Shad. (Photo: Saty + Pratha)

Topics: Ethical Living, July/August 2020 | Interview

Shad on faith, fatherhood and the power of hip-hop

The "bubbly" Toronto rapper discusses his bleak 2018 album and how religion informs his music


Shadrach Kabango, known as Shad, is a Juno-winning and Polaris Prize-shortlisted hip-hop artist from Toronto. He hosts Hip Hop Evolution, a Peabody Award-winning documentary series currently streaming on Netflix, and is a former host of q on CBC Radio.

Leah Rumack spoke with Shad in the sixth week of the COVID-19 lockdown, when he was sheltering at home with his wife, brother and young daughter while putting the final touches on his as-yet-untitled next record.

It was a strange, dystopic moment, but judging from his eerily prescient 2018 album, “A Short Story About a War” — which tells of a fictional world consumed by conflict and weaves in themes of migration, the environment and economic inequality — it was one that Shad was ready to confront. Having dedicated his career to crafting politically charged music, Shad is no stranger to pursuing justice in trying times.

Leah Rumack: Are you psych­ic? Because it’s pretty weird listening to A Short Story About a War right now.

Shad: That album actually started when I was living in Vancouver. The eco­nomic tensions are palp­able there. You have a lot of people living on the street and dying of overdoses, but also a lot of wealth. The tension is really pronounced. That’s where that metaphor of war came from.

LR: The album is pretty bleak. What’s the value for you in that kind of artistic expression?

S: There can be a kind of cath­arsis if you’re able to express music­ally, sonically and lyrically what people are feeling, and they can see their experiences re­flected. Turning those feelings into something meaningful and coherent and maybe even beautiful — I think there’s value in that. It can be helpful for people to look at social and political situations in a different way.

But I’m also a big proponent of trying to make people feel better, in the sense of just laughter and getting together. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my upcoming album.

LR: People describe you as a pol­itical musician. What issues are the most important to you?

S: I’m pretty consumed with peace, with harmony, with people getting on better with each other and with themselves. So that ends up being about economic justice, racial justice and living in right relationship with the environment.

I want to feel at peace with myself, and I want to see people feel at peace with each other and be unified and happy, and that can’t happen if people are always feeling precarious. That can’t happen if people who look a certain way — like me — can never feel free in a society.

There also ends up being a lot [in my music] about trying, about not giving up, because maybe that’s something I need to hear all the time, too.

LR: You’ve also been called “positive” and “nice” and even “bubbly.” How do you feel about those kinds of descriptors?

S: I don’t run away from them — they’re accurate. My kinder­garten report card was, “He’s a very nice kid.” I’m nice. I don’t know! I like to make people feel good, and there are not a lot of people I don’t like. It’s just who I am.

LR: How did becoming a father in 2018 change your work?

S: I’m laughing, because there’s this kind of contentment when you have a kid. It’s simple and fun, and it makes you not want to work. That’s been a funny surprise. It’s a little bit demotivating. I guess we’ll see. There are so many more stages to come.

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LR: You identify as a Christian. Does that inform your music?

S: It does a lot. I’m steeped in a story that’s about sacrifice and the reality of violence in the world. But it’s also about hope — hope that love is more powerful.

And then there are so many ethical principles that to me are mind-blowing and so difficult to live into. But they’re things to strive for, like forgiveness, which is probably the most difficult one.

LR: Do you ever feel like your faith makes you an outlier in the world of indie music? 

S: Yes, I do. But that makes religion feel even more countercultural to me. Take church, for example — the idea of going to this place with people in real life, people that I don’t necessarily like or who I wouldn’t naturally get along with, to share space and enact rituals. That feels more and more foreign as time goes on, but it’s also more power­ful because of that.

LR: Do you attend church regularly?

S: I do. I like to go — I think it’s important to show up. I’m part of a pretty small, community-oriented church. The bulk of the people are about my age (37) and come from a lot of different denominational backgrounds. It’s a mix of some very contemplative, ritual types, and some more charismatic, new-vibe types. I find it super grounding as a routine, important for relationship building and a reminder of what we’re trying to do as Christians. Getting together is a reminder that we need each other.

My parents quite consciously brought us up going to different churches. They wanted us to feel that we were part of this larger family. I’ve never really identified with any denomination or even a particular style of worship, but more just with faith and a kind of ethics and way of being.

Shad. (Photo: Saty + Pratha)

LR: It sounds like you’ve found a community that shares your values. How do you reconcile the fact that so many conservative Christians oppose what you believe in?

S: I don’t know if I can reconcile those things. It pains me.

LR: If you could ask God one question right now, what would it be?

S: I think I’d want to know what we all are trying to figure out, which is why are we here? And why do some things happen to some people? Why does it feel like some people go through so much hardship, and others live a charmed life? We can see the beginning of the big bang, we can do open-heart surgery, but we still don’t know why we’re here, and we don’t know why some of us experience so much pain.

LR: Where do you see yourself fitting in the larger hip-hop community?

S: My music is alternative in the sense that it’s not really tied to trends. It’s more rooted in whatever I’m thinking or experiencing and in the tradition of lyrics. In hip hop, you’d call that “alternative,” you’d call that “conscious.”

LR: How does hip hop promote justice and build community?

S: Hip hop is a tradition of real talk. People don’t mince words — they say what’s going on. They say how they feel. People talk in the language that they talk to their friends in. It’s not censored or switched up for the mainstream. It just is what it is, and if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, you don’t.

That means a lot to people who feel represented by those words and those ideas. And, very practically, hip hop has exposed a lot over the years in terms of what’s going on in various [equity-seeking] communities. You see kids everywhere gravitate toward hip hop as a way of telling the truth.

LR: Do you think you would ever write music that isn’t political?

S: I think the only thing that’s ever interested me is how I can offer something that really comes from me, and that’s where my mind goes and where my lyrics end up. I don’t think I would ever not do that.

I do love making people feel good and making people laugh, but ultimately my music ends up getting kind of serious.

It probably goes back to my music­al heroes, like Lauryn Hill and Common — they had something to say. If I didn’t have something to say, I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel standing up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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