As music fans we’re always on the hunt for new sounds and creators. Through Highsnobiety Soundsystem Co-signs we’re connecting with the next generation of artists that we’re excited about. These are the origin stories of those pushing boundaries and shaping the future of music culture.
For Fans Of: Sampha, James Blake, Sufjan Stevens
Playlisted: "Stay Alive," "Air Forces," "Ali"
Mustafa Ahmed has been known as many things: spoken-word poet; folk singer; pop songwriter; documentary filmmaker; devout Muslim; Halal Gang representative; spokesperson for his Regent Park community; child of Sudanese immigrants; former member of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Board; one time Pan American Games Poet Laureate; collaborator of acts like Majid Jordan, The Weeknd and Khalid; brother; friend; provider.
When he was younger, Mustafa was able to drift through sub-communities and spaces - mosques, playgrounds and theatres - that served various aspects of the identity he was carving for himself without being labeled as any one thing, or confined to a singular narrative. However, as his visibility has grown, he’s found that the understanding and allowance of what he refers to as a “fullness of experience” has shrunken.
“You know what happened yesterday?” Mustafa asks, an hour into our phone conversation. “I was chilling with my boy. He’s not even from the hood, and I swear to God, it was one of the most hurtful experiences I’ve ever had bro.”
The longtime friend of Mustafa’s - who he’d met through the mosque - had told him that his younger brother had been concerned about his proximity to the rising artist, who’s received global recognition for folk songs, such as last year’s "Stay Alive" and "Air Forces," that deal with the grief the 24-year-old has experienced growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood.“I don’t know if you should be spending this much time with Mustafa,” the 19-year-old told his older brother. “I don’t want his problems to become your problems. I don’t want you to be in a situation where something could happen to you. This guy’s caught up and he has issues with people in the city.”
Mustafa was upset: “You shouldn’t have shared that with me,” he said. His friend explained that he’d set his brother right about the misdirected thoughts.
“Yes, but the truth of the matter,” responded Mustafa, “Is that you already know that I’m hypersensitive of my position, and the way in which people already view me.”
After some reflection, Mustafa isn’t afraid to admit what made him so uncomfortable. “The reason I didn’t wanna know, is because I guess that there’s some partial truth in there. And that’s why I hang out with my dogs from the hood. Because it’s like, at least we’re in it together.” Just days before he’d met with some of his artist peers, including Daniel Caesar, and listened fondly to the way that they spoke about the city, a Toronto that was virtually unrecognizable to the one he grew up in.
As a fan of folk music since his teens - when his vocal coach, Zorana, introduced him to Joni Mitchell’s "A Case of You" - he’d started writing folk songs of his own in 2014, but each year he’d be plagued by a devastating loss to reckon with: that year it was Yusuf, then Santana in 2016, Ali in 2017, and Smoke Dawg in 2018. The latter was murdered outside of a nightclub on Toronto’s Queen Street just a day after Mustafa made bail for a gun charge which has since been dropped. “Every single year I actually couldn’t write songs, because as soon as I would attempt to write a song it was like there was a new experience that just fell as a great weight over everything else I was doing,” he explains. “Shit, if people weren’t dying in my life I probably would have wrote a neo-soul record five years ago.”
To find the perspective that he needed to write his debut record, When Smoke Rises, Mustafa needed to get away from the city and the suffocation he felt from being there. “For as long as I’m in Toronto, I’m bound by these experiences, and people are looking at me as someone who is caught up in this warfare that they don’t want to be in proximity to. And they have every right to that,” he admits. He recorded the project in London, where Jamie xx, James Blake, and Sampha contributed to the “sonic sadness” he’d been establishing with Swedish artist Simon on the Moon and fellow Toronto native Frank Dukes.
With distance, Mustafa was able to find a safe space in which he could re-engage with the trauma he’d experienced back home. “You have this natural defense system that’s set up in order to protect you and protect your emotions and protect what it is you’re experiencing,” he explains. “Opening that up might open the floodgates for something that you’re not even ready to see yet, or ready to feel yet. At least it was easier for me to feel that when I’m outside. While I’m here [in Toronto] just 20 minutes away from the graveyards where my friends are buried, it’s like man, I can’t look at those things.”
Mustafa’s approach to music making is that of a documentarian, transcribing and recording his feelings with a level of accuracy and specificity that will allow them to be recalled like a time capsule. He’s recently been reading Eric H. Cline’s award-winning book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and says that he struggles to connect to historical figures because while we have facts, time has eroded the emotion that fueled the events contained within its pages. “I think that for me it’s like, the evidence doesn’t matter, the proof doesn’t matter, what happened actually doesn’t matter,” he clarifies. “I’m just trying to focus on the feeling. The beautiful thing about art, and specifically music, is that music is able to reflect a period of a journey of emotion, and for me there are not many things that can do that in the way that music can.”
Although the emotion in Mustafa’s music is resonating broadly, When Smoke Rises is primarily a document of grief for those who have directly shared in his experience. His intention is that the project will be there for his peers once they find distance from the trauma that shrouds their present, and in many cases suppresses their emotions. “When my dogs are finally able to think back to how much they actually lost in this hood dynamic, and how many people they’ve actually had to bury and when they’re outside of the hood and they’re looking at it from the outside in - which is something that I’ve had the privilege of doing - they’re really be able to see the depth of their grief,” he explains. “And in that period I’ll have that capsule for them, for what they’ve missed. It’ll be the mirror to an experience that I tried to recount while we were experiencing it, and hopefully something that they can journey through whenever they need to.”