Meet Sinful Poet, the rapper bringing Afro music to Canada's East Coast
This rising artist fuses his Sierra Leone roots with his love of hip hop
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 Sinful Poet, an emerging artist based in Moncton, N.B., who wants to bring hip-hop fans' attention to the East Coast.
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"Yes, there were guys before me, and there will be guys after me."
The way in which Abdul Salam Nyei describes the hip-hop scene in his home of Moncton, N.B., often sounds like he's speaking in single digits. Nyei, who performs under the moniker Sinful Poet, contrasts that by calling the singer-songwriter scene there "huge," with hip hop looming underneath, still waiting for its opportunity to shine.
In fact, Nyei can only list off two other active rappers he's keeping up with in Moncton right now, although he admits that he hasn't been paying close attention of late. (The two names he shouts out are collaborator Jamm and his friend, Posi. Of course, in reality, the list of New Brunswick hip hop artists is a little more robust and includes acts like City Natives, Beaats, Fishstixx and Waveendz.)
Nyei is currently calling from Edmonton on this fall afternoon, and he's done quite some travelling across Canada over the past few years in order to learn more about, and connect with, the music made in different parts of the country. But the conversation always goes back to Moncton — to building a robust hip-hop scene there and to bring attention to this small, burgeoning East Coast stage.
From Sierra Leone to Moncton
Nyei was born in Sierra Leone, and moved to Moncton at the age of 14 with his family through a refugee program. "New Brunswick people are really, really friendly," he praises, noting its small community as "the best place to raise kids."
In high school, he was drawn to a group of teens who would gather in the schoolyard to freestyle rap. "My friend and I would just stand there and look at these guys battling each other," he recalls. Nyei felt the urge to join in, but because he was still new to the English language, he used these battles as an opportunity to learn instead, calling on his friend to help translate words he wasn't familiar with.
Rap and hip hop became the foundation of Nyei's education, both in language and music. Jay Z, Kanye West, J. Cole and Nas filled up his tiny iPod, and it was there that he would soak up new words and phrases while also learning how to tell stories through music. "I see myself as a storyteller," Nyei explains, citing J. Cole and Nas as his favourite lyricists. "No matter what the jam is, it has to have a story in it."
Eventually, Nyei began to put his skills to the test, combining some rap verses with beats he learned to make in the software program FL Studio. At the age of 15, he boldly tried to seek out a producer on Kijiji, in hopes of getting signed to a label. While online classified services can yield varying results, Nyei did find a producer to meet with, but confessed that he was simply "pushing buttons and trying to rap" during their meeting, laughing at the fact that his drive may have outweighed his musical technique at the time. (The man he met with eventually called on him to contribute a hook to a song, which helped kick-start his career as Sinful Poet.)
Afro music: 'It's more of a home feeling for me'
Now in his early 20s, Nyei's career has been a slow and steady climb, growing with each new project he works on. And his sound has also evolved in this time, too. Sinful Poet's early years were geared toward a more hard-hitting sound, with Nyei's rap battle background and old school hip-hop influences coming through. But in the past couple of years, his music has moved in a more Afro-inspired direction, incorporating rhythms and beats that recall the music he grew up listening to as a young kid, like Bajah and 2Baba.
"I still do my kind of rapping, but it's just a different beat," he says, of his new sound, although he argues that all of his singles represent a different side of his musical personality, from the heavy introspection of "Butterfly" where he opens up about his family and personal relationships, to the summertime bounce of his latest single, "Jambo."
"When I was young, it was all about the bars, but now it's all about delivering the same message but in a way that can get people to dance and listen."
Part of that decision to widen his musical scope also came from a reaction to the Moncton music scene and Nyei's struggle to get people to attend his shows. "Why aren't people listening to us?" Nyei would ask himself. That's when he expanded his musical intake to include more Afro and R&B artists, challenging himself to add elements from those genres: "How can I bring this into my craft and perfect it?"
In the process of trying to tweak his own formula, he also saw the inclusion of Afrobeats as a way of embracing his home country. "It's more of a home feeling for me," he says, now identifying as a primarily Afro artist who performs in both English and Swahili. "It makes me happy to do it."
Sinful Poet's two singles this year, "Kette" and the aforementioned "Jambo," are prime examples of the rising Afro artist he is becoming. Beats on both tracks are laid back and spacious enough to give Nyei room to fit in his effortless, melodic flow. The latter even sparked a brief TikTok dance challenge that caught Nyei by surprise. He laughed at the fact that the song somehow got picked up by the star-making viral app before its proper release.
"I just went with it, it was really fun and something that we'll probably do more of in the future," he adds.
When you're an artist in Canada, your dream is to make it in Toronto, but it's not always like that.- Sinful Poet
Unlike most musicians in Canada, Nyei says he's not drawn to the bigger cities that are producing the country's biggest acts. "When you're an artist in Canada, your dream is to make it in Toronto, but it's not always like that," he assures. While he acknowledges that Toronto is home to hip-hop giants like Drake, Jazz Cartier and Haviah Mighty, Nyei says his focus is more on finding like-minded Afro-focused musicians, something that he doesn't think Toronto has as much of a stronghold on. (That's actually why, he says, he was spending some time in Edmonton.)
Of course, Drake is a name that has some loose association to Afro, given his Afro-influenced hits like "One Dance" and "Come Closer," both tracks featuring Nigerian artist Wizkid. "It was a great move," Nyei says, giving his two cents to what has been a divisive topic among fans around the world, some of whom have accused Drake of appropriation. "Guys like Drake will still be big without Afro, but doing Afro was good for Afro artists because that just brought more people to the types of beats that we work on."
That, after all, is Nyei's goal, too. Whether that means bringing Afro music to Moncton, to the rest of Canada, or all over the world, Nyei sees a promising future for both his own music and Afro music as a whole. With confidence and excitement in his voice, he predicts, "Our music style is coming up now."
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.