Toronto’s music scene is awakening from its slumber.
After a long Omicron nap, venues are cautiously reopening, tours are getting rescheduled and albums are belatedly rolling out. As bands and artists reacquaint themselves with audiences and each other, there’s a backlog of amazing music waiting to be heard, and it’s harder than ever to pigeonhole. From rock’s Indigenous future to genre-jumping hip-hop collectives, here’s who to keep an ear on this year.
THE SOUND: Unapologetic R&B with a Scarborough soul
Growing up in a Jamaican household, Savannah Ré says she’s been surrounded by music for as long as she can remember.
“My dad was a DJ and my sister, growing up, was super obsessed with 90s R&B,” she says.
That’s probably why the Juno-award-winning artist finds it difficult to describe her sound. R&B sounds simple enough, but because she’s been influenced by reggae, dancehall and other mixed-in genres she can’t be “boxed in.”
“Although R&B is categorized as rhythm and blues, to me, that’s not a specific sound,” she says. “Your rhythm and your blues could be anything.”
It’s easier to describe her feel: to the point and honest. She credits growing up in Scarborough for being able to embody that in her music.
“Some people would deem [it] as aggression, but this is just how a lot of us are,” she says. “We speak our mind and we do what we want. And it carries through in the music.”
Her debut EP Opia (Universal), which was made in collaboration with acclaimed Toronto producer Boi-1da, is all about speaking the truth, as vulnerable as that can be. One of her most popular songs, Solid (produced by her husband YogiTheProducer), embodies that vulnerability as she asks her significant other to stay loyal and endure whatever barriers they might face together. It’s soft, soulful and slow, with Ré doing the most with the vocals.
But for Ré, creating and releasing music in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but smooth.
“There are some days, living out here in Canada, where it’s really gloomy outside. It’s honestly really hard to hold on to inspiration,” she says. “So when I get [that inspiration], I really cherish those moments, and I definitely try to communicate all those hopes and emotions into the music I’m making.”
It was an especially confusing time for the singer when she released the EP in November 2020, a time when Ontario was facing some of its highest numbers.
“Beyond all of the tragedy, what happened was with releasing this type of music, so many people related to the emotions and sentiments that were in it,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that type of reception or that many people to listen and say ‘I feel this exact same way.’”
The amount of support from her fans and the industry, including last year’s Juno for her song Solid, came as a shock.
“I don’t go into creating things and think ‘Yeah! I want all of these awards!'” Ré says. “I just make the music and I hope that someone gets to relate to what I’m saying.”
She released a single called 24hrs last June. It’s also vulnerable and soft, with Ré gushing about loving her partner and wanting to be with them as much as possible. For someone who tends to put a lot of pressure on herself, releasing only one song last year was tough, but also a learning moment, Ré says.
“I had to learn to start extending myself patience and extending myself grace,” she says. “[But] I never just rush myself into saying or doing something that i’m not 100 per cent behind,” she says.
That will change this year, she says. But Ré can’t say too much yet, other than that she’s working on “a project.”
“We’re going to be feeding the streets, we got a lot coming,” she says.
Like Opia, the project will reveal more of herself, but in different ways. It’s more unapologetic, she says.
“It’s a snapshot of where I’m at right now, versus all of those years [that led] up to [creating] Opia,” she says. “And it’s a different place than I thought it would be.”
Expect more visual work for this project too, she says.
“Like the Opia video, that was my idea, that’s how I saw it when I made the song,” she says. “This time around I’m probably going to be trying my hand at a lot of directing.” RAMONA LEITAO
Ones to Watch
Charmaine shows her bold, upbeat, rambunctious side on her 2021 album Hood Avant Garde (Warner). Some of the Zimbabwean-born singer’s most popular songs, WOO! and DOUBLE DUTCH are filled with clever raps and unforgettable beats that teem with women’s agency. This year she released a single, Friends With Benefits, a chiller R&B song that shows she has range.
