Mustafa’s Meditative Songs of Mourning

Rawiya Kameir
·20 min read

Mustafa wasn’t too worried when police hauled him and two friends into a Toronto bullpen a couple of years ago. It was his first and only arrest, on a charge that would eventually get dropped, and he was confident he’d make bail in just a matter of days. But one dude, from a neighborhood known to clash with Mustafa’s, seemed ready to start a fight. Mustafa considered his options, and responded with a characteristic grasp at peace. “I was like, ‘Wallahi, no. Let’s play charades,’” he remembers, laughing, over a FaceTime call. He then mimes a vague swinging motion, lanky arms akimbo. “The guy we had a problem with looks up and says, ‘Tarzan.’” Tension successfully, and absurdly, deflected.

Mustafa, now 24, spent much of his youth amassing this even-keeled reputation. At 12, he gained local recognition for his precocious spoken-word poetry, in which he wove empathy and existential angst into pleading, incisive tales from Regent Park, the downtown Toronto neighborhood that’s home to the largest and oldest public housing project in Canada. In his teens, Mustafa was a frequent guest on the CBC and other national platforms, an earnest emissary for the Black and the poor. By dint of his visibility and diplomatic charm, he became the kind of guy who knew which grants would yield the most resources, how to scrounge up airfare when someone needed to fly home for a parent’s funeral, and when to show up for friends and neighbors who could use an advocate in interactions with institutions.

All the while, his poetry was drawing larger audiences, first in the performance circuit and later on social media, where Instagram cultivated fandoms for writers who shared simple, relatable words. His facility with language led to relationships within the city’s music scene, which in turn led Mustafa to a career in songwriting. In recent years, he’s earned the public support of Drake, placed songs with Camila Cabello and the Weeknd, and worked with people like Usher and Metro Boomin. His boys, too, were making moves. Childhood friends like Mo-G, Safe, Puffy L’z, and Smoke Dawg, collectively known as Halal Gang, turned Toronto’s newfound cachet into promising rap careers and towards a promised land beyond the structural and literal violence of Regent. But “visibility in the city with me and my friends has not served us very well,” says Mustafa, who now spends most of his time in Los Angeles. He is home in Toronto for a visit when we speak over the summer, but he prefers to share few details about where exactly in the city he’s staying.

The day after Mustafa made bail in 2018, Smoke Dawg was shot and killed. In a cruel twist, video of Smokey’s last moments, on the pavement outside a Toronto nightclub, was widely circulated on Canadian social media. As the number of friends and neighbors lost to murder, incarceration, mental health crises—the multi-pronged effects of systemic failure—grew, so did Mustafa’s hopelessness.

In Regent, he doubled as an unofficial liaison between members of his community and the multi-billion dollar Daniels Corporation, which led the ongoing “revitalization” that has only exacerbated inequity in the neighborhood. The deeper he burrowed into community work, eventually being named to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Council, the more the sorrows piled up. “I don’t give a shit about Trudeau,” he says. “I was on his council when I was young, naive, and thought that I was gonna advocate from the inside. But no one gives a shit about you, fam, and no one gives a shit about, me.” That care, he has concluded, is his own responsibility.

An hour and a half into our conversation, Mustafa politely asks to take a break. The sun has set, and it’s time to make maghrib prayer. He returns a few minutes later with a question that’s been on his mind for years: When did prayer mats become a part of Islamic tradition? As he finds himself stretched between a desire for peace and a rage at the losses he’s endured, it is in faith that he pauses for answers. Born to Sudanese immigrants and raised the second-youngest of six, Mustafa spent much of his childhood in and around the Regent Park mosque his father founded. Islam was and continues to be a guidepost, and he references hadith as often as he references pop culture to find meaning and understanding in his experiences.

The complexity of these experiences collides on When Smoke Rises, Mustafa’s forthcoming debut project, due early next year. It’s a collection of folky pop songs exploring the grief, anger, and platonic love he’s grappled with in mourning. The record’s most striking moments often take the form of simple, unanswerable questions. On “What About Heaven,” he wonders, in a falsetto on the precipice of tears, whether a friend will be forgiven for his Earthly sins. On “Air Forces,” he gently turns a question into a declaration, singing, “I wonder why God keeps us alivе.” On “Ali,” he recounts the true story of begging a friend to relocate to another city, only for that friend to be killed. The details are piercing. On “The Hearse,” he gallops through a revenge fantasy anchored in the experience of washing his best friend’s dead body in the Muslim ritual of ghusl.

