Cadence Weapon video eye to eye

Photo by Scott Pilgrim

Cadence Weapon explores racism, rage and resistance on Parallel World

“Being a Black man in independent underground music scenes in Canada, I’ve been through a lot of weird situations when it comes to racial dynamics and I’ve never really talked about it in my music.”

The months leading up to lockdown were a whirlwind for Cadence Weapon.

In January and February, the rapper-poet played the narrator in a run of performances of the musical Please Thrill Me (starring fellow Edmonton native Sean Nicholas Savage) at la Chapelle theatre in Montreal. Then he went to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to mentor participants in a songwriting residency, which usually ends with a big show — but not this time. When he returned to Toronto, the pre-apocalyptic portion of 2020 had truly set in. And like many people, willingly or unwillingly, he opted to chill out for a while.

“I just kind of took some time to absorb what was happening in the world and just be in it,” says Cadence Weapon (aka Rollie Pemberton), “but then, in the absence of creating, I started getting some inspiration from what I was reading in the news, and seeing inequality exposed on such a large scale. That really ignited a lot of ideas in me. Obviously after the George Floyd murder and protests, I was super hyped up.”

On April 30, Cadence Weapon will release his fifth album, Parallel World, his most explicitly political record to date, with minimal yet intense production to match. We connected last month, right after he’d shot the video for the “Eye to Eye” (a song about racial profiling and police brutality) right here in Montreal, where Pemberton lived from 2009 to 2015.

Lorraine Carpenter: It’s easy to spin this story of this record to say “he’s gone political,” but it’s not like there were no traces of that before. For you, is this a major shift or more of an evolution?

Cadence Weapon: It’s more of an evolution. Throughout my career I’ve really tried to focus on certain socio-political subjects in my music but I don’t think I’ve been as successful at clearly illustrating that as I am on this album. I’m being a lot more explicit about it and returning to these themes multiple times, whereas in the past I would have a song like “High Rise” where I talk about gentrification but it doesn’t really come up again on the album. On this record, it’s threaded throughout.

I felt such a drive to really emphasize all the inequality, all the things that I’ve seen, and make the connections between them. I feel like I have a certain capability to make those connections that I don’t think everybody has and that I have a certain responsibility to do it.

It’s become kind of out of style for artists to take on the political powers that be, or take on institutions or corporations. A lot of artists nowadays, especially in rap, are afraid to affect their brand, politically, whereas I want to be Linton Kwesi Johnson or Public Enemy or the Clash. I want to bring back that kind of energy. 

LC: Well you definitely didn’t see a lot of explicitly political music a few years ago that was just anti-Trump or whatever, but with the return of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has been embraced in the mainstream on some level, to the point where you see it at the Grammys.

CW: It’s funny you point out that Grammy performance. I like that song by Lil Baby a lot but I find the whole idea of commodifying struggle — I don’t think that’s very productive. I don’t find that very helpful. At the beginning of 2016, 2017, we weren’t getting that big rush of political music that everyone expected, like, “Oh, it’s going to be a great time for punk,” people were saying. What we have now is people realize you need to make identity-based music to really make a difference in people’s lives, so you see everyone trying to be the wokest artist.

“… the Justin Trudeau blackface situation — I’m not going to be able to forget that. It’s very painful. It feels like somebody I know did that to me.”

—Cadence weapon

LC: What’s your take on racism in Canada, as far as it being a different brand of racism than what you sometimes see in the States?

CW: That’s for real. It’s racist but it’s polite. They do it with a smile, they do it behind your back when you’re not in the room — that’s Canadian racism. Just to get back to the whole political idea, I feel like my existence is inherently political. Being a Black man in Canada, being a Black man in independent underground music scenes in Canada — I’ve been through a lot of weird situations when it comes to racial dynamics and I’ve never really talked about it in my music. With this record I finally said how I feel about some of these things, and it was very cathartic. 

Even bringing up the Justin Trudeau blackface situation. You know, I can’t believe we just moved on past that as a society. I don’t really understand. I’m not going to be able to forget that; it’s very painful. It feels like somebody I know did that to me. But again, that’s existence in Canada if you’re a Black person. Wendy Mesley can say the N-word around a bunch of coworkers at CBC and not get any retribution for it?

I feel like I am knowledgeable about this, I feel like I’m able to talk about it and I’m able to synthesize it in my music, so I must. I should.

LC: I understand you’ve also been working on a book.

CW: Yeah, it was something that started in late 2019. I do music journalism right alongside making music and I’ve done some stuff for Hazlitt. My editor there, Haley Cunningham, asked me if I had any ideas for books and I was like, “Actually, yes I do.” I came to her with an idea of writing up a book of music essays that are primarily autobiographical and based on different aspects of my career, and the concept expanded to the point where I ended up getting a book deal with McClelland & Stewart and writing a book called Bedroom Rapper.

It’s a cross between a memoir and cultural criticism. I have a chapter about how I became a rapper, I have a chapter about DJing and my philosophy around it and my experiences doing it, and also how I feel about music in public spaces and the racial dynamics with that. When you, for instance, go to a gentrified taco restaurant in Toronto and they’re playing all old-school ’90s rap but if you listen to the lyrics it’s like all the pain and struggle of these Black people and all the people who work at the restaurant are white…

I also have chapters about my experiences of different music scenes, and there’s a lot about the time I spent in Montreal. I feel like the time I was there was just a really golden era for Montreal music, for sure.

I’m really excited about that. I’m almost done. ■

This feature originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Cult MTL. For more about Cadence Weapon, please visit his website.

For more music coverage, please visit the Music section.