Just like you, DijahSB struggles to keep their head above the waters
The Toronto rapper discusses the vulnerability that powers their Polaris Music Prize-nominated album
Mere days before I was set to meet with DijahSB, they took to Twitter to share one of their many casuistic takes on the music industry: "I'd much rather want to be respected by my fans and my peers than to look to the charts for my success. Numbers don't mean shit."
It's a pointed critique of chart manipulation and major-label influence on the mainstream, and that's the kind of straightforward truth that the Toronto rapper offers in everything they do, from off-the-cuff tweets (which have garnered them a robust online following) to their music. That honesty is also front and centre during our conversation.
That tweet in particular made for an interesting jumping off point, given the reason why we were speaking on this very occasion: their second full-length album, Head Above the Waters, had just secured a spot on the 2021 Polaris Music Prize short list. Although chart success is not what DijahSB is chasing, I wondered where critical acclaim fit into their vision of success, considering Polaris is voted on by a jury of critics, based on artistic merit.
Admittedly, DijahSB only discovered the Polaris Prize "like two years ago," but saw the nomination as a sign that their career had reached a new, more serious level after almost a decade of making music. "This is a prestigious award in Canada," they say. "You can't get better than that, even if I don't win." But they're also mindful of the fact that awards, just like chart success, aren't the be all end all of being a musician.
"With these things, you don't want to put too much weight on winning," they add. "It's nice, but you don't want that to dictate your worth as an artist."
It makes sense that DijahSB's main marker of success is the connection they form with fans. "I don't need anything other than a community of fans where they respect me, and I respect them," they explain, noting that it's not the size of their fanbase, but the loyalty of those who stick around. Music, for DijahSB, is a personal art form; a place for them to bare their most vulnerable feelings while also never forgetting the entertainment aspect of it, couching those raw feelings in smooth grooves that practically instruct listeners who share in their dark thoughts to shake it off to the tune of a shimmering hip-hop beat. (They explain that their musical blueprint is based on their idol, Kid Cudi, an artist who was criticized by some for being "soft," but unabashedly pushed the boundaries on being vulnerable in hip hop. During our chat, they even point out a Cudi tattoo on their right arm.)
While rap is, to some extent, still a platform for bravado and projecting excess, DijahSB makes it clear that they share more in common with their listeners than they do with chart-toppers. "I ain't tryin' to be Jay Z or Warren Buffet," they state on the opening track of their debut record, 2020 the Album. Throughout the release, they talk about defeating depression and struggling to pay bills, all with a mission statement etched into the middle of the late-night stream-of-consciousness number "I'll pay you Back on Friday": "I need to start living though/ I'm just surviving."
'I can do this'
2020 the Album marked a significant milestone for DijahSB, who, up until that point, was scared of making albums. "At the time, I wasn't getting any financial support," they recall. "I felt like I didn't have the resources to put together something as cohesive or as nice as an album so I only did singles or small little EPs." Then, one day, they decided, "f--k it," it was time to try something new.
A crowdfunding campaign helped DijahSB put that debut album together, which was a collection of Kaytranada-inspired beats that provided the perfect showcase for their slinky flow, witty wordplay and undeniable hooks. (Even though DijahSB jokes that they hate writing hooks for songs, make no mistake that their hooks are razor sharp and will burrow into your head for days.)
Their takeaway from that experience: "OK, that's not so bad. I can do this."
COVID-19 derailed DijahSB's plans. In an alternate reality, 2021 would've seen a string of singles from the rapper, who explains, "I had a whole different schedule." DijahSB is quick to acknowledge their privilege during the pandemic: their family remained safe from the coronavirus, they were employed (they worked a retail job at the Apple store), and the lockdown catered to their introverted qualities. But, in many ways, this past year and a half allowed DijahSB to truly flourish as an artist, and gave them the time and space to create Head Above the Waters, a direct response to the worldwide health crisis that weighed heavily on their mind.
"[Head Above the Waters] definitely sparked from the pandemic," they say. "Just having things feel like they're going underwater and there's no solution in sight. For a long time we had no idea what was going on with vaccinations or the shutdown. Every other week, it felt like an experience of drowning, so that's where my head was at with that one."
DijahSB may joke now that witnessing people push back against restrictions signalled that "we're doomed as a society," but it was a tectonic moment that also catalyzed change in their own life. They quit their job at Apple (an experience that's captured on the track "Overtime"), they connected with a new manager and that time period sparked what became their strongest, most cohesive album yet.
Throughout Head Above the Waters, which features buoyant, bouncing beats from Harrison and Cheap Limousine, and guest features from Chris Castello and Terrell Morris, DijahSB uses water and drowning imagery to illustrate the strife they've experienced, as well as the havoc around them.
"People who don't like me try to find out if I drowned or not," they claim on the downtempo opening number, "Moving With the Tides." But they warn listeners, "Nah, I learned to float last minute." Their motto is later crystallized on the title track, where DijahSB sings on its chorus: "How you feeling, hope it's all right/ when the current get rough, stay up, keep swimming/ keep swimming, keep swimming."
When asked how much the message in their music is meant for themself versus for fans, DijahSB concedes that it's a bit of both. "It's difficult to take your own advice," they admit, "but once you see that it's working and helping other people, you've got to start talking to yourself the way you talk to a close friend or best friends whenever they're going through things."
Those moments of vulnerability and honesty — even down to simple, revealing lines like, "Today I don't feel anxious so I sigh in relief/ that's a feeling I be fighting to keep" on "Head Above the Waters" — come naturally to DijahSB. They wouldn't change a thing about their forthrightness, but the rapper notes that it can be both "a gift and a curse," adding: "Now the whole world knows all your flaws, but at the same time, I see it as a strength because people view emotions so strangely. Certain emotions are negative and certain emotions are positive, but all emotions are just a way to dictate how you feel in that moment — and it can change."
It's that fluidity of emotions, and sometimes combination of multiple feelings at once, that makes DijahSB's music so relatable. In times of crisis, leaning on just one emotion won't work. Sometimes, as they tell me: "You just gotta cry and laugh at the same time."
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.