Shadrach Kabango : An Interview with Rwandan/Canadian Juno Award winning rapper
Shadrach Kabango. We’ve all found out a new song or artist and we were left asking ourselves where they have been all our life!! Well, if you haven’t heard of Shadrach Kabango also known as Shad K, you’re guaranteed the same reaction once you’ve had your hands on any of his songs!
First and foremost, allow me introduce you to this phenomenal hip hop artist and educator before you go look him up on YouTube. And please, take notes; it will not be the last you hear of him. Born in Kenya to Rwandan parents, Shad’s family moved to London, Ontario, Canada a year later and this self-described Rwandan Canadian has been on the quest for greatness ever since.
Shad first broke through the Canadian rap arena with his debut album “When this is Over” in 2006 but he has now taken over the national/international scenes by showcasing his love for music through his expressive, lethal yet socially conscience lyrical ability. Just this year, Shad was ranked by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) second on their list of “25 greatest Canadian rappers ever”. Ahead of household names such as K’naan, K-os, Saukrates, Drake among others. With all the success that comes with the enormous demands and expectations of being a leading act in the music industry, Shad has managed to balance his status while remembering his roots.
Shad uses his success to visit and talk to high school kids, raise awareness on social issues that would otherwise be ignored, and, most importantly, he continues to proudly take his role as a role model for African migrant youths in Canada very seriously. A frequent visitor of his native Rwanda, Shad embodies the best of both worlds: a Canadian icon and and a proud son of Africa. As a matter of fact, this JUNO award winning artist latest album “Flying Colours” is very much inspired by Shad’s African roots and traditional West African music.
This is the reason why when we decided to have an “African diaspora” themed issue, he was one of the first people on our minds simply because of what he represents and the obstacles he’s had to overcome to reach his goals and not just gain fame but respect. Shad’s story tells us all that its possible, that it can be done, he’s a shining example to young African immigrant youths in North America and beyond. To find out more about Shad, check out our exclusive interview with him, we talk of everything, from his roots, connection to Africa, music to his love life.
(Disclaimer, I do know Shad on a personal level, Shad’s generous parents were the first people that came to visit my family at a new immigrant shelter home when my family migrated to Canada. I treat him as family, a big brother to me and a role model for members of the Rwandan Canadian youth community here in Canada)
TAP: Who is Shadrach Kabango and what’s your family root?
-Shad: Well, you know my parents, I’m a lucky man, and I’m blessed to have good parents. People ask me what did I learn from my parents but I don’t remember any advice they’ve ever given me nor any lessons! I just absorbed a lot, like any kid would from their parents… What was normal with my parents is that they had a peaceful relationship; they had values that they stuck to for as long as I’ve known them! Life was always simple for them despite all the complicated things they’ve gone through. They care about each other, they care about their community, they care about their family and everything else is just like ALRIGHT … So that’s my roots, that’s my family, we’re from Rwanda, I was born in Kenya and I grew up in London, Ontario.
TAP: We noticed confusion out there: [just last night,] we read [somewhere] that Shad is Kenyan Canadian, and that you’re Rwandan Kenyan Canadian [somewhere else] so were wondering how do you personally define yourself?
-Shad: (Laughs) Well, people put a lot of emphasis on where I was born coz that’s natural, I think people in this context where your born means a lot while in my story its where my family is from! We are from Rwanda from generation to generation and as long as anyone can reasonably remember. In the story of my parents, they grew up everywhere in East Africa, my sister was born in Uganda, I was born in Kenya, my parents grew up in Congo, in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
Thus, the way I identify is I’m very much a Canadian, I grew up here, this is the context that I know, this is where I started my career, this is where I speak, but I’m also a Rwandan, that’s my history, that’s my roots, that’s where my parents live, that’s where half/most of my family are and I’m lucky to visit very often. So yea, I’m a Rwandan Canadian (a little pause), that was born in Kenya. It makes for a hot line every once in a while (check out Shad’s single Stylin below’)
TAP: You actually talk a lot about Rwanda on your new record, you’ve been travelling back and forth, you went and performed at the first ever KigaliUp, so Rwanda has a special place in your heart. Tell us about the story of Rwanda, the narrative of Rwanda and you being Shad how people react when you say you’re from Rwanda?
