Books

Polaris Music Prize finalist Shad reflects on the humanity at the heart of Viktor Frankl's book Yes to Life

The Toronto rapper recommends reading Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's Yes to Life: "It's always encouraging to hear someone bravely argue for the inherent value and meaning of human life." The Polaris Music Prize annually celebrates the best Canadian album of the year. This year's winner be announced on Sept. 19, 2022.

The Toronto rapper is a 2022 finalist for the album Tao

Photo collage that includes a portrait of rapper Shad on the left side -- a man wearing a hoodie and baseball cap; and on the right side is a picture of the cover of the book Yes to Life, which features blue-coloured artwork of clouds and a bird.
Toronto rapper Shad recommends Yes to Life, a compendium of lectures by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. (Secret City Records, design by CBC Music; Beacon Press)

Toronto rapper Shad (a.k.a. Shadrach Kabango) is known for his smart, thoughtful lyrics tempered with humour and heart — all amply showcased on his sixth full-length album, Tao.

The 2021 release is one of the ten albums shortlisted for the 2022 Polaris Music Prize, which celebrates the best Canadian album of the year. The winner, who will receive $50,000, will be announced on Sept. 19, 2022.

Shad is now the most shortlisted musician in Polaris history, with five nods to date since the prize was first awarded in 2006.

Tao closely examines the current state of the world — touching on everything from the increasingly dystopian digital reality to our complicated relationship to work and spirituality — and the related impacts on us as humans.

Books played a big role in shaping the ideas behind Tao — the album title draws from the Chinese concept of tao, a way of living that conforms to the truths of the moral universe and nature, but is also an acronym for The Abolition Of Man, a book by C.S. Lewis that looks at what we risk if we lose touch with key aspects of our humanity.

In addition to Lewis' philosophical 1943 work, Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff's 2019 nonfiction book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also heavily influenced Shad as he was writing Tao. And there's yet another literary angle, too — former poet laureate and professor George Elliott Clarke guests on the track Storm, interjecting some powerful spoken-word asides.

Abstract design in red, yellow, white, blue and black, comprising the cover for rapper Shad's 2021 album Tao.
Cover artwork for Shad's 2021 album Tao. (Justin Broadbent/Secret City Records)

Shad also championed the winning book on Canada Reads 2012, Chilean Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre's memoir Something Fierce.

CBC Books asked Shad to recommend a book he appreciated that he thought would resonate with other readers. He recently read psychiatrist, philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, the text of three lectures Frankl gave in 1946 — the same year his bestselling memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, was first published.

Moral argument

"I've been reading a lot of good non-fiction these last few weeks. I'm currently with my family in Rwanda visiting relatives and enjoying some rest, so have had lots of time to read.

"I got Yes to Life a few weeks ago for my 40th birthday from a good friend. It was a doubly thoughtful gift because I'm a big fan of Frankl's most famous book, Man's Search For Meaning, and also apparently Frankl wrote this book when he was 40. Or more accurately, it's comprised of lectures he gave when he was 40 — in 1946, 11 months removed from living in a concentration camp. 

It's refreshing to hear someone credible make arguments on a serious moral basis because it often feels like everything these days has to be argued in terms of economic efficiency.

"The book is an argument that life has meaning — which is an obviously massive and unresolvable question, but it's still always encouraging to hear someone bravely and strenuously argue for the inherent value and meaning of human life. Especially someone like Frankl, who had at that point lived through things — including losing his pregnant wife in the Holocaust — that would tempt anyone to the opposite conclusion.

"It's also refreshing to hear someone credible and intelligent make arguments on a serious moral basis because it often feels like everything these days has to be argued in terms of economic efficiency, productivity and a certain kind of absolute individual freedom — an idea or value can't be taken seriously, it seems, unless there's a positive business case for it."

Inspiration for uncertain times

"What stayed with me after reading Yes to Life was the idea that we shouldn't ask what we want from life as much as we should ask what life wants from us at any given moment — I like that reframing. Frankl argues that at every moment, there is the opportunity to give life meaning through either our action or attitude toward our circumstances. 

In these complicated, anxious times, it's just helpful to return to the simple, fundamental value and meaning of human life.

"It's always refreshing to read someone who's been through the worst and is still totally convinced and committed to life — especially when they are clear and generous writers, too! There are some challenging ideas in the book about death and despair, but given Frankl's personal and professional experiences, I have to at least take his perspective seriously on those topics.

"I think in these complicated, anxious times, it's just helpful to return (and return often) to the simple, fundamental value and meaning of human life. It seems to me the best — if not only — way to keep perspective and encouragement for the task at hand."

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