Cadence Weapon wins 2021 Polaris Prize, will use money to register voters

It took him five tries, but Cadence Weapon has finally won the Polaris Music Prize for his 2021 album Parallel World.

This was the Toronto-based, Edmonton-born rapper’s third time on the shortlist for the Canadian music critics’ award, but his other two albums also made the longlist. He’s never put out an album without getting some sort of Polaris Prize recognition. But now he’s finally won that $50,000 prize.

The musician and writer born Rollie Pemberton made an acceptance speech live via Zoom and didn’t waste his moment.

“The prairies got something to say,” he said, echoing OutKast’s famous declaration at the 1995 Source Awards (probably a line he’s had in his head for years). “I want to show everybody, all the young artists listening right now, and watching this, you don’t have to be from Toronto. Your experience is valuable. Your art matters.”

He called out prime minister Justin Trudeau, who was just re-elected, and said his racist minstrel acts are one of the reasons Cadence Weapon makes political music.

“Justin Trudeau has worn Blackface so many times he can’t even remember how many times, and he was just given a third term,” he said. “That’s exactly why I need to be making rap records that are political, that are about these subjects because that’s still a fact today.”

And he talked about what he would do with the prize money, which he also spoke about in a new interview with NOW Magazine: organizing voter registration events to remove barriers to the polls.

“Next year I’ll be using some of my resources to organize some voter registration events around the Toronto
municipal election, as well as the Ontario provincial election because we need some changes to our leadership and we need to make things more equitable for people in this city to be able to vote.”

Polaris Prize’s living room gala

Cadence Weapon won in a year with a particularly strong and diverse shortlist that also included: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Theory of Ice, DijahSB’s Head Above The Waters, Dominique Fils-Aimé’s Three Little Words, Mustafa’s When Smoke Rises, the OBGMs’s The Ends, Klô Pelgag’s Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, TOBi’s Elements Vol. 1, The Weather Station’s Ignorance and Zoon’s Bleached Wavves.

For the second straight year, there was no in-person Polaris Prize gala. Instead, the winner was announced at a virtual ceremony hosted by CBC radio host Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe and featuring CBC Music’s Jess Huddleston as well as Polaris jury members Michelle Da Silva of Xtra (and formerly NOW Magazine) and Calum Slingerland of Exclaim!.

It was probably the most low-key Polaris Prize ceremony since its early years. In a living room-like set, the four presenters sat on couches as Odario DJed songs from each album and danced or head-bobbed in their seats. They dug into each one, bringing some of the behind-the-scenes discussion onto the main show.

It was nice to hear all the music and reflect on the themes, but the format felt more suited to a preview show than the main broadcast itself. And it was dogged throughout the night with sound issues, and often the music was mixed louder than the voices of the people talking.

The format was broken up with two performances by last year’s winner, Montreal rapper Backxwash. Performing in white face paint in a black studio filled with crosses, her gothy rap-rock was intensely theatrical. It also made for a pleasantly strange juxtaposition when she showed up in CBC’s rec room set to announce the winner.

More pre-recorded performances like that would have given it more of a “big event” feel, or video packages or interviews with artists might have helped make the show a bit more dynamic. Last year, Polaris commissioned original video collaborations from all 10 artists, which would probably have been a hard feat to pull off twice, but it could have used an extra something. The shortlisters waited for the winner announcement on a Zoom call, but only Cadence Weapon ended up on the show.

A “hella diverse” shortlist

Cadence Weapon has seen every incarnation of the gala. He was nominated for the very first Polaris Prize in 2006 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, which was not broadcast live at all.

“I was wearing a green military cap, a shirt with a deer on it, some jeans with the holes cut out and some Nike Dunks,” he remembered in our earlier interview. “I was looking crazy.”

“All these jurors came up to me and told me, oh you’re going to win, you’re going to win. When I didn’t, it felt like, ok, well I already felt like I was the odd person out – me and K’naan were the only people of colour nominated that year – and then you look at this year and it’s like, oh, it’s hella diverse now.”

As in any good Polaris year, Cadence Weapon seemed like the absolute right choice as soon as his name was called. But I would have been happy with a lot of them. The OBGMs and Mustafa were both on the cover of NOW this year, DijahSB was in our Sound of Toronto music issue and we’ve dug into albums by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and the Weather Station. This really did feel like the a cross-section of the most interesting sounds pushing Canadian music forward, which came through listening to a sampling of every album.

Parallel World, a dystopian and political record informed by the pandemic and filled with cutting-edge electronic production, is a triumph of experimental hip-hop and a testament to staying in your own lane until the world catches up.

“It’s funny, I’ve always been making this kind of music, but it feels like for the first time in my life I have the right music at the right time,” he said. “I guess maybe the world got more dystopian and I stayed the same.”


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