Monk.E and Zex BilangiLangi. Photo by Fred Bugembe

Montreal hip hop artist Monk.E on making music & lockdown life in Uganda

Monk.E collaborated with Ugandan star Zex BilangiLangi on his new record, To Suffer With a Smile On.

The first time I ever formally chatted with Quebec street art and hip hop living legacy Monk.E, he flipped the idea of being merely an “independent” artist on its head and explained to me that his music and the movements he makes and partakes in are sovereign, subject to no barcode or accounting system other than his own code of virtue and a sense of universal egalitarianism. 

Over the many years and further discussions from then to now, Monk.E has continued to swing from nation to nation and continent to continent on the combined merit of his considerable talents and his humble affability. When he uses words like “legend” to describe himself, he can do so with his dues paid to the cultures he gives to and borrows from. 

He is not boastful but rather secure with both his achievements and the understanding that there is always more work to be done, keeping himself steadily poised for challenges and growth.

Having spent a significant part of the last half decade working and building in Uganda, Monk.E’s latest musical endeavour arrived last week with a new style and a new meeting of minds, this time out in a dancehall-rooted, Africa-born collaboration with Ugandan star Zex BilangiLangi.

Their team effort, To Suffer With a Smile On, is celebrated today with a live radio launch on Uganda’s public broadcast network, accessible worldwide, much like Monk.E the man, himself.

He took time to answer some questions and catch up via email from quarantine in the Pearl of Africa.

Darcy MacDonald: Please tell us a bit about how you developed this connection in recent years with Uganda and the art scene there.

M: After being Canadian champion of (battle league) End of the Weak for a third time, I was sent to Uganda for the world finals in 2014. Because of my content and ideology displayed, I was selected by a French diplomat to become the spokesperson for development of French in Uganda and as main act for the Kampala Francofolies in 2015.

By then I was already growing roots quickly in the Pearl of Africa. I was the first artist to paint (at) the Kampala National Theatre, (and I did a) mural at the Fine Arts department of Makarere University. 

I was organically placed at the forefront of the new East African artistic push, mentoring artists and collaborating with the cultural pillar and producing alchimiography gatherings. The list of accomplishments and accolades in Uganda became so big, so quickly, that I understood that there was a specific calling for me here with that influence and magnetism.

DM: What are some of the freedoms in working in Africa versus at home? What about the opposite — what elements do we do well that you’d like to see adopted in Uganda?

M: Business is different here. It’s hard for someone obsessively productive like me to maintain my pace. Things are slower and often late. But by counterpart, there is a spirit present that we lack in the western world. While we look depressed on a full stomach, here they are smiling with theirs half empty. Thus this idea of “suffering with a smile on,” or to go through life with gratitude and pride, chin up. 

DM: Please give some details about your performance history there, and how you’ve connected with the music scene?

M: It was a quick process. From one collaboration to another, I was getting a seat at the table with the greats from here. Just like it happened for me in Quebec, my paintings and music fed each other to create this momentum in the Ugandan industry. Some of my paintings became viral, and journalists were talking about me before we ever met. News broadcasters were using my murals in the city as background for their shows. My investment in the community paid back as a quickly established legend status.

DM: How did you link up with (collaborator) Zex? What’s his story?

M: I linked with Zex through a mutual friend. After meeting for 15 minutes, we sparked a meditation stick and freestyled for an hour. On the same night, we recorded our first two songs. The energy was just naturally explosive and effortless. After nine sessions, we had 12 songs already, one that was on my last solo album called 8, and now 10 others are collected on this duo album. 

Zex is a big inspiration on many levels. As a youth from the street, he participated in a talent show organized by the iconic revolutionary Bobi Wine in the ghetto. From there the reggae singer Bobi, who became president of the opposition, took him under his wing and helped him grow as an artist. And since then, Zex has been intelligently on his way to the top throne of Ugandan music.

DM: Was the new album created entirely on African shores or did you work on it at home, too?

M: The album is completely produced in Uganda. (The) beat-making, writing, recording, features and even the album cover and the music video. Everything was made from the Pearl of Africa.

After the album was done and mixed, I felt the need to push it up a bit as far as sound quality. So I sent the album to the trustworthy Canadian engineer Cedric “Saddam Huss” Piché. So mastering is the only thing that happened outside of Ugandan borders.

Kampala painting by Monk.E

DM: How did you get the look from Ugandan Public TV?

M: After growing my reputation here by painting for the big stars or body-painting models, even the corporate world got interested in my work. I painted restaurants, NGO offices (and more). Then NBS Television asked me to paint their studios. I gave them a mural and the rights of use for their TV show in exchange for a promotional plan for this new album

DM: What parallels exist between our music culture and theirs?

M: Not many. Their music structure is highly influenced by the Jamaican dancehall culture and single-oriented. (There’s) not much interest for albums, but for hits. Your music is being played in clubs and radio before it’s even fully available online. Fans do home dancing videos to support their new favourite hits. It is way different than everything I knew about music publishing and promotion.

DM: Had you ever considered venturing into a genre like dancehall before this or was the vibe brought on you there?

M: I always enjoyed listening to reggae and dancehall. In a way, the spiritual version of these styles are the only musical public prayers I know outside of religious music such as gospel.

I often describe my music as (having) a hip hop aesthetic with reggae content. I never knew I would venture deeply into that style for a whole album, but having the Uganda family around was the guideline needed for me to do an authentic genuine dive into that style.

DM: What has it been like living the pandemic life so far from home? How do you see communities working together where you are?

M: Death and sickness are heavily present in Africa. More people are born and more people pass away, and life moves quickly. People have a different appreciation for the air they enjoy. I think this pandemic is way more challenging for people in a comfortable situation that are experiencing vulnerability for the first time than for a people like the Ugandans, who have been proudly surviving and overcoming. 

DM: When you wake up in the morning in Uganda, what’s the first thing you see outside?

M: During lockdown, I took time on the shore of Lake Victoria in the countryside. I was waking up with shepherds walking their animals and birds singing. Even lockdown did not prevent me from living my best life. Now I am back in the city. I wake up with the warm orange sunrise and the Muslims prayers. 

DM: What’s up when you get back to Quebec? How will you spend a festival-free summer?

M: Back in Quebec, I’ll dive right back into work: painting from home and doing all necessary interviews. I still have pending projects in New Caledonia, France, Mexico, Colombia and St. Vincent Island, so I’m not sure I’ll stay long in Montreal. But for the time I’ll be there, I’ll make sure to be creative and socially invested. ■

Sample To Suffer With a Smile On by Monk.E and Zex BilangiLangi here.

See more Montreal music coverage here.

To read the latest issue of Cult MTL, click here.