'I feel your pain': St. John's rapper King Sway wants to start a conversation about mental health
How the Zimbabwe-born artist found his voice — and a community — in Newfoundland
Farai Gwasira pauses for a second when I first ask him how business school is going. Gwasira, a Zimbabwe-born rapper who goes by the moniker King Sway, is nearing the end of his four-year business degree at Newfoundland's Memorial University, and bursts into an unexpected laugh as he reveals a little-known fact: he didn't apply to go to school for business. "When I started out, I wanted to go to school for psychology."
Gwasira still doesn't know what went wrong in the application process, but he never asked to switch majors. In fact, he believes everything happens for a reason, both the good and bad. "Sometimes there's a calling and you just have to follow," he rationalized. He even sees the mistake as a blessing in disguise, giving him knowledge and insight into a side of the music industry that many artists overlook when they first get started.
"I don't look at my music and my business degree as separate," he explained. "I think they're very much intertwined because I see myself as a business so the way that I carry myself and manage myself is the same way that a business would. Music is very much my primary goal, and I think the degree just adds to that."
Gwasira first started writing songs when he was 10 years old, but King Sway's journey kicked off around the same time he arrived in Canada for university. In his last year of high school in 2016, Gwasira was researching his next move and found himself drawn to Canada for its robust music scene. (He was specifically drawn to Newfoundland's Memorial University after one of its representatives came and spoke at his high school.)
In many ways, Canadians have historically looked to other countries as markers for success, most notably the U.S., as the global mindset of breaking through south of the border still exists to many. But Gwasira had his eyes set on Canada instead: "Everyone who kind of makes their way to music organically has to come to Canada." (It helps that one of his main inspirations is our biggest musical export: Drake. Gwasira calls the Toronto rapper's 2011 album, Take Care, a "masterpiece.")
In 2017, King Sway began releasing music. It was a mixture of emotionally driven lyricism, witty wordplay (something he learned from another one of his all-time favourites, Lil Wayne) and oftentimes dark, moody production. CBC St. John's The Morning Show described his sound — more specifically his vocals and cadence — as "like that of a younger Kendrick [Lamar]." Gwasira himself doesn't hear the similarities but is grateful for the high praise.
After spending some time with his work, it's easy to see why Gwasira wanted to pursue a degree in psychology at first, as matters of the mind also play an integral role in the music of King Sway.
Although it's not the only thing he explores in his songs, Gwasira often uses his music as a platform to discuss mental health and its effects not only on himself, but to men like him who have struggled to be open with their emotions against an upbringing that upheld a one-dimensional idea of masculinity. "Man up" was just one of many examples of phrases that Gwasira remembers shaping his view of male strength. But when he was around 14 years old, he started to experience feelings of depression.
Suicide is just not the way/ I know it's hypocritical for me to say/ but I do believe there'll be better days/ I go through it too and I feel your pain.- King Sway, "Addiction"
"I was never really an open person," Gwasira said, noting that he kept his battles to himself for years, thinking that he had things under control. But when he moved to Canada and was alone for the first time in his life, his mental health took a turn for the worse.
"I was struggling to sleep, not wanting to eat and kind of going through a spiral," he said. That mild sense of depression he had always felt suddenly escalated. He was self-harming and, as he mentions on his 2020 track "Close/Distant," he contemplated giving up on music at one point.
He credits counselling, friends and the general St. John's community around him as major factors in confronting and dealing with his depression, and while mental health is a lifelong battle, Gwasira says he feels great now — he flashes his infectious smile as he says this — and is focused on helping others.
Putting such heavy topics into his music didn't come naturally, but it all started with the track "Addiction," which is featured on King Sway's 2020 debut album, Day Dreaming. "It's a struggle for me each and every day/ but you'll never know me 'til you know my pain," he raps, opening himself up over a haunting, minimal piano part with Nigerian singer Ife Alaba's cooing in the background. (Gwasira praises collaborator Alaba as "an amazing vocalist," and says he only teams up with people he can trust for his music because collaborating means "letting you into my life in many ways.") Later on the track, he speaks directly to those who are struggling most: "Suicide is just not the way/ I know it's hypocritical for me to say/ but I do believe there'll be better days/ I go through it too and I feel your pain." Alaba's hook comes rushing through and ends with a reminder that "you're not alone."
When Gwasira first posted a snippet of the track online, he immediately received messages from fans sharing similar experiences and showing gratitude for his vulnerability. "They found that powerful, that I could stand up and own my pain," he said. "That motivated me to finish the song. It inspired me to try and be more bold about my expression of emotions."
Gwasira clarifies that some stories on Day Dreaming aren't his, but actually a collection of shared experiences from his community, thus leading him to describe his music as a product of St. John's, not just himself. When Gwasira first started exploring the Newfoundland music scene, he noted how much room there was for emerging artists like him to grow.
"It's like when you first walk into a mine," he explained. "There's lots of treasure in it, but it just hasn't been dug up yet. I think this island has the potential to become one of the leading hubs for upcoming talent." The hip-hop community, he specified, is small compared to other scenes there, but promised that "it's grown rather rapidly in the last one or two years."
But with the encouragement and love of those around him in Newfoundland, he still felt anxious putting out the album because it signalled a whole new level of openness, one that he hadn't even revealed to his own family back in Zimbabwe.
Right before Day Dreaming's release, Gwasira told his family what he was really going through. "I thought it would be unfair to go in front of the world and be like, this is what I'm dealing with, without ever telling my family," he explained, "that's a terrible way to find out." Gwasira says his family's initial reaction was shock — his quiet, reserved personality hid much of his pain from those around him — but points out that they're "very supportive now."
Gwasira's words, both on record and in conversation, can be pretty plain-spoken and direct, but he never wants his message to be misinterpreted. "Life is short, you can't waste time getting from point A to point B," he says, reacting to the number of times I point out his straightforward attitude.
Ultimately, Gwasira says, he wants to be "the OK symbol" for his fans, a bright billboard with flashing messages like "I know how you feel," "I got you" and "hang in there" in bold letters that you can't miss.
"I love to see people rise up after they've fallen and fight back," he said. And if you need a little help, King Sway is there to lend a helping hand.
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).
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.