The first single, “Stay Alive,” crystallizes the record’s thesis. Mustafa’s plea for the preservation of life in his neighborhood centers on radical love as the antidote to violence: “I care about you, fam,” he sings, gently and pointedly. His voice and writing betray an intentional softness, a choice to honor pain rather than pave it over with destructive armor, as men are taught to do. “Smoke rises in such a gentle way, unlike how relentless and horrifying a fire can be. That’s what Smokey’s memory was for me,” he says, explaining the project’s title and its cover, which places his late friend in the foreground. When Smoke Rises was largely written and produced with Swedish artist Simon on the Moon, post-produced with hitmaker Frank Dukes, and features contributions from Sampha, James Blake, and Jamie xx.

Vocal snippets from friends with distinctly Torontonian accents anchor the collection firmly in Regent. Still, Mustafa acknowledges that genre may be something of an obstacle in reaching his community. Ali’s little sister, for example, wondered what one is supposed to do with a song that has no beat, but came around when she heard the moving ode to her brother. “The proudest I ever felt was playing the music for my friends, my sisters, for the women in the community,” Mustafa says. “The conversations we had after that? There was nothing I could have done to bring that out of them besides making this.”

Pitchfork: What was your early life like, growing up in Regent Park?

Mustafa: I 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. The Caribbean community was here longer, so they understood the hood structure in a way that we didn’t. Because of the language and culture barrier, our parents didn’t allow us to engage with some things that could have benefited us.

I fought a lot, and I would get suspended all the time. The older guys used to prey on us and make us fight. They’d be like, “Mustafa’s strong. Fight this kid now, fight that kid.” Eventually I was fighting with no purpose at all, which is not how it began. But it’s very symbolic for the way things transpire in Regent Park: it starts, maybe, with a purpose.

Because I was getting caught up, my sister wanted to engage with me. She had a deep love of poetry and forced me to write. Like, “You have to use a metaphor or a simile this time.” I dreaded it. But eventually it became the only way I knew how to make sense of the world. I remember the day I saw how what I wrote affected her. I was like, “Wow, this is the most powerful thing I’ve ever done.” It mattered a lot to me, because she was my reference point for what it meant to live as a vulnerable East African Muslim in the Western world.

Was there a point when you realized you were good at poetry?

I never felt good at poetry. I started to realize the only platform for me was competitive poetry, but I couldn’t take the memory of my dead friend and compete it against the memory of someone’s dead mother. It felt so barbaric to do that.

Naturally, the community had their own [mixed] opinions on my art and the way that I tried to find power in experience. Now it’s different. Now they pity me because it’s like, “Oh man, his close friends have been murdered.” When I was younger, I was speaking on people I didn’t know very well. But I felt it deeply when someone that lived six doors from me got murdered. As I grew up, it came closer. Now, this is someone I shook hands with, someone I had a conversation with, someone [whose absence] I have to reform my day around.

One of the worst, most poisonous things about living in a community where death is prevalent is the grieving hierarchy. Who gets to grieve? What are the time restraints on mourning? At what capacity do they get to mourn? What was their relationship? Was it of any importance? What I never strayed from is that anyone can grieve; if they are from the community, allow them space. To live in a community where someone is getting murdered, that in itself is enough.

What are some of your memories of how reading figured into your life?

When I was 15, I went on my first Black activism panel. I have one white friend in the hood, so this guy pulled up with me. One of the organizers said, “He can’t sit with you. The first four rows are reserved to the Black community.” The front row wasn’t even filled. I was angry.

When I got off the stage, someone gave me [Frantz Fanon’s 1952 study of the Black psyche and colonialism] Black Skin, White Masks. I don’t even know what someone’s doing rolling around with that book. I read it and I loved it. But when Black academia intersects with poverty, sometimes it really loses its legs. A lot of these Black theorists, I don’t know the space they’re occupying in our communities that are most vulnerable.

I loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I’m like, “This is the kind of kid that didn’t leave his crib like that.” I remember reading a page to one of my boys, and he was like, “Nah, this kid sounds like a goof, man. He ain’t really out here.” His voice didn’t leave me for the rest of the book.

What else were you reading?

