Samurai Champs: meet the wild, new hip-hop group revolutionizing Saskatchewan music
The first feature in CBC Music’s Beyond the 6 series, highlighting hip-hop scenes outside of Toronto
The 2020 Junos have been cancelled since this article was first published.
This feature is the first instalment in CBC Music's new series, Beyond the 6. 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.
Beyond the 6 tells some of these stories. In honour of the Junos in Saskatoon, we kick things off with Saskatchewan's own Samurai Champs, a group changing the face of Prairie music.
"Being an Asian hip-hop boy band from the Prairies, you get used to a lot of 'nos.'"
Marvin Chan says this with a quarter-smile. He's been met with every variation of "no" imaginable since he began performing music publicly more than a decade ago, and the "nos" just got louder when Chan and Savan Muth formed Samurai Champs in Saskatoon.
Chan, who performs as Merv xx Gotti, is the alt-R&B half of the group; Muth, who performs as Jeah, is the rapper and beatmaker. The pair met at Campbell Collegiate high school in Regina when Muth helped start a lunch-hour open mic in the library, mostly to put on hip-hop shows. The event became known as the Campbell Coffee House, and it literally made space for aspiring artists to showcase their talents, hone their performance skills and find each other.
The music they were interested in — rap, soul, R&B, emo, hardcore, punk, acoustic — wasn't part of the dominant soundscape of Saskatchewan, where rock and country have been the province's musical cornerstones (Stu Davis, the Northern Pikes, the Sheepdogs, One Bad Son). Chan and Muth felt like outsiders in other ways, too. Chan was born in Vancouver but grew up in Regina, the first-generation kid of Chinese and Thai immigrants. Muth was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, and immigrated with his family to Regina as a child. Despite the slight age difference — Muth was a couple grades ahead of Chan — the pair bonded quickly.
"Savan always [said] when we were younger that we were the same artists in different genres," Chan says while Muth laughs. Chan is visiting Vancouver and is sitting in a meeting room at CBC headquarters while Muth is Skyping in via video from back home.
Everybody was just trying to make something out of nothing.- Savan Muth
The two have come a long way from those lunch-hour library shows, and they have spent the last seven years turning a lifetime of "nos" into fuel for their own DIY empire in the making. But this is also a positive spin on the plight facing countless marginalized folks: with systemic barriers to entry at every turn, survival and scarcity become the norm. Any win in those conditions is a triumph that looks like thriving but is, in a capitalist, white supremacist society, also commodified exceptionalism. This is the landscape in which Chan, Muth and their friends co-founded Trifecta in 2014, a free, multi-genre, arts and culture festival in Regina and Saskatoon that focused on "promoting diversity in the independent arts."
Trifecta: a space for everyone
The festival ran from 2014 to 2016, growing larger year over year until it became too big to organize. Chan and Muth were also ready to take Samurai Champs to the next level. In 2016, they were accepted to Canadian Music Week and Reeperbahn, Germany's largest music festival. But Trifecta wasn't over. Instead, it evolved into an arts collective for Chan and Muth and other young musicians and DJs, the majority of whom are people of colour. Trifecta artists began staging showcases at home and abroad, eager to prove that Saskatchewan's contemporary music scene was actually complex and diverse, even if it hadn't always been like that.
"Growing up and going to hardcore shows, I was always almost the only Asian kid there," Chan recalls. "Except for maybe a Filipino dude named Tariq from Winnipeg, who was only there like every three months or something, there was not really anyone I could really relate to or look to for guidance [on] 'how do I fit in this space?' And then for Savan, at least for the hip-hop stuff, what do you think?"
"Sort of the same. It was still so new, especially in the Prairies at that time," Muth says. "Everyone thought rapping was singing pretty much, right? In Saskatchewan at that point. But if you listen to a lot of hip-hop music or whatnot, you know the clear distinction between the two. Everybody was just trying to make something out of nothing. So for inspiration there wasn't really much to look for, except between each other."
If we don't do it ourselves, and we don't make a platform by ourselves, no one's going to do it for us.- Marvin Chan
Even applying for festivals proved challenging for Samurai Champs.
"No one really put on shows that, like, two Asian dudes, one rapping and one singing, could really get on the bill," Chan says. "Even back in high school, this always stays with me, Savan said a girl in his class straight-up told him, 'Oh, you rap? Asians can't rap.' It's like the biggest 'no' you can get."