Just like the name suggests, R&B singer Emanuel’s 2021 album Alt Therapy (Universal) is all about healing, with sincere vocals and lyrics. Actor Idris Elba discovered Emanuel’s song Need You in 2020 while recovering from COVID-19 and became the music video’s creative director and the executive producer for the album. On songs like Black Woman, he also addresses racial inequality.
Jayli Wolf’s alt-pop infuses her family and cultural history with her own personal explorations. She is a doomsday cult survivor and a by-product of the Sixties Scoop, which she reflected on powerfully in the 2021 video for Child Of The Government. Also a member of the group Once A Tree and an actor on Y: The Last Man, she’s starting to get out there in multiple channels. This year, she’s a participant in the Amazon-backed program Your Voice Is Power, which lets Canadian students from underserved communities learn coding in French, Ojibwe and Inuktitut, and remix songs by Indigenous artists, including Wolf’s Child Of The Government. A second solo EP is in progress.
THE SOUND: Indigenous futurism through a heavy psychedelic folk lens
Ombiigizi’s Daniel Monkman and Adam Sturgeon both felt like outsiders in their indie rock scenes – until they found each other.
“There aren’t many Anishinaabe artists, and we’re all spread across Turtle Island, so it can feel kind of isolating at times,” says Monkman. “It was really nice to extend the lifeline to each other,” Sturgeon says.
They’ve both put together big bodies of work over the last decade. Sturgeon has the London, Ontario-based heavy psych band Status/Non-Status, which recently evolved from WHOOP-Szo. Monkman – who moved to Toronto during the pandemic and has lived here for about a year and a half – turned a lot of heads with his shoegaze band Zoon’s 2020 debut album Bleached Wavves.
The two have always felt a kinship “on a deep and emotional level,” says Sturgeon, sharing management and touring together with their respective bands, but the pandemic gave them time to actually start collaborating and sending each other songs. They soon realized they were writing an album. So they made it official, coming together as Ombiigizi – an Anishinaabemowin word for a person who makes a lot of noise.
Their debut album, Sewn Back Together, which came out on Arts & Crafts earlier this month, is ironically a bit softer than their individual projects. The pedal-washed guitar effects are toned down, and the cleaner art-rock sound sometimes borders on psychedelic folk. Monkman foregrounds open-tuned acoustic fingerpicking, which he says goes back to his days listening to bluegrass on the rez. And Sturgeon name-drops boundary-pushing folk artists like Nick Drake, Donovan and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Lyrically and thematically, it’s still a heavy record. Working together pushed each person to bring more of themselves, because, as Monkman says, “It’s hard to lift up heavy things alone. We’re stronger in numbers.”
Producers Nyles Spencer and Kevin Drew (frontman of monumental indie rock band Broken Social Scene) encouraged them to strip things back and really find their voices.
They sing about Monkman’s father, a residential school survivor, who died during the pandemic; and about Sturgeon’s grandfather, who joined the military and lost his Indian status. On Yaweh, they chant along with the first song Monkman learned with his mother’s community north of Winnipeg.
“I like to picture our people in a circle,” says Sturgeon. You share your story, I share my story, Daniel shares his story. Together our stories grow.”
Using a personal lens helps them tell bigger, more community-oriented stories – something both musicians say they’ve struggled with in the past. Moving around the country, Monkman says his identity was often suppressed “because no one wanted to hear about the Inconvenient Indian.” But now that “decolonization is a trending word” it’s all anyone wants to talk about. Finding that balance, and not appropriating or trying to speak for all Indigenous people, is a tough balance.
“I don’t represent my nation, I represent myself and my family,” Sturgeon says. “Screaming about genocide is easy to me, but sharing the distinct cultural experience that my family went through to be disenfranchised from our culture, to not being accepted in Canadian society nor even in First Nations communities at times – it’s an important piece of that puzzle.
Both musicians do outreach work in First Nations communities and see how isolated they can be. They hope the music can help other people tell their stories, too.
