The Toronto-based artist Mustafa Ahmed has been a promising observational poet since he was a boy. The son of Sudanese parents, Ahmed, better known as Mustafa the Poet, recorded a spoken-word performance, “A Single Rose,” at the age of twelve, which revealed a child attuned to his community and acutely curious about the injustices he had witnessed. The Toronto Star noted how the power of his words brought white adults to tears—through poems about poverty in Africa and violence in the Regent Park housing project where he lived. Early on, Mustafa recognized that the arts could be a means toward a more effective dialogue, and he set out to give voice to silenced local minorities: young, Black, Muslim immigrants seeking space in a territorial city.
Now twenty-four, Mustafa has become one of Toronto’s most influential young speakers. After releasing a poetry EP, in 2012, he was dubbed a hero of 2014 by Torontoist and was named poet laureate for the 2015 Toronto Pan American Games. As his reputation as a poet grew, so, too, did his singing ambitions. Some of that was the result of a natural musical association in his home town: he co-founded the hip-hop collective Halal Gang, and he developed working relationships with Drake and the producer Frank Dukes. Mustafa’s writing and songcraft continued to dovetail with his activism, and, in 2016, he was appointed to a youth-advisory council by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to help guide the government on programs and policies that might benefit the country’s young people. Mustafa seemed to see music-making as a way to achieve a greater clarity in his messaging. “I wanna refine the narrative,” he told MTV that year.
Working with Dukes presented Mustafa with an avenue to become a full-fledged songwriter. He co-wrote songs for pop stars such as the Weeknd, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, and Justin Bieber, but he struggled with his own songs, which were melancholy and intimate, folksy yet colloquial like rap. Mustafa didn’t think anyone would want to hear them, even as his friends encouraged him to pursue their outré appeal. Unbeknownst to him, the diagram for his musical breakthrough had already been laid out in his poetry. In 2015, Drake reposted one of Mustafa’s quotables on Instagram—“If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die”—which gained the poet a new level of recognition and perhaps some insight into his gift. Mustafa’s lyrics are full of love for those he’s lost, and, in sharing their stories, he has found a method to safeguard their memories.
Much of Mustafa’s art is about impermanence. In 2014, his friend Yusuf Ali, a community organizer, was shot dead. Two days later, Mustafa spoke at “The Walrus Talks Resilience” about being a living monument. “Yusuf is gone,” he said. “And regardless of how successful I become, Yusuf is not going to be a part of that success. But I’m here today because this is what it means to be resilient.” Another friend, the rapper Smoke Dawg, was shot and killed in front of a night club, in 2018—and, the following year, Mustafa produced and released a documentary short called “Remember Me, Toronto,” which presented rappers as ambassadors for a city up in arms, and advised them to write their own elegies. “I had a conversation with Drake about how much violence there is in the city, and I realized when we pass away, people don’t remember us in the way that we should be remembered,” Mustafa told Complex. “And I realized that while we’re still here, it’s important to account for that memory.” His newly released solo music is an extension of that mission of preservation.
The title and the cover of Mustafa’s début, “When Smoke Rises,” honor the late Smoke Dawg, and the lyrics eulogize those gunned down like he was, while trying to offer sanctuary for the living. Full of microfiber “Pink Moon”-esque folk guitar and subdued, alone-at-the-bench piano chords, the record marries Mustafa’s heartbreaking poetry with gorgeous, numbed melodies that seem to struggle for air. Mustafa is aided by a small crew of English indie stars turned utility players—the singer-songwriter-pianist Sampha, the d.j. Jamie xx (of the band the xx), the electronic producer James Blake—all of whom add subtle yet ornate flourishes. The production is acoustic and tender. At times, it feels like it’s drawing you in close to listen; other times, it feels like eavesdropping on a prayer.
There is a sense of inevitability that creeps along the edges of Mustafa’s songs. Violence looms large in the outside world, and, on several occasions, staying home is presented as a refuge from an inescapable, ongoing turf war. The hushed nature of his music echoes this retreat away from the windows. On the song “Survival of the Fittest,” from 1995, the Queens artist Prodigy rapped that “there’s a war going on outside no man is safe from,” implying that the carnage was unavoidable and that getting drafted was inevitable. Mustafa coöpts the lyric on “The Hearse,” singing, “There’s a war outside / And I can’t lose all my guys,” and his version reveals his more auspicious outlook. Even if the war is unpreventable, he seems set on doing all he can to mitigate the damage. It’s that flicker of optimism that powers such songs as “Stay Alive” and “Air Forces,” and Mustafa’s poetry becomes a formidable weapon in his activist arsenal.
Even so, as Mustafa notes on “Ali,” words can’t stop bullets, and, as the limitations of his chosen medium set in, he is beset by some truly tormenting revelations. “Now what am I to say / when you’re beyond the grave / There’s only so much words / to fill the silence in this place,” he whimpers on “Separate.” His music sweeps the listener up into the undercurrent of a seemingly hopeless situation. At only eight songs, the album is written and produced as an experience, not as a playlist. Nearly every second of its twenty-four-minute runtime is building toward something, and the music is carefully sequenced in search of greater collective purpose. Mustafa has recorded an album in loving memory of the dead so that those still fighting might feel resilient.
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