At just 13 years old, Kairo McLean is the youngest reggae nominee ever at the Juno Awards

The prolific multi-instrumentalist wants his music to have a message, one steeped in the lessons he learned from reggae's forefathers.

The prolific multi-instrumentalist wants his music to have a message of freedom, justice and unity

Kairo McLean grew up on a heavy dose of old school reggae and now all that influence is finding its way into his own music. (Courtesy Kairo McLean; graphic by CBC Music)

Kairo McLean grew up on a steady dose of old school reggae and Jamaican DJs whose skills and sense of rhythm he absorbed by osmosis. He picked up his first instrument, the drums, at the age of three and never looked back.

Now, the 13-year-old Toronto artist is the youngest person to be nominated for reggae recording of the year at the Juno Awards. It's a big feat, made even more impressive by the fact that his 2021 EP Easy Now is his first-ever release. While juggling all the responsibilities of a middle schooler, he's managed to take his love of music to new heights, already working on an album coming out this summer. 

McLean found out he was nominated for the award after school when his mother and sister showed up at the end of the day, blasting his music from the car. His mother ran out, hugged him and told him the news. "I was excited, really and truly I was. Like, this is my debut EP and for it to be recognized so quickly in the reggae community is such a proud moment for me."

He's basking in the recognition but even without it he always had big plans for himself: "[Being nominated] is a great motivator but even before the nomination, I've always been motivated to keep going."

His four song EP is a collection of classic reggae tracks, with easy-going vibes and messages of freedom, justice and love. McLean's voice is overflowing with rich tones, so well-suited to the fulsome production. On "Rise Again," he sings: "If you think you can use your system to hold us down, we're gonna rise again," following in the tradition of reggae as a genre that seeks to critique and dismantle systems of oppression. 

CBC Music spoke with McLean over the phone to hear about how it feels to be nominated, his musical upbringing, and what reggae music means to him.

I imagine, like all Jamaican kids, you grew up in a house where old school reggae was always playing. 

Definitely. [laughs]

What do you remember listening to when you were younger?

"Good Life" by Cocoa Tea is one of my core memories in music. That as well as "Stir It Up,"  and a lot of other songs by Bob Marley. I also remember hearing Super Cat, and the old '80s DJs. All of them make up my musical memories and I draw influences from them to this day.

How did hearing that music at such a young age impact you? 

Hearing them had a big impact on who I became as a person, not only hearing them but seeing them live [in video recordings], you know? They're just so exciting and so charismatic, especially Bob Marley, and the way he delivered his messages really spoke to my soul, and shaped who I am at 13 now. I try to live by the words that he put forth for the people of the future. 

In general, what does reggae music mean to you?

To me, reggae has always been about the struggle of the oppressed people. So not just Black people, although they have been oppressed for a long time and they use reggae as their stepping stone almost, but for any nation that's been held down for a long time. It really resonates with anyone that's been in those kinds of times. So, that's really what I think reggae means to me: it's a message, it helps liberate. 

I think about this Bob Marley lyric almost every week: "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds." I think the first time I heard that, I was probably so young I was unable to speak, but it's just something that's so embedded in my brain now.

Right? And the reason why is because it's so powerful. And as I said before, it still rings true. Everyone has to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.

How did you end up working with Willow Records on your EP?

My father has always known Willow and they've done music together a little bit in the past. He came to my father with an opportunity to join a band and he said, "Bring your son," because I can play the drums and all that. So that was the original arrangement, but then Willow heard me singing and was impressed so he wanted me to record a couple of songs for him and that's how Easy Now came out. And I've been with Willow ever since, and Tim Dubs produced it. 

When did you start playing instruments? Are you self-taught or did you take music lessons?

For the most part, I'm self-taught. When I was three I took drum lessons, the kette drum and the bongos. From then on, I've been in love with the rhythm section. I picked up the guitar at six and I learned to play it at eight. And then I learned to actually play the drum kit around the same time. I've completely taught myself since those first drum lessons and I've actually come a long way.

What influence did your parents have on your discovery of reggae music? 

Well, as I said earlier, they used to play music around the house often, but in terms of actually pursuing the knowledge of how to play and how to sing they didn't really push it too hard on me. I kind of went down that path myself, but they've definitely encouraged me the whole way. I've always written lyrics to DJs on sound systems with my dad because that's what he does. His name is Super G and he used to DJ on Night Rider 3000, big up to them. I've always tried to copy him and his style of writing, and one day, I was like, "You know what, I should put a melody to this." Anything that I've wanted to do musically, they've helped me achieve it. I love them so much and I thank them every day for it.

What inspires your lyrics? Do you write from your own lived experience? 

It's a mixture of my own lived experiences, which are very limited because of my age, and I figured out the key is to take from what the forefathers set for us. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, they always write music that lasts a very long time. And if you really look into why, it's because their music rings true, even now. You see it on the news every day, there's always been trouble in the world and they've been writing about that since the early '60s and '70s' and '80s. 

Don't miss the 2022 Juno Awards, hosted by Simu Liu, live Sunday, May 15, at 8 p.m ET/5 p.m PT. Tune in on CBC-TV, CBC Gem, CBC Radio One, CBC Music and CBC Listen, and stream globally on, CBC Music's FacebookYouTube and Twitter pages.

Simu Liu will host the 2022 Juno Awards. (CBC)