As Sturgeon says, “If our records can allow our people to see themselves, then we’ve done our job.” RICHARD TRAPUNSKI
Ones to Watch
Josh Korody is one of the unsung heroes of the Toronto music scene. As a record producer, his fingerprints are all over many of the best local albums of the last few years (check the liner notes). As a guitarist, he made some noise with the shoegaze band Beliefs, and as a techno musician he’s made his mark under the name Nailbiter. But Only Up (Hand Drawn Dracula), his collaborative post-punk album last year as Breeze really turned our heads, and not just because of its guest list (members of Orville Peck, Vallens, TOPS and more, plus guest spots from Tess Parks and Cadence Weapon). With songs that could have come straight from 90s Madchester, it was a fun, surprising album of guitar pop that was begging for some live shows. Not many of those happened, at least not in person.
But now there’s one scheduled for Dan Burke’s Class of 2022 series, with Crasher, PACKS, Only God Forgives on April 23 at the Horseshoe. Hopefully more to come.
There’s a new crop of emotionally frank, 00s-tinged garage rockers on the come-up in Toronto: Bad Waitress, PACKS and PONY, to name a few. Joining those groups comes Deanna Petcoff. Her upcoming debut album, To Hell With You, I Love You (out April 8 on Royal Mountain) is her first solo work apart from the band Tange, which includes Toronto breakout and recent NOW cover star Luna Li. Listen to Devastatingly Mediocre, a song about “the most boring guy alive” and try not to relate to the line about having to avoid an entire section of a city.
Deanna Petcoff opens for Pillow Queens on April 9 at the Horseshoe.
Toronto songwriter and producer Sam Lewis has been making a bit of noise on the Toronto scene for the last few years, gearing up to the release of his band’s upcoming album, Walls, Mirrors and Windows (out March 9). It’s a mix of industrial, new wave and pulsing post-punk, but also a bit more personal and widescale than those genres might suggest. It is still a concept album, though one about a journey to self-discovery. Check out the churning NIN-recalling single Dead Weight.
THE SOUND: TikTok bars for any challenge or duet
Is the sound of Toronto on TikTok? Akintoye makes that case.
The 22-year-old rapper’s ceaseless flows cram bars upon bars in 30-second videos, rapping about whatever comes to mind on his daily posts from his bedroom, whether it’s the HBO series Euphoria or anti-vaxxers.
With over 2.3 million followers, most of the TikTok videos Akintoye (also known as @yeahitsak) releases rack up the views and praise for how he snaps on beats. However, the anti-vaxxer freestyle also (predictably) drew some hate. “Please pull ya head out ya ass,” Akintoye repeats on that missive to folks spreading wild conspiracy theories about microchips in COVID-19 vaccines.
“There was people saying some foul shit about me off the strength of that video,” says Akintoye on a Zoom call from his bedroom in Vaughan where all the TikTok magic happens. “A lot of people were telling me, ‘I hope you die. I hope the vaccine kills you. You’re a sad excuse for a Black man.’
I was like, If I could sit here and watch all these people say this about me and I don’t feel no ways, I’ll be okay. I’ll be alright.”
You can feel the positive energy in his rhymes in conversation. Over the course of an hour, he breathlessly recounts his life story: from asthmatic student of rap who would write as a way to cope with anxiety to the talent spitting sponsored rhymes on your Twitter timeline.
Akintoye was born in Lagos, moved to Canada when he was nine and discovered that he was built for the stage during a middle school recital. His class was performing the Young Artists For Haiti version of K’naan’s Waving Flag and the teacher tapped Akintoye to perform Drake’s verse.
“While I’m rapping, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest thing that I have ever felt in my entire life. I don’t know what this is. I can’t even describe it, but I need this in my life every day.’”
He’d been preparing to be a rapper ever since and learning the history. He began producing music from his dorm at McMaster alongside one of his best friends, Dan Vucko, throwing up tracks on Soundcloud and eventually building a local following big enough to draw a 100-person crowd for a live show on campus in 2019. The positive response inspired them to make more music to perform at another live show in March 2020.