"I still consciously think about it when I tell somebody I'm an artist or I rap or I make music," Muth admits. "More often I'll tell somebody that I work in sales because to them it's acceptable. Like, 'You shouldn't do music. You should be in school getting an accounting degree, or you should be working at your parents' restaurant.' Almost like, 'That's not where it belongs, it doesn't make sense.' So trying to put two Asian faces on a bill, it just didn't look like it fit at the time, right? Just because there just wasn't enough exposure yet, I think."
And sometimes even if the band is part of a festival, Chan and Muth have to deal with casual racism from their peers. Chan remembers playing a festival where they were the only non-country band on the bill. He says the group before said something like, "Oh, who's up next, the Kung-Fu Pandas?"
"It's setting the tone in a way that makes it really real for us like, 'Oh, if we don't do it ourselves, and we don't make a platform by ourselves, no one's going to do it for us,'" Chan says. "And that was why us and our friends started Trifecta as a festival first. It was just supposed to be a platform for any underrepresented voice or genre, which really just meant like punk or hardcore or hip hop or electronic or anything. And then there was value in that, that we could show each other that we could do it without help."
One of the Samurai Champs' most significant successes was an invitation to play the Music Matters Festival in Singapore last fall. The band had toured throughout Europe and the States, but Chan says there was always something missing. They wanted to know what it would be like to play in an Asian market.
It's like the same feeling when you're about to cry, but you're not crying? It was hard to breathe, but it felt good, like this is a part of me that I was always missing.- Savan Muth
Chan still marvels at it all. Not just their own personal experience touring Asia, but of the broader context of their parents' immigration and refugee stories, and how it allowed him and Muth to meet, and ultimately pursue their dreams.
"When we finally went [to Asia], it was almost so surreal…. two random dudes meet each other and do what their parents wanted them to, which is just take the opportunity of being in a free place like Canada to try music and use that to get back to their mother country," Chan says. "Then we went to Cambodia, and that was the first time Savan got to see his home country. That was a pretty emotional thing for Savan, but also for me watching. Your ancestors have been used to this environment for all these generations, and having one generation that didn't get to see it and then suddenly see it, and then all these cells just like light up? It was pretty emotional."
"I was born in a refugee camp," Muth says. "When I came to Canada, I only was told stories by my parents and was just given this idea. Then I painted it in my head, the collective memories they had. Going to Asia for what we want to do passionately and for our career was a big step for me, because it's, like, I'm not only just going to travel, I'm going to do what we were made to do, which is perform musically."
Muth describes it as an "overwhelming" experience.
"As soon as I landed, breathing the air, setting my first few steps onto the homeland, onto the ground, I felt a heavy, heavy weight," he says. "It's like the same feeling that you feel when you're about to cry, but you're not crying? That feeling — it was hard to breathe, but it felt good, it felt like this is a part of me that I was always missing. I don't know how to explain it completely, just because it was more emotional. And then being able to see the history in Cambodia, to understand where my parents were imprisoned during the war to seeing how my dad lived in these little huts that they made. Seeing simple living and how people live in poverty and they were still able to give back to the communities — it was eye-opening for me."
After making things work for themselves and by themselves — both Chan and Muth have solo careers as the aforementioned Merv xx Gotti and Jeah outside of Samurai Champs — Chan says management-type offers began to come in, but nothing ever quite fit.
"We came to terms with, like, who is going to care about us the same way we care about each other? And who's going to care about our community in that same way we care about our community? And now it's a little different," Chan says. "We're getting into festivals now, which is nice, but that definitely was from us just pushing and sticking to our guns. And even sometimes that racial anxiety still kicks in, like, do we want to get on this bill? Are they just trying to check their colour box or something?"
You're almost never Asian enough, or you're never white enough, and then you don't really know who you are.- Marvin Chan
Representation is changing in Saskatchewan thanks in part to Trifecta, and specifically, Asian-Canadian representation is changing in the Prairies thanks to acts like Respectfulchild, Namoo Nara and Samurai Champs. And though they're hearing "no" less frequently, that aforementioned racial anxiety that Chan referenced is deeply embedded in his and Muth's experiences as Asian-Canadians in the Prairies.
"You don't know who you are, I guess," Chan says. "Maybe this will be different in future generations. But at least for first- and second-generation kids, the immigrant kids like us, there's always this weird thing that happens. Maybe it's because we grew up in the Prairies. Maybe it's just being in Canada, but you're almost never Asian enough, or you're never white enough, and then you don't really know who you are."
"You're always in the middle, right?" Muth adds. "Always chasing one or the other trying to fit in."
"And when we couldn't fit in one space or the other," Chan concludes, "we had to find our new space."
For all of CBC Music's coverage of the 2020 Juno Awards, go to cbcmusic.ca/junos.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner