the issues, right?

Canada Reads sounded like fun, like a live book club debate that felt cool.

I got that from her right away, that she's a pro. This is how you raise the issues and it was on [me and the other panellists] to come back at her with something. I also appreciated Alan Thicke — rest in peace — because he was also a pro. He kept things funny and was a very talented entertainer in that kind of setting. People are nervous. I was nervous, so I'm not going to be inclined to like crack jokes and be easygoing. 

Thicke brought that energy and Goldwater brought the spice and the reality TV flair.

Highlights from Shad's 2012 Canada Reads win. (CBC)

I do think it played in my favour. I tried to be brief. I wasn't playing a game. I remember voting according to what I really thought. I wasn't trying to eliminate anybody. It's like, "That's the book I like the least." So I think there's something about that that ended up working in the end. If I recall correctly, Anne-France voted for my book —  so I do think there was also something there in terms of her respecting my honesty.

My overall experience was really fun. I remember trying to pick Alan Thicke's brain about comedy. He had some serious pedigree and worked with people like Richard Pryor. And in the debates, I did enjoy the conversation. Even when it got spicy, it raised some interesting questions that we would discuss. In the evenings I would hop on a phone with Carmen and have a little debrief, which was another fun aspect. 

It's been 20 years of Canada Reads. What do you hope to see happen in the next 20 years? 

I came to really appreciate Canada Reads afterwards because of what it does for the culture around books. Just realizing this isn't something that's everywhere in the world — where there's this excitement around books and Canadian books in particular. I've kept up and I would check in over the years. I checked in last year when Roger Mooking was in the mix. And when I was hosting Q, the winners would come on and so I kept up on it through that time as well. 

I think Canada Reads is really, really cool — it creates that kind of energy and excitement around reading in Canada and around our writers. 

Canada Reads winner

12 years ago
Duration 4:37
Rapper Shad talks about defending winning title Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre in CBC's battle of the books.

What was your biggest takeaway from winning?

I was excited for Carmen, first of all. That felt great because she is such a special artist, and that is such a special story from her life. I believed in the book and in the way it reminds us to be curious about one another.

That felt great and we have stayed in touch. We actually worked together on one of her plays a couple of years ago. I think the biggest effect on my life has just been our ongoing relationship. That's probably been the biggest thing I've carried with me — along with an appreciation for Canada Reads and for what the CBC does for writers in Canada. 

Any advice for future Canada Reads panellists?

It sounds cliche, but I'm tempted to say, "Be yourself." When I was on Canada Reads, I was speaking honestly to what interested me and why my book interested me. Part of that comes out of my own experience. My family's from Rwanda, which is a little country people probably haven't heard of. But I know my family's stories and I know the stories that I carry within me. I feel like this is a rich aspect of Canadian society —  that understanding comes out of my experience. And so, speaking from that, I think it helped.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now