Backxwash didn't fit into the Montreal experience — so she created her own
The Polaris Music Prize nominee looks back on the journey to find her voice
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada. Toronto is widely known as the country's hip-hop capital (and a central spot for music in general), but many cities and communities east to west, north to south, have long had highly successful underground hip-hop scenes or are now developing their own.
This month, we talk to Backxwash, a Montreal artist who is challenging not only the norms in her city, but also traditional sounds and structures in the music industry in general.
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Written by Max Mohenu
"Trans artists shouldn't have to work 10 times harder just to be given the same look as a cis, white artist."
Ashanti Mutinta didn't fit into that Montreal experience, so she created her own as Backxwash, the name of her solo hardcore hip-hop/noise project that's unlike almost anything else in the Canadian music industry.
But now she has arrived: 2020 is Mutinta's breakout year thanks to her acclaimed hip-hop horrorcore album, God Has Nothing to do With This Leave Him Out of It, which was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and is considered a potential favourite to win.
The journey hasn't been easy, but music has been the constant. Born in Lusaka, Zambia, Mutinta recalls listening to legendary R&B group Boyz II Men as a young kid before finding her way to hip hop.
"I used to sing and shit, but then I discovered Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Mo Money Mo Problems' and that turned my world upside down," Mutinta says. "From there, I just started really getting into different forms of hip hop. At 13-years-old, I would just listen to conscious hip hop like Lupe Fiasco and early Kanye when he was sampling slow jams. That was really my shit. I've just always been surrounded by people making music, so I wanted to do it."
As she grew closer to music with the help of her sister, there was a lot of pushback from her family about how she expressed her creativity. Both religious and highly conservative, her parents — her father in particular — were not fond of Mutinta pursuing music or any artistic expression. She left Zambia at age 17 to live with her brother and sister in British Columbia. Even after leaving her homeland, she still felt the judgment of her father, which put her in a weird head space with her music.
"I stopped making music shortly after I moved to Canada," Mutinta says. "I was talking with my dad and he was kind of looking down on it. When I finally moved to Montreal and started making music, I had to find that confidence again."
Mutinta credits Montreal for reviving her passion for making music, but as a trans woman she's also had to be very selective about how she navigates the industry and whom she trusts with her brand. She keeps her team of collaborators small — it's just her and her creative director — making her own opportunities to be visible in a city that doesn't always see her.
"I have talked to a few industry types, small and big. I essentially don't trust a lot of them. I don't want to be tokenized," says Mutinta. "I think from a gender perspective our experiences have smartened us up. People use the term 'street smarts,' but I think we got trans smart because, as trans people, we can tell when someone is being shifty."
Finding a rap voice in Montreal's hip-hop experience
Backxwash had to find herself as a hip-hop artist in a city with a very narrow-minded criteria for success. Mutinta explains that Quebec not only has a loyalty to its francophone artists, but mainstream hip-hop has never veered too far away from white men making the same sounds over and over again.
"The sound has become monolithic in a sense. White dudes AutoTune-rapping in French over a trap beat is essentially what's being pushed in Quebec, but how many more of these are there?" Mutinta asks. "There's a divide between English and French artists. French artists always have an easier time making it big in Quebec. English artists have to gain traction elsewhere and then come back to Quebec. Kaytranada got famous in Europe first and then Montreal finally embraced him. I don't believe it should be like that for artists, especially for queer people of colour and women."
Mutinta had no choice but to create her own experience through communities in the underground music scene. DIY venues like La Plante helped her tap into an alternative queer space, and Le Cypher, a live open mic in Montreal, helped her begin to find her rap voice and hone her craft.
I had to deal with a lot of people in Montreal not wanting to work with me. Turning down any collaborations or offers I had, essentially.- Backxwash
"Production-wise, it's really easy to get inspired when you're starting out," Mutinta says. "Going to noise shows and seeing a lot of the stuff coming out of the alternative scene is kind of what kept me going."
With a harrowing hybrid of hip hop and hardcore, Backxwash is unlike any musical project coming out of Montreal right now. Navigating artistry as a Black trans person, it's tough enough finding your place within those two genres.
"I don't exist in the Montreal experience," Mutinta says, as she reflects on being turned down for opening slots and rehearsal spaces. "I had to deal with a lot of people in Montreal not wanting to work with me. Turning down any collaborations or offers I had, essentially. I remember calling this jam space several times and every time I'd call they'd say check back in a couple months. Things like this would just go on and on and after a while it felt like rejection. It put me in a space where I felt like if these people don't want to work with me I'll find some people that do or just go at it alone."