-Shad: Yeah, it’s cool because I get a lot of opportunities to talk to people about my country and what’s going on because people are curious, they find out where you’re from and they’re interested about what’s going on. Of course, the story they know is genocide and pretty much nothing else so I really do appreciate the opportunity to be like “Hey, this is what’s going on, this is the trajectory that the country is on socially, economically and I’ll be like when i go back this is what it’s like!” For me it’s fun, and a privilege to be able to share with so many people stories of where I’m from.
TAP: Still on Rwanda, I know you were here in ‘94 but how did the events of ‘94 affect you as an individual and within your family, how has that event influenced you?
-Shad: Well in 94 I was 11/12 and I actually reflect on it in a song. It’s like having grown up here and that event affecting my community here, at 11 it’s tough to put it all together, so it’s an interesting experience, these things are going on and you see them happening and affecting your family but you can’t really make sense of it all when your 11/12… and growing up and then becoming part of your story, you start to make sense of it slowly by slowly, bit by bit and the first time I went back in 99, I went to see my uncle, who is a bishop there and who has worked for years on reconciliation, and we’d visit him and it would be nice to see my uncle but it’s only now that I’m starting to see what he was doing for almost 15 years and how intense that is! And what my family went through, the extended family that we lost, I never met them but at the same time I saw how it affected my parents.
I’m only starting to put the whole thing together and understanding it all as I get older. It’s been an interesting journey. Like in the song where I talk about it, I think that’s the experience of a lot of immigrants too, because that’s the reason why we come here! We could stay back home if we could but, because of certain situations and events, we have to come here.
TAP: Now let’s talk about your new Album, Flying Colours, I feel like it’s your best work ever! Do your feel the same way too?
-Shad: Yea, I feel the same way too and I’m happy when other people do as well; at the same time it’s my fourth album so when people have other favorites, that’s cool but, yeah, I feel like this is the best. I’ve definitely worked the hardest on this one.
TAP: On the album, you raise a lot of issues that most people in your genre are not willing to bring up. You even mentioned that, these days, “tough issues” get hatched! Why are you bringing up these issues that your peers are not willing to raise?
-Shad: That’s part of what has always interested me with music, when I was 15/16 and just listening to music, the albums that real struck me were by artists like Common and Lauryn Hill that were taking music to a whole other place that I never knew you could do that! I always loved music videos and whatever. Then, I see these artists and they are talking about having a child for the first time, an unplanned child and how that’s affecting them and I was like wow, I didn’t know people can do that, and do it in a way that was still dope! so when I came into music, I wanted to do that, to talk about new things, new stories that are important to me, to be able to have fun but also raise awareness, to change the conversation and do even more. So I think it’s those artists that influenced me and made me want to do what I do with my own music.
TAP: Talking of artists that influenced you, how do you feel about being called the “Canadian Common”?
-Shad: (laughs) that’s great because you know, that was my favorite rapper in high school. That was my dude, you know when your friends are debating like who’s the best! I was always like (nodding his head) Common, Common.
TAP: When you write your music, when you make music, what is your goal, what is your hope? Do you seek to inspire or to inform?
-Shad: I kind of aim for two things; you know I feel like music should be an experience. So that’s kind like the main thing I’m going for, I want it to be an emotional experience. I also want it to be fun, I like to have fun but I also like to go deeper and bigger you know. So my goal is definitely I want to inspire people, I have a lot I might say but overall I aim to entertain and inspire. Those two things are the two goals I try to keep in mind.
TAP: what’s your favorite song on the album? Mine are Fam Jam, and Progress.
-Shad: I would probably say those two, for different reasons: Progress to me is like that’s the most creative I think I’ve been in my career and Fam Jam, to me, that was doing something different. I don’t think that it’s ever been done exactly in Canada. And everything about that song is just so close to me.
TAP: And you chose to release the album on October 15th. Can you tell us why and, if you don’t mind, can you speak about your aunt Beata and your relationship with her?
-Shad: So my mom has two twin sisters, Beata and Beatrice. Beata passed away last fall and October 15th is her birthday. When we came to Canada, my aunts both came shortly afterwards and lived with us so I had three moms plus an older sister, that’s what it felt like. So they were very important part of my growing up and actually my interest in music, my aunt Berta was one of the first persons to introduce me to music and you know we would listen to music together, sing together, stuff like that. So I was glad the album came out on her birthday, a little remark to her.
TAP: And moving further, what is your hope for this album? I believe people will still be listening to it 20 years from now.
