Quebec's hip-hop scene is more bilingual than ever — but language headaches persist

Once seen as entirely separate markets with different audiences, the anglophone and francophone hip-hop scenes in Quebec are increasingly intertwined.

Cross-pollination between English and French rap scenes increasingly common

Zach Zoya says Montreal’s bilingual hip-hop scene is ‘like one big melting pot’

10 months ago
Duration 2:09
Featured Video‘We’re a speck of French in an ocean of English,’ says the Canadian hip-hop artist, who stresses the importance of keeping linguistic diversity alive in Quebec's rap and hip-hop scene.

While growing up in the small, French-speaking town of Rouyn-Noranda in Quebec, Zach Zoya didn't have access to a lot of hip-hop music. The artist, whose first language is French but who performs in English, says his sisters introduced him to a new sound as a teen.

"That's when I got my first taste of hip-hop: the first Kanyes, the first Drakes, the first 50 Cents," he told CBC News.

Zoya is part of a fledgling anglophone hip-hop and rap scene in Quebec, parallel to the province's signature rap queb sound — largely a francophone-led tradition marked by the use of franglais, melding French and English, and Quebecois slang, known as joual

Once seen as entirely separate markets with different audiences, the two industries are increasingly intertwined, rewriting Quebec hip-hop as a bilingual pursuit.

"I was very lucky to come at a great time for hip-hop in Montreal," said the 24-year-old, who emerged onto the scene when he began rapping at 16. He's opened shows for prominent francophone rap acts like Loud and Alaclair Ensemble.

"I think now more than ever we have a bilingual scene, which is a thing that I think was very segregated, for lack of a better word … I like to think that we're coming to a point where there is just one big scene."

But the injection of a collaborative, bilingual spirit into Quebec hip-hop isn't without its growing pains in a province where French protectionism is a significant consideration for artists and organizations alike, according to those working across the industry.

Language hiccups

A cross-pollination between the English and French rap scenes in Quebec is becoming increasingly common, according to Steve Jolin, the founder of Montreal rap label 7ieme Ciel. 

He points to Quebec rappers like FouKi and Nate Husser, who together released a high-profile franglais track called Poutine Sauce in 2021 — and Zoya, who Jolin manages, collaborated with francophone rapper Imposs on a remix of his song Start Over

WATCH | The music video for Poutine Sauce by FouKi and Nate Husser: 

The challenge for anglophone artists in Quebec is two-fold, Jolin says: they have to establish themselves in their home province's French-dominated market while finding a way to stand out in the oversaturated English-language market.

"There's a system existing right now in Quebec that's very French-oriented," he said. Canada's anglophone hip-hop scene, meanwhile, is highly concentrated in Toronto and Vancouver.

"So it becomes harder for anglophone acts from Quebec to stand out as one of many artists from Canada that's trying to make their mark."

While you can succeed as a French hip-hop artist in Quebec (touring 35-40 dates a year across the region, by Jolin's estimate) some francophone artists choose to work in English instead to reach a wider audience. 

A man plays a DJ set.
Laval producer Kevin Vincent, who performs as HighKlassified, has worked with the likes of Zach Zoya, The Weeknd and Future. (Audrey Alexandrescu)

Kevin Vincent, a producer from Laval, Que., who counts Zoya, The Weeknd and Future among his collaborators, went the English route and now mostly works with American artists. But he has concerns that this puts him at a disadvantage during the grant application process.

"It depends [on] how bad you want to have recognition in your city and it depends on what's your goal," he said. "Because if your goal is to just explode and get recognition internationally, you don't really need to worry about having the Quebec stamp [of approval]."

"English is gonna get more opportunities around the world but less support from Quebec in terms of grants and awards," he added.

A conditional award

Quebec's music industry has long maintained a robust infrastructure of support for francophone artists to protect the French language and culture. The province's French sector grants typically have language-related stipulations to ensure that a majority of an artist's projects are in French.

Musicaction, which operates under the Canada Music Fund as a French grant organization told CBC News in an email that individual projects must be composed of content that is 70 per cent French.

Some of the province's most successful acts of the 2010s — like Dead Obies, who rap in English, French and Haitian Creole — have credited the language back-and-forth with allowing more flexibility in their rapping styles.

But that group infamously had to return an $18,000 Musicaction grant when their 2016 album Gesamtkunstwerk wasn't eligible under the organization's guidelines. Nor was it eligible under the terms of Musicaction's English-language counterpart, FACTOR.

WATCH | Start Over by Zach Zoya feat. Benny Adam: 

Zoya said the stipulations are a necessity for the survival of the French language in Quebec and the rest of Canada, but adds that the rules can impede the creative process — particularly during cross-linguistic collaborations.

"Even French acts have to contend with the fact that if you get an English act to do the chorus or to do a verse on your song, you have to make sure that the song is still a majority French," Zoya said. "So that kind of cuts the creative process short."

"I wish it was better," he added.

Zoya says he mostly benefits from federal grants. Jolin says a common issue among anglophone artists in Quebec is that they aren't often aware of what they're eligible for. Among their options are the Radio Starmaker Fund and the Orion Program, as well as programs offered by the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, he said.

"You can make your mark, but it's very hard right now to stand out from being in Montreal," he said, adding that rap is a "territorial" genre because of its highly referential nature.

'These things take time'

Naya Ali, an Ethiopian-Canadian rapper based in Montreal, said that the French scene remains more distinctive than the relatively young English scene. 

Her bilingual track G.O.A.T. Talk (Remix) brought together Morocco-born, Montreal-raised hip-hop artist Benny Adam and Quebecois rapper White-B.

A woman wearing a colourful jacket.
Naya Ali is an Ethiopian Canadian rapper who says that the anglophone hip-hop scene in Quebec is still vying for international success. (CBC)

The anglophone scene is "still quite budding, it's in its infant stages," she said. "There's a few of us that went across borders internationally and are bringing the sounds of where we're from, but it's mostly Toronto."

"That's not a bad thing," she said. "These things take time."

"The younger generation really, really enjoys Quebec music," said Vincent. "Because back in the day when I started, most of the people around me [usually said that] they're going to prioritize American music."

Zoya – who, in contrast to his peer Ali, considers himself a rap queb artist "for the simple fact that I rap, and I'm [Quebecois]"— says that Quebec hip-hop hasn't quite yet made a dent in the global scene.

"It's better than ever, but I think there's still too much separation for us to come as a group to form a strong identity that everybody can recognize internationally, globally."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.