The poet, a songwriter for artists including the Weeknd, explains how music helped him explore the loss of friends to inner-city violence: ‘Sorrow is meant to be experienced and felt’Wed 2 Jun 2021 14.30 BST
Appearing on a Zoom call from his Los Angeles apartment, sporting the white, perforated kufi skullcap worn in mosques, 24-year-old Canadian musician Mustafa is a long way from Regent Park, the predominantly Black, working-class neighbourhood in downtown Toronto where he grew up. Regent Park is a place with a dual identity: one of camaraderie and community, the “building blocks for how I think, how I breathe and how I speak”, he says; the other deprivation and violence, where Mustafa’s adolescence was shaped by grief and death, including the murders of friends such as Ano, Santana, Ali, and the rapper Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart.
Using the vulnerability of folk music – a genre that rarely makes space for the Black Muslim experience – Mustafa’s stunning debut long-form project, When Smoke Rises, is an elegy to these friends, a dialogue with those grieving and a love letter to his community. “Don’t crease your Air Forces, just stay inside tonight,” he begs his friends to a rhythm beaten out on acoustic guitar. Of Smoke Dawg, who was killed in 2018, he pleads, “Please come back, at least in my dreams”, over tender piano played by James Blake.
Our interview was delayed, not because of release preparations or his TV debut on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, but because the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on 12 May, took priority over promotion. “Islam is my entire life, it’s my reason for living,” he says. “With it, because of it, I am able to create.”
Mustafa’s sister, Namarig, introduced her preteen sibling to poetry as a creative release from the pressures of neighbourhood life. “I hated it in the beginning,” he says, “but eventually it became the only way I knew how to express myself.” A YouTube video of 12-year-old Mustafa Ahmed standing outside Regent Park, like the “single rose in a run-down park” of his poem, captures the beginnings of Mustafa the Poet, as he was known then: an old soul of Sudanese parentage who humanised Black Muslims from Regent Park with his stanzas.
He and Smoke Dawg were part of the rap collective Halal Gang, and his socially, emotionally conscious poetry drew audiences on Instagram, where Drake shared his writing. He was nominated as one of 15 young Canadians to be a member of the prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council. His involvement in politics led to a realisation that song would be the most powerful vehicle for his stories, and he was soon writing for the Weeknd, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.
With the encouragement of Toronto producer Frank Dukes, he began writing lyrics for When Smoke Rises in 2019. Mustafa the Poet became Mustafa the musician, who unbuckled masculinity’s straitjacket to confront grief as well as the joyful experiences that can mask it. “I think about Joni Mitchell’s song Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” he says. “Sometimes, sorrow is meant to be worked through, experienced and felt. I created a project that’s exploring a sorrow that you don’t have to interrupt, a sorrow that can be made to feel beautiful, elegant and hopefully honour whoever was lost.”
Mustafa’s musical influences – Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan among them, as well as Yusuf Islam, whom he describes as an “inimitable force” in his life – reflect the dominant tradition of white folk singers in North America. “In the beginning, I didn’t think I belonged to it,” he says. Then he discovered a video of the Black American folk singer Richie Havens performing at Woodstock, and began to scratch the surface of what Tracy Chapman called the “Black roots” of folk music. “As people of oppressed backgrounds, it’s necessary we’re able to centre ourselves in genres where we don’t see ourselves,” he says. “I want people who look like me, who have experiences like mine, to see me do this so they can see themselves in this genre.”
Mustafa’s work, and in particular his music videos, is pointedly rich with references to Islam. “Being a Muslim in this climate, being an advocate for Palestine, being Black, being from the inner city, you feel like the entire world is against you. You feel like there are so many powers that want to silence you and bury you.” Central, too, are the mothers of Regent Park, who witnessed the deaths of sons who should have outlived them. For the video for his Sampha duet Air Forces, Mustafa erected a billboard in Regent Park showing the eyes of a woman wearing a black hijab – the mother of a jailed friend. “She is like all of our mothers, and we call her hooyoo [mother in Somali],” he says.
Air Forces interpolates an ancient folksong that was sung by the Sudanese Dinka people before men left to fight. Mustafa’s parents fled conflict in Sudan. “You think you’re escaping a war, but then you arrive at a new one,” he says of life in Regent Park. “And so here I am expressing what that new war felt like.”
The ubiquitous loss pervading When Smoke Rises doesn’t just immortalise Mustafa’s lost friends, but his changing neighbourhood: the red-brick flats, street corners and basketball courts of old Regent Park are being gentrified during a $1bn redevelopment that has been accused of social cleansing. He is filming his music videos there. “Before that flattening, I want to try and beautify it as best as I can. I’m trying to preserve the memories of young Black Muslims [that] deserve to be preserved.”
Has making the project helped him heal from the trauma of his losses? “No. I feel like dealing was a journey of its own,” he says. “I feel like I’m at a balance with it, I understand it, and I’ve reckoned with it. Then there are days I just feel enraged, confused and powerless. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll be able to be in cities like this [LA] and feel like I’ve actually transcended that violence, you know, transcended that pain and that struggle. Because it’s with me, and I see it in what I do.”
The song Ali is dedicated to his friend Ali Rizeig, murdered in 2017. In the last stanza, the voice of a young Ali says: “We started off as nothing and became something.” How does Mustafa feel about moving away? “You feel a sense of guilt being in LA, living more comfortably than the people I left back home in Toronto,” he says. He says When Smoke Rises belongs to them, a notion that quiets his impostor syndrome. Two friends now live with him, and the Regent Park community is a phone call away. “They’re around me, always.”