-Shad: That’s cool man. I hope to continue to get better but you know this album was inspired. I really felt it the whole time I was recording like this is something meaningful for me and I think that’s a good sign for someone having longevity. When I’m making an album, I don’t just feel like: alright I’m going to work, I’m going to try to put together some songs; I always feel like this is stuff that matters, so I do hope it lasts.
TAP: On more issues that interests you. You are a MA graduate, you are not just a rapper, education is a big part of your life; can you speak on that?
-Shad: I think part of that is the values growing up, and again back to the experience of coming to this country, that’s the values. The immigrant community is like; get an education, and I always grew up with that, I never thought I would do this growing up, so education is a focus. As my music was starting I was finishing my undergrad. I also have a genuine interest in learning so I went back to school again part time, and it was a real privilege you know education is a privilege, not everybody gets to do it and its power, it’s powerful; that’s some other thing I’ve learned too over the years, education is transformative, when you learn things about the world that shifts your perspective, that shifts your understanding, that changes your abilities to do things so no doubt it’s been a privilege.
TAP: And you read a lot of books on your free time, Shad’s Oprah picks?
-Shad: My Oprah picks, there’s a book by Jean Vanier, called “Becoming Human”. I’ve really enjoyed that book, that’s like a book I will have with me for like a long time, because it’s about everything. I mean this is a man who lived with people with disabilities for like 40 years, he kind of set up these homes where abled bodied people lived with people with disabilities for like long term, sometimes short term and basically he says that that experience taught him a lot about what it means to be human , what it means to be vulnerable , what it means to be yourself, what it means to let go of fear, to let go of pride and just be human, so it’s an amazing book.
TAP: Let’s talk about our communities here, what do you think we need to do in the African community in general, to encourage creative arts? We can’t all be doctors or pilots.
-Shad: I can tell you one thing in my story that was really cool, when I started to have more of an interest in music and put more time and energy into it, I was surprised how supportive my parents were. TAP: it’s rare. Shad: Yeah, it’s rare and it was cool because I think what they saw was this is where I had more to give. I think what it comes down to is service, so if working in a hospital is where you have the most to give, that’s great, become a doctor, become a nurse.. But if what you have to give is like creative energy and entertainment, inspiration through words or music or painting or sculpture or whatever, then that’s your service, that’s your place. I think they saw that in me and that encouraged it. And I think part of that is because they saw me come alive when I was doing it.
Also, it’s easy to forget when you come here that the best thing you can have is opportunities. The opportunity to be a doctor but also the opportunity to be a rapper and also the opportunity to be, you know, whatever. You pick whatever, you don’t open doors just so that you can pick that one. You open doors so that you can look at opportunities and say so which one is the best one for me? And I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind for anybody actually from any community, because I think we get this rat race mentality: you go through school, maybe you get 90’s; OK, so now what do I do? You have to remember, you got 90’s, you can do anything, don’t just right away pick the easiest, you know like: “OK, engineer.” No, think what you have to give to the world, what you have to give, because you have all the doors opened right. I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind. In our community, because there’s certain pressures, you want to take care of yourself, you want to take care of your family as well, but I think the reason why you push yourself to do well and open doors is so that you have choice, opportunities, and I think you should try and pick the opportunity where you have the most to give.
TAP: Do you feel like you’re becoming more of an ambassador for our community and are you prepared? Do you want to take on that road?
-Shad: Yeah, I think it’s cool, because, like, my family came here in 1983 and we were, like, one of the firsts in London, you know what I mean, and then you guys arrived and there was a little bit more of a community, and now there’s more people. So I think that basically in the history of Canada, we are just starting to establish ourselves, to have people in different positions and really starting to climb that radar, and that’s exciting, you know? It’s exciting for me to feel like I’m a part of that. I’m a part of a new story, a new story in Canada like what I do in music is get to tell stories that have never been told here; and then, you guys who are a little bit younger are going to tell new stories, you know what I mean, that’s exciting for me.
TAP: It’s great that your willing to take that position on because we were thinking, are you planning for example to start working with some of the younger guys in the community, get some protégés, bring them over and show them the craft?
-Shad: Yea I always have my eye out, I’m always like: OK, let’s see what people are doing. Because even in terms of organizing ourselves, we are still learning how to do that too, so I am always excited to see people in our community doing things, I got my eye out, I’m watching. And if there are opportunities to help them, I’ll be very happy to help them.
TAP: And African artists in Canada are constantly increasing both in numbers and popularity, is Shad thinking of doing something with for example K’nnan, Emmanuel Jal ,with any of these guys?
