On In the Garden, Winnipeg rapper Anthony OKS is ready to grow
He created the new EP after a long period of reflection: 'I felt like I was blooming'
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month, we talk to Winnipeg rapper Anthony OKS about his latest EP, his past work with the Lytics and the history of his hometown's hip-hop scene.
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Anthony Sannie is in full bloom. The Winnipeg poet and rapper known as Anthony OKS released his latest EP, In the Garden, on Sept. 24, and on the illustrated cover he's surrounded by flowers and plants in purple, red and pink hues.
In the same way that different plants and flowers grow at their own pace, a period of prolonged reflection allowed Sannie to figuratively water and nurture different elements of himself. Throughout lockdown, as he wrote the songs that would eventually end up on this EP, Sannie found himself with ample time to consider his relationships, his family histories, and his connection to hip hop and performing.
"I feel like a growing thing myself, as part of this garden," he said over Zoom from his home in Winnipeg. "When I was putting together the EP, I felt like I was blooming and I wanted to be surrounded by other things that were blooming, too."
The songs cover a range of subjects — from the love for his craft to his father's journey immigrating from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to Winnipeg — but the thematic throughline remains the same: that he is in a constant state of becoming.
Growth, of all kinds, is at the heart of In the Garden. On "Line of Fire," Sannie raps in hindsight about losing his younger years to depression and what it took for him to emerge out of that period. On "Fortified," he reflects about how his relationship with his girlfriend has progressed and grown stronger over the years. The grounding force for his ability to try and fail and try again has always been his mother, Suzette. She encouraged her sons to always explore what inspired them, and what set them apart.
"We were all allowed to express ourselves however we wanted and without her, there would be no Lytics, there would be no, nothing."
Sannie emerged on the Winnipeg hip-hop scene alongside his brothers, Andrew and Alex, their cousin Mungala Londe and friend Lonnie Ce in 2009, as part of the Lytics. The group is a household name in the city, and has opened for hip-hop heavyweights Nas and the Roots, and worked in studio with Mike D of the Beastie Boys. Sannie had almost a decade of experience under his belt, putting out records and touring internationally, before he started releasing his solo work in 2018. He released his last EP, Take Time, in 2019 with singles interspersed between drops.
Sometimes Sannie sings, other times he raps, whenever either one feels fitting. He's inspired by artists who use their voices like malleable instruments to provoke different emotional reactions, like Pharoahe Monch, Kid Cudi, André 3000, Little Simz and No Name. There's a straightforward vulnerability in his writing, like he's always telling you the truth, and the warm tones of his delivery make it believable.
Sannie is also a DJ, which influences how he approaches music-making. "You start really dissecting the music rather than passively listening to it," he said. "I think about the sonics differently, it's like reverse engineering. I've also started learning about other genres and playing them in sets like '70s Latin funk, Turkish funk and Afrobeat, which has found its way onto my new EP on the song 'Boy From Freetown.'"
That song, an exploration of the "trials and tribulations" his father, Abdul, experienced getting from Sierra Leone to Canada in the '70s, is a direct result of "this longing to connect to something a little deeper within me." His parents have always shared stories of his family's arrival in Canada; his maternal grandfather came from Jamaica via the United Kingdom in the late '60s and worked at the Symington and Transcona yards of the CN Railway. Sannie has never been to visit either of his ancestral homes. He was meant to visit Sierra Leone as a child, though the civil war in the '90s derailed the trip indefinitely. He grew up around other kids whose families fled Sierra Leone during the war.
"I call them my cousins. Some of them saw some messed-up stuff. I was kind of privy to that as a kid but I didn't really understand what that meant until I got a little older and started to piece things together."
The music of Sannie's homelands has surrounded him since he was a kid. His father played a steady stream of Sierra Leonean, Ghanian and Nigerian hits and classic Afrobeat and Afropop, the music always permeating, creating a sort of absorption by osmosis.
"The first music experience I really remember was going to my parent's friend's house, we call him Uncle Moses, and all the kids were hanging out in the basement, just sitting around in the circle talking and in the background," he said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but they were playing Fela Kuti."
It wasn't until he was 10 years old that Sannie discovered hip hop, through his eldest brother and Lytics producer, Alex, who introduced him to artists like Jeru the Damaja, Blackstar, the Fugees and Black Moon. As Sannie got older, he started to get more familiar with Canadian hip hop by watching MuchVibe and discovered one of his all-time greats, Saukrates, as well as Mathematik and Tara Chase.
This preliminary education prepared him for the moment when he was 16, when his other brother, Andrew, suggested they put out a record. They were just kids from Winnipeg's south end, experimenting and making music in the city's outskirts, not realizing that their breakout single "Big City Soundgirl," released in September 2009, had a captive audience.
They threw themselves into the deep end, booking their first show in December 2009 at the 400-person capacity Pyramid Cabaret, never having put on a show before — and it sold out. "Up until [the Pyramid Cabaret show] we had no idea that people in the city were even checking for us like that."
"I was pretty nervous because I didn't know how to perform yet," Sannie said. "I didn't have any breath control. I didn't know how to be onstage. But, that moment kind of solidified the possibility of performing and becoming an artist."
A couple years later, Sannie realized that some stalwarts of Winnipeg's hip-hop scene — celebrated local acts that would soon consider the Lytics their contemporaries — had come out to support them that night at the Pyramid Cabaret. "Longstanding hip-hop acts, like Peanuts & Corn, Nestor Wynrush and the Shadez, came to check us out, but because we were so isolated in the south end of the city, we had no idea who they were. Over time we put two and two together."
Sannie has had the fortune of watching his hometown's hip-hop scene grow exponentially throughout the years. "The breadth of the hip-hop scene in Winnipeg is way wider than it was 12 years ago because it's easier to put your music out, it's easier to be seen," he said. The ubiquity of social media, which hadn't yet reached its peak back in 2009 when the Lytics first emerged, has been a boon for artists like Super Duty Tough Work and Lavi$h, who can simultaneously build a following both in their city and outside of it.
"It's been really dope to see the evolution but all this new energy wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the people that came before us, the building blocks and the foundation of the hip-hop scene like Mood Ruff, Peanuts & Corn, Shadez, YY and Mama Cutsworth."