Who is Mustafa? Meet the Toronto songwriter behind Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber's latest collaboration
‘He’s a real poet,’ Mendes said in a recent interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe
Today, two of Canada's biggest pop acts, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, came together for a brand new single called "Monster." The song dives into a subject that both singers are familiar with: the pitfalls of fame. "You put me on a pedestal and tell me I'm the best/ Raise me up into the sky until I'm short of breath," Mendes sings. On the second verse, Bieber echoes Mendes' thoughts while reflecting on his own turbulent history as a celebrity: "I'll take responsibility for everything I've done/ Holding it against me like you're the holy one."
If this wasn't a monumental enough collaboration between Canadians stars, a look behind the scenes reveals an even bigger supergroup of artists coming together for this song. As Mendes confirmed in an interview this week with Apple Music's Zane Lowe, "Monster" was co-written by Toronto songwriters and artists, Daniel Caesar, Frank Dukes and Mustafa. (The track was also co-produced by former BadBadNotGood member Matthew Tavares and Toronto musician/songwriter Kaan Güneşberk.) While Caesar and Dukes are relatively big names by now — the former won a Grammy in 2019 while the latter has worked with everyone from Eminem to Taylor Swift — some may be hearing Mustafa's name for the first time.
"'Monster' wouldn't have taken that turn if he wasn't in the room," Mendes told Lowe, citing Mustafa (formerly known as Mustafa the Poet) as an integral part of the process. Mendes later added: "He's a real poet. He knows what he's doing."
Mustafa is only 24 years old, but in many ways, he's a veteran in the arts. Having started as a performance poet, Mustafa has always had a way with words that naturally transitioned into a career in music. Below are five things you need to know about this rising star.
His first taste of fame was in the seventh grade
When Mustafa was 12, he performed an original spoken word piece called "A Single Rose" at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Toronto. That piece, an incisive look at growing up in a low-income community rife with violence, earned him a standing ovation at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival, and the video of that performance now has more than 35,000 views.
His work honours his Toronto neighbourhood, Regent Park
A steady thread throughout Mustafa's work has been his commitment to his community. Growing up in Regent Park (which was also the inspiration behind "A Single Rose"), Mustafa told Pitchfork that he "had less than the average poor person in the community. That made me want to stand up for the East Africans in Regent Park. We didn't really have power." (Mustafa's parents are Sudanese.)
He also experienced a lot of loss due to gun violence, most notably NSK and Smoke Dawg, friends from his hip hop collective Halal Gang. In an interview with NOW Magazine, he talked about the importance of keeping the legacy of his friends and his neighbourhood alive in his work: "People look at Regent and point to the internal politics, or the fact that on every corner someone is no longer there. But, look at how many people are still standing."
Drake gave him a big boost in 2015
As Drake was quickly on his way to becoming one of the biggest music stars in the world, he continued to shine a spotlight on talent from his hometown of Toronto. In 2015, he re-posted an Instagram by Mustafa that read: "If a writer falls in love with you, you will never die." (That post accumulated over 200,000 likes.) While the two have never formally collaborated on a record, Drake did later appear in a short film Mustafa produced titled Remember Me, Toronto, about gun violence in Toronto.
He's written songs for some big stars
Mustafa's list of songwriting credits isn't super long (yet), but it does include some impressive names. He co-wrote and sang backup on "Attention" off Toronto R&B star the Weeknd's breakout album, Starboy, and he has two credits ("All These Years" and "She Loves Control") on Camila Cabello's 2018 Grammy Award-winning debut album, Camila. He has also worked with Majid Jordan, Usher and Metro Boomin.
This year marked the debut of his solo music career
In March, Mustafa released his debut solo single, "Stay Alive" (co-written by Dukes), a soulful acoustic number that continues to tell the heartbreaking story of of gun violence, pleading with the youth to avoid these tragic cycles. "All of these traps and all of these street signs/ Nothing will be yours or mine," he sings wearily in a raspy tone. He has since put out two more singles, the James Blake-assisted "Come Back," and "Air Forces," which was co-written by Mustafa, Dukes and Blake.
Mustafa's debut album, When Smoke Rises, is due out in January, and will include additional contributions from Dukes, Blake, Jamie xx, Sampha and Swedish artist Simon on the Moon.
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.