You know what happened then.
Like all of us, Akintoye was forced to pivot during the pandemic. He was already on TikTok because children attending a performing arts organization Akintoye worked at urged him to get on the app. “I was like, ‘guys, I’m too old for this,’” says Akintoye. (Imagine how those of us twice his age feel.)
He was just fiddling around when a freestyle he wrote as part of the #SplashFreestyleChallenge took him from 1,000 to 4 million views, boosting his followers from 44 to 40K. The more he posted, the more his following grew.
He has an endless well of bars for just about any subject or prompt. But I suspect Akintoye stands out on this new destination for music with all its duets and challenges because he’s got an old soul as far as hip-hop is concerned. The kids from his generation aren’t typically weaned on the Bigs (Pun, L and Smalls) or the “six-syllable rhymes” of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. They don’t typically choose Kendrick, Cole and JID over Juice WRLD or Travis Scott.
“I’m a rapper rapper,” he says, which somehow makes perfect sense. While there are those who are perfectly satisfied with making music specifically for TikTok, and labels are looking for ways to cater tracks like Masked Wolf’s Astronaut In The Ocean and Arizona Zervas’s Roxanne for that platform, Akintoye is looking at TikTok to boost exposure for his bigger projects. Give his Vertigo album a spin and listen to him go hard on tracks like At The Cookout.
“My biggest thing is I always want to make sure the pen itself stands out in everything I do,” he says. “My point of reference is To Pimp A Butterfly. I want to make something that sticks in the same way that project stuck. When you listen to one song, you have to spin the whole project, front to back.” RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI
Ones to Watch
Sometimes an unexpected TikTok hit can propel a major label music career. That’s the story with 22-year-old R&B singer Aqyila, whose song Bob For Me, originally a for-fun riff about a wig, went mega-viral. After celebrities like Lizzo put their spin on it, Aqyila went ahead and turned it into a real song. Vibe For Me (which came out on Sony last year) is a breezy bit of 2000s R&B that is definitely a vibe. You can see why people picked up on it. The label promises more to come.
Palestinian-Canadian singer/songwriter Nemah Hasan posted What If I Took it Off For You? in 2021, a song inspired by her experience being asked to shoot a campaign for a major makeup company for “opportunity for the people of your community” and no money. That song and its follow-up dollar signs have struck a nerve, soundtracking thousands of TikToks about women’s relationships with the hijab, their own religious or cultural heritages, exploitation and imposter syndrome. Her extreme vulnerability and honesty is evidently contagious.
Rising Gen Z pop singer ELIO got a major co-sign last year from Charli XCX on her song and video CHARGER. Now the industry rocket seems strapped to her back. Following up her 2021 EP Can You Hear Me Now, she’s just released a new song, Read The Room, a relatable pop song about someone who is way too oblivious – and it’s already on all the right playlists.
THE SOUND: Clubby pop music for your true, authentic self
Ceréna found her true identity at the club.
“Before the panini, it was parties like Pep Rally and the Rude Collective. I spent so much time being someone else, and those parties helped me be myself,” she says. “Being in those spaces, I realized, oh yeah, I can exist.”
So many queer and marginalized people have similar stories of self-discovery and acceptance in spaces like those, so it was a real loss when parties became impossible at the beginning of the pandemic.
It took barely a week before Ceréna and a handful of Toronto collaborators started Club Quarantine on Zoom, which has already become a major IRL/URL institution. It did more than replace those spaces of refuge – it made them borderless.
For Ceréna, it helped fuel a creative – and personal – rebirth.
“Club Quarantine exposed me to queer and trans BIPOC artists from all around the world, and that changed me,” says the endlessly quotable artist. “I saw so much more of the spectrum of queerness. Meeting other people and seeing them thrive and be happy gave me the courage to come through.”
Ceréna transitioned during the pandemic, and she also rebirthed her music career. She’d released music under her deadname, but she considers 2021’s resurrection her debut album – the first time she was able to make music that fully and authentically represents her. Making the album was a “healing process,” she says, and making it helped her on her transition journey.
It’s structured like an internal dialogue. It’ll Be Okay is a song about depression, a pep talk to herself. Priority, she says, is a song “about speaking to my higher self making the decision to make my soul a priority”; and Gender Euphoria is about embracing the self that was “always so present but hidden under so many other layers that made her harder to see.”
It’s the right time to be making music like this, Ceréna says, because people are hungry for authentic voices. “Dance music is rediscovering its Black, brown, Indigenous, queer and trans roots, and it’s time we see ourselves up there on stage,” she says.
She’s started her own company, ASE Inc, to try to bring her vision to life without being exploited by the music industry or brands and companies that appropriate marginalized voices, because “we shouldn’t have to beg for scraps, getting funding shouldn’t mean selling all your rights, and outside entities shouldn’t be telling you what to do.”
Having to be something she wasn’t for so many years helped her see how “untrue” the whole system is, she says. “I’m so tired of the exploitation of artists and the bastardization of art.”
Balancing independence and ambition is the next step, and work has already started on the next project. Her vision includes art, makeup, creative direction and choreography. Just watch the one-take Hearts On Fire video made with the ballroom group House of Siriano to see a modern underground take on the Spice Girls’ Wannabe. Ceréna’s music mixes pop hooks and structures with the sounds of the club, “because I’m a club kid through and through.” It’s music to make you dance, but also for red carpets and award shows.
“I have been working for this my whole life, and I know that I can do what those girls do,” Ceréna says. “I want to be performing right after Megan Thee Stallion. Give me the production, give me the stage, I can eat the choreography. I will take care of the vision, I know what needs to be done. I am Stadium. Tour. Ready.” RT
Ones to Watch
Carmen Elle has been a force in local music scenes for nearly a decade as a singer in indie-pop act DIANA and guitar hero in Army Girls, but they’ve been missing for a few years. Now re-emerging with their new solo project gay hollywood and music for the excellent CBC show Sort Of for which they learned to produce. gay hollywood’s debut EP, Actually, will come out this Spring. Inspired by Elle’s adult autism diagnosis, it’s a mix of warm DIY electronic-tinged beats, touches of disco, sticky pop hooks and emotional vulnerability. Plus one of the best Teenage Dirtbag covers you’ll hear all year.
Electro-R&B artist R.Flex is back at it with their latest single, La La Land. which features silky and smoky vocals from Tafari Anthony and production from Sofia Fly. R. Flex has been a part of the Toronto music scene for a few years now, and their next EP, Flex With Benefits (out April 1), should be a good one. Flex describes it as “Queertopia” – an inclusive, playful sound that they predict is the future of R&B.
We Are Time is a label co-founded by Jesse Locke and former NYC child post-punk curio-turned grown-up post-punk auteur Chandra. Nearly everyone in her new circle is a Toronto artist, most from weirdo electronic, psych and art-rock bands. The label is about to put out its second mixtape, Chandra Mixtape Vol. 2, and Locke (drummer in Motorists and former NOW music writer) suggests we keep an eye on MISZCZYK. The Toronto producer (first name: Niles) is making hypnotic left-field electro-pop collaborations with artists like Marker Starling, Chandra and a couple of big names from underground avant-pop that will be revealed soon enough.
We Are Time puts on a show with Chandra, New Chance and Motorists at the Tranzac on March 5.
THE SOUND: Drill-dancehall-Afrobeats mishmash for every audience
No Tourists are a group that could only have been formed in Toronto.
Their music fits broadly under the banner of hip-hop, but from one song to the next, they might be playing drill or dancehall, Afrobeats or grime. They blend cultural backgrounds and influences in a dizzying way, and it makes perfect sense once you see them all on stage.
“I think our music is almost quintessentially Toronto, just in the way that you can’t put us in a box,” says James Wesson, quickly dismissing the Drake and Weeknd-influenced “Toronto sound” that was being promoted in the mid 2010s. “We’re emblematic of the city, but not in the outside perspective of what Toronto music is.”
No Tourists (often pronounced by the members sort of like “notorious”) have seven official members. There are five vocalists – Wesson, Kafayé, Keynes Woods, Deelo Avery and Lan’do – and two producers – universes and Abdullah. Somehow, all but two of them – plus their manager, Connor – have showed up to the Zoom interview, so my screen looks like The Brady Bunch.
With so many people in the collective, they’re used to this kind of digital communication, especially over the pandemic.
But their power unlocks when they’re all together. That’s how they formed, in a shared studio space they’d drop in and out of for their own separate projects. When a few of them linked up for a casual one-off, they realized “yo, this goes hard!” says universes. So they made more. When a “tragic hard drive death in the family” wiped out a lot of their songs, they decided, well, we just have to keep recording.
Soon, they were all trying to one-up each other. Singers became rappers, flows changed, beats flipped and all sorts of music started to emerge.
That mishmash has made it tough for them to stamp their identity on their singles and two EPs – Guerrilla and Ultraviolet – which makes it a challenge to stand out as an emerging act. Their biggest track so far is Dumbo, a tune that plays off hard-edged UK hip-hop styles, grime and drill. Abdullah remembers being spotted at a venue by a girl who said “No Tourists is here, innit?” and he immediately knew she knew them from that song.
“The thing is, a lot of the same influences the city of London has culturally, Toronto has too,” says universes. “There’s a lot of Jamaican influence, there’s a lot of Somali influence. We’re not necessarily trying to make a UK record, we’re just coming from a similar background.”
They’ve played house parties, acoustic shows and everything in between. If they’re playing to a dancehall or Afrobeats crowd, they might play Satisfaction, a bouncy patois-laden song that Abdullah says is an “instant wheelback.”
The live show is where they get their energy, sometimes riding their stage high right into the studio to lay down a track. That’s been tough over the last two years, with the pandemic killing the momentum they had been building up. But they’re ready to ramp back up, starting with a handful of singles Abdullah calls “a little heavier, a little dirtier, maybe a bit raw.” Triple Threat just dropped this week. That will lead to a long project that is – you guessed it – very eclectic.
They compare themselves to other local artists fully in their own lanes, like Sean Leon, Clairmont The Second, Terrell Morris and M.I.Blue and says that’s what should define the Toronto sound – more a spirit than a specific genre.
“If you hear a No Tourists song that you like, don’t think ‘oh, I can’t wait to see how they double-down on this,” says Wesson. “Say, ‘I can’t wait to see what they pivot to next.’” RT
Ones to Watch
This local hip-hop artist’s 2020 album Lavender feels like it should have been a big deal. His 2021 live follow-up Lavender: Live From The Wayside showed off the soulful, jazzy and instrumental artistry behind that project and showed where he could go next. His new EP will come out later this year. Get a glimpse at the March 6 return of the Baby G’s free concert series Happy Sundays.
pHoenix Pagliacci (formerly of the Sorority) and her partner Truss have been making their mark in Toronto for the past few years with beautifully authentic and soulful R&B. Their latest single, Strong, is one of their most powerful songs yet. It highlights the emotional turmoil of always being portrayed as the resilient Black person with superhuman strength to endure constant oppression. If it’s anything to go on, TRP.P are about to level up.
Ceréna played a showcase for AfroWaveTO, a music series-turned-festival-turned-livestream that bridges the gap between music forms like rap, R&B, Afrobeats, dancehall, soca, reggaeton and house and techno. It’s been a great showcase for local artists like Omega Mighty, Tafari Anthony, Desiire and TRP.P (all ones to watch in their own right), but you should also keep an eye on its founder Lexxicon. Making concept albums out of hip-hop and dancehall, the Jamaican-born artist is both a big thinker and a party starter, and if his name is attached to something then it’s worth paying attention.
Listen to Radheyan Simonpillai’s entire interview with Akintoye in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.