About 25 years ago, I travelled to London, Ontario for the finals of a music competition. The 10-odd minutes of performance would be terrifying and thrilling. And adding to the thrill and to the terror of this barely-teenage performance experience was the presence of a friend from London. He had travelled across town to hear my 10 minutes. To see him show up just before I played brought a surge of excitement, the tingling of feeling like a minor celebrity.
He and I had become fast friends at a leadership camp for 12 and 13 year-olds from Ontario’s French school system. After that we were pen pals for more than a year (if you’re younger than 30, there’s no shame in looking up pen pals). Both of us liked writing and both of us, it turns out, would grow up in and around the writing of music.
This friend who was as enthusiastic about letter writing as he was about music – any kind of music – was Shadrach Kabango. When I spoke to him for our first one-on-one in over two decades, it still felt like I was talking to Shadrach, although his public persona retains only the first four letters of his truly kickass name.
Profile pieces usually follow one of two familiar tropes : the first plumbs the surprising depths – the struggles and hidden talents – of artists with celebrity status whose fame exceeds their (perceived) seriousness. The second humanizes iconic, highly-regarded, serious people by exploring their more pedestrian, mundane sides. A depressed Nicky Minaj and her secret passion for the novels of Dostoyevsky; the tedium of Elon Musk managing celiac disease through a monotonous daily eating routine (two conveniently invented scenarios). In the first case skepticism and envy are tempered by relatable profundity. In the second the daunting image of the genius is tempered by the recalling of bodies and the reminder that everybody inhabits the same time-space continuum. Both approaches succeed by trading in the currency of our curiosity and our manic desire to reconcile surface and depth (without ever needing us to believe that the two can be linked up).
Both approaches miss the mark in describing Shad. This is not a man who has sold his soul to the gods of fame. He has found a sweet spot where substantial cultural recognition and substantial personal authenticity seem to happily coexist. There was such continuity between the endearing charm of the young friend of memory and the clever warmth, the genuine curiosity of the artist I spoke with. And this continuity as the cause of my curiosity makes resolving an opposition between surface Shad and deep Shad beside the point. Be it on the social surface, or in the privacy of the deep self, Shad is self-evidently a man of substance.
He began our conversation by telling me, in a roundabout way, about the genesis of the album. Since our talk lasted 40 minutes, I’ve condensed it in some places.
Montreal Rampage: The Sniper and The Fool are the album’s two central characters and they play off each other well; it might seem foolish to react to the world in any way besides getting really, really good at Fortnite. Was the opposition between the two something you unlocked by digging internally or something you plucked from the wider culture?
Shad: Where I think it all came from was a tension I was feeling. I was living in Vancouver – I dunno how much time you’ve spent there but –
MR: Two months.
Shad: OK. So you probably know a little bit about the city’s dynamics. It’s a very unequal city.
MR: Yeah, Hastings & Main and then –
Shad: Hastings & Main and then a few blocks over it’s super wealthy. Living there for 4 or 5 years, feeling the tension of all that inequality and trying to think ok, what does it mean to live well in a place like this? I think the concept for the album came out of that tension, thinking about and living with these things. The story that came to me is, I think, a simple metaphor for our world, for the tensions you really could describe as a war. In the sense that the emphasis on competition sometimes makes it feel that it’s a fight to the death. The fight-or-flight responses people imagine having in an obviously dangerous situation, these responses inform our reactions to each other even in “peaceful” society.
MR: We get to know the Sniper pretty well before the Fool makes an appearance. The Fool is the hero and, in many ways, he steals the show, but it’s hard not to feel for the Sniper. Both of their story arcs evolve throughout the album. At one point, I couldn’t tell whether it was the Fool or the Sniper speaking. Did you write the album with a big picture storyline? Was it conceived as a unit?
Shad: I basically tried to unfold the story the way it popped into my mind. The Sniper was the first character that I saw because I think that’s the default logic of our culture. The second Sniper song to me is very poignant. I feel it on a personal level. Sometimes we don’t succeed in inhabiting the Fool’s perspective. It’s difficult.
MR: First the Fool spreads the good news (Get It Got It Good), then he describes the source and feeling of his faith (Water), then his tone is altered in Frame of Mind. Was this a deliberate, linear progression?
Shad: You’re right that there’s a progression. By Frame of Mind, the core values are still there but the album has gone in many directions and gets very intense. So to me it makes sense that when we get to the Fool’s third song, the character can be weary and that’s ok for him to be a little more mellow, not quite as jubilant as the first song. I placed the three Fool songs to reflect that arc.
MR: There’s a kind of manifesto moment when the fear that motivates the Sniper is contrasted with the Fool’s epiphany. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the Fool overcomes his fear of bullets and their ability to kill him, you’re not exactly promoting physical martyrdom. It’s more about a fear of being torn apart by the pain of seeing things differently, no?
Shad: You’re right on man, that’s exactly what it’s about. What if chaos and violence is driven by an illusion, if it’s driven by fear? It takes courage to stop that cycle. What if – I dunno – what if nothing will happen to me if I tell the truth of who I am? What if everything won’t all collapse?
MR: That brings to mind the story of elephants born in the circus – I don’t think I’m making this up – who are held in place by being tied to small stakes driven into the ground when they’re young. What’s outrageous is that adult elephants preserve the belief in the strength of the stakes holding them in place and don’t just rip them out.
Shad: Wow… Just wow.
MR: Back to the Fool and what he draws on: water is the spiritual substance that distinguishes the Fool from the Sniper. It’s the title of the Fool’s second song, a substantial image that could appeal to people fighting for First Nations, for people terrified for the planet. But you’re most obviously using it to describe personal faith. Is it right to say that the water you had in mind might keep people hopeful enough to seem like fools to cynics?
Shad: You’re spot on – that’s what the song Water is to me. That’s the metaphor, those are the layers of meaning. Anytime you’re referencing water you’re talking literally about this precious, precious resource that we undervalue. But absolutely this song is about the spiritual, about how we undervalue that as a resource, as a way of having the hope to proceed.
MR: Despite our faith in science, we forget that believing that the future might be worth living out can involve a leap of faith.
Shad: Totally, totally. Science is such a wonderful thing. Unfortunately we forget that there are other things we need as human beings. We need tradition, we need hope, we need to believe in certain things that science can’t prove.
MR: One of the risks of the album is being clever and inclusive without being verbally violent in an attempt to get people’s attention. Another risk – I think the bigger risk – is daring to speak in such clearly faith-based terms.
Shad: I think of faith the way you described it; like, let’s forget about a guy in the sky for a second and let’s ask how do you know that life is worth living? How do you know that it’s worth it to be self-sacrificing, to be honest?
MR: You don’t. You have to risk it.
Shad: You have to risk it. I like to talk about faith in those sort of concrete terms. I’m not afraid of invoking religious imagery. I just feel like they’re powerful images and stories, still in our culture. And they can be stirring.
MR: Both of us grew up in the French, Catholic schools of Ontario. Did being a visible minority (born to Rwandan parents in Kenya) within an invisible minority (French speakers in Ontario) entail some sort of boost in solidarity?
Shad: I didn’t feel that. I never understood that sentiment that was there all along: we are a minority. I didn’t know that my classmates and their families lived with that sense. My parents don’t speak French. We came to Canada and they were like Oh. You can put your kid in French school and it’s also free? Yeah, we’re gonna do that. There was a shortage of students at the school and that’s the reason why I got in.
My nephews are in a French school, I hope to put my kid in French school. And I hope it’s like when I was in French school; we were really steeped in the culture. There’s a different way of joking, the music is different… When I went to an English high school, I got there and was like you guys don’t have improv? That’s weird, I’ve been doing it since the fourth grade.
MR: You don’t seem too concerned with putting up a front and pretending to be something you’re not. Despite this, is there a balancing act involved in what you reveal and what you keep away from the social media landscape?
Shad: Yeah there is. What I think you’re getting at, the personal and the private, with celebrity culture and people putting their whole lives out there, for me it’s about preserving a special space for relationships. If the whole world has the same relationship to you as a special person does, then it doesn’t work. I need to make sure that a relationship has something special, something that I’m not giving to just anybody, something that’s not for sale.
MR: A moment when you share something that sounds intimately special, something that’s not for sale, come when the Fool describes the chills he gets from simply seeing the sun. It’s in the same part of the album where the Fool boasts about not needing to win. Isn’t there something tricky about needing to win, to some extent, the war of self-promotion to get this album out there, while at the same time valuing things besides winning as most important?
Shad: Totally. When you make music, that’s what you wrestle with. You wrestle with asking for people’s attention. What am I doing that’s worthy of people’s attention? At the end of the day, this is what I have to offer, this is what I got. I don’t know how to do anything else, I don’t feel compelled to do too much else.
People are welcome to like it or not like; that’s definitely something I wrestle with. But at the end of the day, this is what I’ve got.
“At the end of the day, this is what I’ve got”. That would have worked well as a way to wrap this up. But I need to keep going through to the last thing Shad said to me, casually, as we were hanging up. “Keep in touch… Raptors Starter coat.” Shad had somehow remembered the prize possession of my early teenage years, the coat I was wearing when we met in the mid-90’s. For a moment I accepted this with childish entitlement; of course everybody remembered that coat. Afterwards, I wondered: was this a play by him, ending on a cleverly selected note of shared memory to ensure I’d be left with a great impression?
Reading cynical tactics into Shad’s graceful warmth would express the grandiosity of paranoia; I’d doubt the man who just got reviewed by Rolling Stone needs to consciously plant good-fuzzy-feeling-bombs at the end of a Montreal Rampage interview. And that was, after all, a fucking great coat. But there is a logic to the paranoid cynicism: being in the presence of someone with genuine curiosity, warmth and a flair for meaningful allusion is jarring. It can bring us to explain away the fortunate constellation of that person’s selves through conspiracy theory, the kind of theory that reflects the worldview of Shad’s Sniper. As an enthusiast enjoying the well-meaning, intelligent sincerity of Shad, I’m thrilled to play the fool.
Shad performs Friday November 23rd at Le Ministère. For full info click HERE.