A lot of Leonard Cohen. There was something so gentle and beautiful about him. I thought, I can apply this white man’s understanding of language to a community that maybe wasn’t offered that before. I thought I was a magician to be able to do that. I thought it was such a progressive thing to do, which is unfortunate.

From my own experience, I know many immigrants feel a kind of survivor’s guilt. But so do people who outlive their friends. I wonder whether there’s a kind of double-guilt for you.

It follows me. There’s levels to the guilt, but also there’s levels to the death. I think back to my friends and how I was the most fortunate of all of them. I can see a different system they each succumbed to that was not in their control. That’s what I return to when everyone is discussing things [like abolition and systemic inequity]. I’ve seen this happen in real time. I was doing as they did. We all attempted to do well in school. Had I had the same barriers, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. So I don’t feel like a good person when I return to the community a lot of times. People are like, “You shouldn’t give that much” or “You shouldn’t overextend yourself.” But I feel like I’m trying to absolve myself of that guilt.

Have you been able to?

I don’t know. Every time somebody dies, I think about the way I can lift them up and make sure their memory is not gonna die alongside everything else they had to face, like racism in the healthcare space. My friend Puffy’s older sister said one of the nurses at her hospital said, “I feel like some of these kids get shot just so they can get a free meal here.”

Subhanallah, I couldn’t convince Smokey’s family to bury him as a Muslim, the faith he embraced. His mother wanted him to be buried in the same place as his grandparents. So I was like, “Can I at least do ghusl on him?” So here I was with two of my friends, washing the body. I had brought an imam, an Arab man. But there was no heart, no intimacy. I started to think about the deep racism within the community. I went to go pray after, and I see [the imam] speaking to someone and describing the wounds. I’m like, “How dare you? Listen brother, this is written in our din. You’re not supposed to speak of what you see in the wash. I trusted you.”

I was feeling so hopeless, seeing the anti-Blackness within [the Muslim community]. And of course, the Caribbean community have their own Islamophobia. I gathered like 400 people to the burial place to do the prayer. My friend Yassin, who gave Smokey his shahada, led it. The way some people were looking at us? I was like, “This is just a never-ending vortex, whirlwind, black hole of politics.” You can’t breathe without there being a political grounding for your breath.

Do you find yourself up against respectability politics? Like, the idea that you are different from—and better than—these other young men that you’re friends with.

Yes. I have to work against it. We exist in this reality. Until we figure things out on a systemic level, for the people who are at the intersection of everything that’s going on, you can’t tell them how they’re gonna lead their lives. Shit is real. I’m not speaking to a community. I’m exploring my emotions being a person that’s of them.

A lot of artists find themselves trying to educate. And that’s why I’ve always appreciated “gangster rap” so much. Like, I’ve never listened to J. Cole in my life. I just could never get into it. All the backpack rap culture, I was never a fan of that. If I’m trying to learn, I’ll just read something. I don’t wanna hear someone talk about Black theorists on a song. That’s such a crazy thing to do.

Even if musically I didn’t always love certain things, I could listen to Lil Durk, 21 Savage, and Future because I love the glory of being like, “This experience is not shameful.” It’s dangerous, like anything in excess is dangerous. But Purple Reign really reaches me. I know Future’s pain is far more complex than Adele’s pain.

Only a few days after Smokey’s death, you, Puffy, and Safe gave an interview to Noisey. What do you remember about that time?

The day after his death, the Toronto Sun posted a cover of him that said, “Smoke Dawg Had a Gun.” I went back to a conversation I’d had with Smokey. He had sent me a Toronto Sun article about another friend that passed and he said, “Broski, please say something about this.” I said, “Fam, I don’t wanna play activist.” And he was like, “If you don’t speak, who’s gonna speak?” The first thing I thought was, The publication that shook him in his life now shook him in his death.

Rereading the interview, I don’t remember saying any of it. I was thin as paper. I felt like my friends were just dragging me along, like, “OK, speak now.” In that time, all I was thinking was, These guys have to die. After doing this work for so long, reading every book that you can read, attending all the crisis response meetings, I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t going to end for us. Here I am trying to intellectualize this, and my friends are dying.”

What was the music of your childhood?

I loved Raekwon, André, Nas. Big L used to make me feel happy. I didn’t want to hear sadness all the time. I loved Cat Stevens. I understood him as two different people. I was listening to A Is for Allah by Yusuf Islam, and then I found “Father & Son.” The moment I realized that I was listening to the same voice, possibility found a new definition for me. I was exploring all these different worlds. But when I realized my experience was different from what I listened to, it was disheartening.