-Shad: I got ideas; I got ideas like Fam Jam Remix or something like that. There are opportunities, K’nnan has taken me on tour before and he’s been very kind, he’s been very kind to me so, yeah, I think opportunities will be there.
TAP: How about an Africa based artist? Are you looking into doing an African tour? Working with some of the African artists? I’ve already got requests for your contact!
-Shad: You let me know man! You let me know because when I go back I’m only in Rwanda; usually just like to see my parents, so I don’t really know about the scene in Kampala or in Nairobi so I will be up for it.
TAP: In your daily life or long term thinking what’s your relationship with Africa in general?
-Shad: Well, I’ve always seen it like first and foremost as my roots. More like my history than my present you know I’m here I’m really here I’m based here. And I don’t have the traditional skills to contribute directly, you know what I mean, there’s a lot of talk about contributing to Rwanda’s growth and you know rapping isn’t like the top priority on the government’s list of, like, you know, required skills or whatever. But if there are ways for me to be there to be a part of like growing arts scene I would be so happy to do that. I have friends involved in that in Kigali already…
TAP: In the 60s they had Civil rights movement, we’ve been going through phases and phases and now we’re supposed to be in strong democracies, everybody is supposed to be equal but we still have deep rooted issues. For you, what is the “civil right movement” of our time?
-Shad: Ok I’d say that to me, and this is just my opinion, you will hear in the media they talk about Paula Dean said like the N-word, Oh that’s horrible, but I think really? Me, I don’t care about that. I think what we have to care about is look at our prison populations, look at statistics around poverty; that is the racism, that’s the racism that still exists in our society.
Our challenges is not like somebody said the N-word like 20 years ago at the dinner table. I don’t care about that; I care about the fact that we are still statistically underachieving, you know there’s something going on there: some social construct, some media messaging, some conscience conditioning that’s happening, that’s the racism to me that is important to address. And I think that, that gets swept aside, because nobody has technically racist hiring practices or whatever, but just look at the facts. That to me I think is the next frontier on those fronts.
TAP: Growing up in Canada as an African youth, what are some of those obstacles that you faced in your daily life; at school, on the street, what are some of the things that you faced?
-Shad: For me it was like, and this happens for any kid but for a black kid, it’s a little bit more complicated: It’s just the issue of identity. Because you are trying to figure out who you are, you know you see kids, they dye their hair green, they do whatever they need to do to try to figure out who they are, and I think that for a black kid, that’s just a less safe exploration because the media images for the most part about what it means to be a black youth male, to emulate that can put you in a very dangerous position that you can’t come back from. You know like my parents would always tell me, for example; “Listen: if your white friend is 15 and gets caught shop lifting, it looks very different from if you get caught shop lifting”.
And they weren’t putting paranoia in my mind, they were just like; be smart because that kid might get looked at as a cautious, smart kid who’s getting into trouble, you would look like that black kid on TV who is at the police station. So discovering your identity and relating that to certain images can be very dangerous for our community. So that was a challenge for me to try and really remember, I was like, I can root my identity in my parents, their values and some of the other positive role models that I saw in our community, and say that’s a strong black identity that I can follow in those footsteps even if maybe the broader society doesn’t know that sort of prototype that well; I do. So I can kind of emulate that and also just to a certain extent I can try and find my own path but I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge.
TAP: So if you could name 3 issues that face African youth growing up in this part of the world, what would you say?
-Shad: Probably the 3 biggest, one is like wanting a new system, I mean you could’ve came up here and don’t really have to worry about the system but that’s like a settle thing, you know we talked a little bit about knowing what to bring to school and like I remember my parents saying; we got to go to parent-teacher interviews and I told my parents; my teacher said don’t come unless you are having difficulties and my parents were like no we have to come, because they need to know we are serious about your education, because I’ve seen that happen to kids in our community, and they kind of slip through the cracks because the teacher might have certain expectations, the parents expect the teacher to handle all their education because that’s how it happens back home, and here it’s like no, teachers need to know that parents are involved in order for them to take that kid’s education seriously.
One issue would be understanding the system and negotiating with it. And I think that identity is another thing, you know we talked a lot about role models and that kind thing, we need to find that for ourselves. And everybody does and it’s hard for everybody but it’s a little bit more complicated for us, and third, I would probably say like, I was talking before about the statistics around the rates of our involvement in the police system, underachievement in school, even with middle class, black youth in Toronto, in Canada, I think we need to get to the bottom of those things.
TAP: Outside of your family, outside of the people that has the same blood as you, I know your parents are very important not just to you but to the whole community, outside of that sphere, who are the other people that inspired you growing up, the kind of people that you looked up to?
-Shad: In the community, there’s quite a few, you know like in London there’s some very dignified people in our community that were warm and they were like pursuing their goals, I have older cousins too that were doing quite well even like 5 years older but you see them like, they’ve gone off to Ryerson or whatever and it’s like, OK this is the thing that we do, one was even a VJ at Much Music, “Mugeni”, she was a VJ at much music with a degree in journalism from Ryerson.
So, you know, she was there, she was a black woman on television, was actually like very thoughtful , brought interesting stories and an interesting perspective, you know, so we’ve had some presences but they were the first, you know what I mean…. It’s still a new story in Canada but I was fortunate to know this people because you can’t always just look to your family, that works for a while then you got to see something outside that sphere in order to feel that it’s possible for you too.
TAP: In the African history and the emancipation movement, who are some of the people that interest you? When I first saw that you were releasing the album on October 15th, I was like it can’t be because that’s Thomas Sankara’s assassination day! So I was intrigued to know what are some of the characters that you’ve read about and were like this dude was interesting!
-Shad; Well my dad would tell me stories from time to time of people like Lumumba and actually you know what’s interesting is that, (pause) did you know that Dave Chappelle’s mom worked with Lumumba! I find that interesting, she was a professor and i believe she set up the first African studies department in America and, when she was young, she went to work with Lumumba! I find that interesting in the way that affects Chappelle’s work, his perspective, because he has a very keen eye on the climate of what’s going on racially, socially so, yeah, Lumumba is one of the stories my dad would always share with me.
TAP: Besides artist like Common, what other names would you be comfortable being associated with? We’re already comparing you to people like Nas in that you’re not scared to bring up tough issues and to express yourself…
-Shad; Ah! (pause) To me, Kanye is the best. Like, he’s so true to himself emotionally to the point where he’s constantly getting in trouble for that. But I admire that his so true to himself emotionally that if he feels something he has to say it. And his music, he does that great too and his just a great musician period.
TAP; We are not talking about Drake but ‘you really started from the bottom and now you’re here’. What’s the process? You were just an unknown kid from London the other day and now you putting out sold out shows at the Opera! What’s the trick? If there’s another African kid out there that wants to do the same, what should they have on their list?
-Shad; My advice is always like, get in the studio as much as you can, get on stage as much as you can (pause) finish projects, that’s a big one I think, because people like to help but they like to help people that they see doing things! Going out and doing as much on their own as much as they can. If you can show that you go out and you’re like “Yo! I made this mixtape, I’m working on this next mixtape, I got this show coming up…”, these people will be like: “Cool, I want to help you!”, so I say that’s the biggest thing. On top of that, you keep getting better and better. I made my first album independently, I was mailing it out to try and get reviews, get on stage and then I found so many people were down to help me because they were like, he’s serious, he’s doing things and he can presumably finish off what he starts. That’s my advice.
TAP; Finishing off with your album, you touch a lot of different subjects; you talk about Love, progress, style and all. You know that in our community we have a lot of beautiful ladies and you know the pressure once you’re done with school is immense! A lot of ladies have been asking questions; “what’s up with Shad? Is he taken?”
-Shad; (laughs) well there’s a young woman that I’ve been seeing, I don’t know if she wants me to say that on camera (smiles for the camera) but eh yeah, that’s something I want for the future, a family, so yeah, that’s in the cards! Hopefully I’m not too late (laughs)! We will see.
TAP; We enjoyed you being with us and spending so much time doing this, it’s a real honor, we look forward to more success in your career, we appreciate you taking the time and representing young immigrant youths, and yes, we all want to emulate you so keep on shining…
-Shad; Well I actually like what you guys are doing with this magazine, I think it’s dope and such a great idea. Outside of art and other spheres, it’s all new for us… keep it going.
Camera By Clement Ndegeya
Photo’s by Imanzi Kayitare
Multimedia by Innocent Don Hatali
Interview By Moses Mutabaruka
… Interview video and audio to be released soon on youtube…
Special thanks to Shad and his manager G for being so kind and super easy to work with. This interview is the main feature of our second issue. Subscribe (free) for you to have access to the rest of the pieces in this issue. Also, don’t forget to visit your iTunes store or Shad’s Official Website for a copy of his latest album “Flying Colours”. Best eight dollars you’ll ever spend!