Summoning the power of Backxwash
Backxwash's 2018 debut EP, F.R.E.A.K.S, tackled gender identity and sexuality over dark, warbling beats. Her relentless, spitfire delivery vividly captures the experiences of a Black queer person finding themselves in an oppressive world. As an introduction to Mutinta and her reignited artistry, this five-track knockout was just the beginning of what she wanted to channel as an artist.
"Throughout my discography, I've been wanting to gain back the confidence I had making music when I was 16," Mutinta says. "When I started out Backxwash with F.R.E.A.K.S, I still wasn't very confident being in the studio. I hate that project for that reason because I hadn't found that perfect marriage of sounds yet. It made me want to continue putting out music and working on my craft."
Loosening the grips of self-doubt and voices of her parents' disapproval, Mutinta began to build the confidence necessary to take the reins as a producer on her future projects. Later EPs like Black Sailor Moon and Black Magic saw her rap voice swim further into a demonic pool where her lyricism and frightful imagery began to form their ungodly union.
Intensely poetic, while summoning heavier influences, Mutinta started becoming more comfortable pulling aspects of spirituality, witchcraft, and religion into the mix. It became almost therapeutic.
"You reach a point where you realize the stuff you were taught when you were younger that caused you a bunch of trauma can be challenged," Mutinta explains. "I had all these questions growing up, but I couldn't ask them because that's blasphemy, you know? All the trauma that pastors and other religious family members put me through, knowing that it doesn't have a hold on me anymore, I'm able to go deep and explore those things. I remember growing up listening to Black Sabbath and my mom tripping out because, to her, rock music was for the devil. Knowing that other Black queer people grew up the way I grew up, being able to connect with them through my music and say, 'Yeah I went through the same thing,' I find so much peace in that."
Battling demons on God Has Nothing to do With This Leave Him Out of It
After releasing 2019's Deviancy on Virginia imprint Grimalkin Records, Backxwash unleashed her second album, God Has Nothing to do With This Leave Him out of It. Executive produced by Mutinta and Will Owen Bennett, the record awakens the most sinister sides of the rapper's devilish sound. From sparse, menacing drones creaking atop drum samples from Led Zeppelin on "Adolescence," to a hellmouth of ghostly chants and industrial beats on "Spells," the album takes a chaotic joyride both lyrically and sonically.
Mutinta details the importance of sound selection while building this deeply personal release that tackles themes like depression, substance abuse, and acceptance, among other things. She starts by going way back to when she was a kid getting into metal, being questioned by everyone around her.
"My experience growing up with white people was them asking me if I should be listening to this type of music," Mutinta says. "It took growing up and forming my own ideas about how music is made to realize that genres have to talk to each other and create their own language. People pull influences from lots of different places. That's how new stuff is made."
Mutinta's biggest mission throughout the album is searching for a version of forgiveness that could help her move through the trauma that plagues her — and so many queer members of traditional Black families — to this day.
On the album closer "Redemption," Mutinta raps: "Feel like you lost a son/ but you gained a daughter," continuing to unpack the emotional torment of wanting to be your authentic self, naming the damaging impact religion had on her path to self-love. In the final moments of the song, Backxwash samples Bishop T.D. Jakes delivering a poignant sermon:
When we don't forgive
We pay a toll in our bodies.
When you release people that you have unforgiveness against
Or even forgiving yourself
When you release all of that it opens up medical consequences
You have peace, joy, deliverance
It releases supernatural blessings in your life.
Mutinta believes this song is "the closest we ever got to something that's a bit optimistic," on the album. She's still working through what forgiveness as a form of finding peace looks like, and her uncertainty may require her to do some deeper soul-searching.
"I think therapy would be beneficial," she says. "I think adding my own personal story and this new confidence as a producer is what's made creating this album so great, but the forgiveness aspect is something I'm still struggling with because I'm still hurting a lot."
"It's kind of weird that this album got traction because as a queer person putting out music, you're constantly screaming into the void," Mutinta says with a laugh. "It's ridiculous how many other funding programs and music prizes don't understand the importance of having women, trans and non-binary people on their short list. I like how Polaris is moving because all those groups are being highlighted and that's important."
Moving ahead, Backxwash wants to take her horror-core hip hop to even darker terrain. One thing Mutinta's certain about is no matter where this project goes, staying true and authentic to her work will always be top priority.
"Moving throughout the industry, my outlook now is this experience has given me much more confidence not to ever conform to the music machine," she says. "If I'm making honest art, the final message is very important. The advice I'd give any trans person making music now is don't second-guess yourself and don't listen to what the machine says. Make music the way that you want to."
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.