How so?

We used to drive back from funerals. Once, Mo-G played “Changes” or some sentimental 2Pac song, and everyone was like, “Yo turn this shit off, bro.” It’s really ride-out music you want to listen to after a funeral, because you feel enraged.

But on quiet rides, I would listen to Sufjan Stevens. Carrie & Lowell is such a stunning account of a passing. It was my first time hearing a folk project mourning a complicated death. His relationship with [his mother] Carrie was not an easy relationship, but he was able to explore it and beautify it and crystallize her memory. And I was like, “Can I crystallize the memories of people whose descriptors have been their criminal records and nothing beyond that?”

When I started to listen to folk music, it was based in narrative, just like my favorite rappers. There were times when I didn’t know whether Nick Drake said something or Nas something. It started to become inseparable for me, what some of these people made me feel. That’s when I was starting to get excited, like, “Maybe there’s a way I can bridge these worlds.”

How did you go from being a poet to a songwriter to a solo artist?

There’s a graveyard of poets who have tried to make the transition into music. I thought, If I get songwriting placements, people will believe in my abilities. I got really good at it. But when you enter somebody else’s dream, you have to reduce yourself to being a tool, and that affects the way you create in your own time. I have friends like Bibi Bourelly, who writes with Rihanna, and Diana Gordon, who writes with Beyoncé, and I’ve seen how it’s affected them to give away songs that were connected to their identity. The heart is not something you can compartmentalize.

I was losing belief, like, “Who am I? How self-centered for me to believe that it is I who should be the voice at the center?” To this day, when there are people gathered to serve me or something that I’m doing, I feel this imposter syndrome. Like, “They’ll find out I’m not who they really thought I was.” There’s also this cancellation anxiety, like, “Am I a good person?” I was looking through these accounts talking about abuse, and I’m like, “Have I ever...?” I know I’m a flipping virgin so I’ve never touched a woman in any way like that, but have I ever said something? Have I ever gaslighted the women in my life? You start to question your own integrity.

There’s a song on the record, “Ali.” That one hits me in the gut every time.

I’m happy to hear that, because I wasn’t going to put it on the record. It felt too personal. At one of the sessions, my friend—who I hadn’t seen for years, ’cause he caught a charge and was on the run—lifted up his shirt and showed me the scars from when he was getting lashed inside a Somali jail. I was like, “Bro, I’m so sorry this happened to you.” And I played “Ali.” He cried, like, “Bro you have to release this, for Ali.” We are all close, but that was his best friend, that was his partner.

That’s literally all I wanted, to hold the memory of him. I was playing some songs for Drake, and he was like, “That’s a beautiful song. Who’s Ali?” I love the interest in Ali as a person and as a human being. If only he knew that he’s still reaching people. He always felt this great urge to bring the memories forward of people he lost, so it’s only right that he’s immortalized the way he tried to immortalize everyone else.

I think often about how women are involved in these losses in such intimate ways—when someone dies, when someone goes away—but are so often excluded from the narrative. On “Air Forces,” there’s a sample of a Sudanese folk song that women would traditionally sing when men went off to war.

Exactly. When I come back, all I do is go to the mothers of the friends I’ve lost. I think a part of them sees their sons in me, and it’s so difficult for me to stand in that. The most violent thing that comes from these deaths is what happens to the mothers. That’s why it’s important to hear the women singing in “Air Forces.” On “Separate,” it’s my mother. She was singing in the kitchen, and I had my little brother record her. I think about her waiting at home for my brother in the dark of the night. There is nothing more haunting than the voice of a mother who screams at the loss of her son. I thought a lot about what’s in that voice.

You’ve made this decision to release incredibly personal experiences into the world. And sometimes that means you don’t really get to retain ownership. Are you prepared to let go a bit?

With the people I work with in L.A., I never talk about my life back home. I love being someone completely different, to just be a person. But musically, I want to reach people. There’s a video of this famous cook using “Stay Alive” while she’s making tiramisu. So wholesome. And I’ve probably been tagged 100 times in videos of people doing interpretive dance to “Stay Alive.” It’s complicated, but I like that it’s taking on a life of its own. I like to hear [the song’s snippet of] my boy Racks, who has only been equated to violence, and now people outside the community are hearing a sadness in his voice. A more holistic picture. He’s deserving of that humanity.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork