Photo by Félix Renaud

Sarahmée gets back to festival life this weekend at ShazamFest

An interview with the rising rap star ahead of her return to the stage.

As Quebec reopens and summer sun and fundamental human interaction help give many Montrealers an overall sense of renewal, festival season is upon us again — sort of.

The Eastern Townships municipality of Barnston-Ouest plays host to the 15th-and-a-half edition of the always eclectic, family-friendly ShazamFest, a celebration of music, circus, burlesque, food and drink, taking place from July 9–11, roughly a two-hour drive east of Montreal. 

And for those of us missing high-energy, dance-intensive, feel-good — and, yes, distanced — outdoor hip hop shows, Quebec stage phenom Sarahmée is among this year’s headliners.

As she gears back up to hit the road after a year and a half of media visibility as a judge on the wildly popular battle rap TV project La fin des faibles, and as a spokesperson for 2020’s Black History Month across  the province, the Juno-nominated, rising rap star spoke to us by phone last week about returning to a music career interrupted, her new single and upcoming third album (out Sept. 3) and what it takes to create both cohesive cross-genre songs and cross-culture dialogues.

(Note: This interview was translated by its author from French.)

Darcy MacDonald: Have you been able to take advantage of the past year, creatively speaking?

Sarahmée: Yes, somewhat. I wasn’t writing at the beginning of the pandemic because I was in shock like everyone, and I wasn’t really in the right mood. But since autumn, around October and November, I started to find myself interested in making music. I got a chalet and was able to push forward and we managed to finish a new album over the winter. 

DM: I saw you with Loud at FME in the fall of 2019, which feels like a lifetime ago now. Where did you leave off with your performance career before the pandemic?

Sarahmée: Pretty much the last show I did was with Loud in Bromont in February (2020), pre-pandemic. We were supposed to go to the Junos in Saskatchewan right after that. But at least our last show was really cool.

DM: I’ve never been to ShazamFest, where you’re playing this weekend, but it looks pretty diverse, to say the least. 

Sarahmée: I wasn’t sure at first what it was, but when I saw it, I thought, “We’re gonna have to bring a special touch to this!” (laughs) I hope the crowd is down for our vibe, and I think they will be. 

DM: So how are you feeling about returning to live shows and festivals?

Sarahmée: We played at Festi-Voix last week in Trois-Rivières. When the pandemic started, it was supposed to be a really big summer for us, when I was going to really be playing at all of the big festivals in Quebec. I had at least 40 dates booked. And really, it was going to be when I was going to get out on the road and meet the crowd who then knew me from Irrèversible, the album I’d just put out in 2019. So right now, it’s like the shows we’re doing, the crowds have been listening to this album for two years. 

Trois-Rivières was nuts. It was raining intensely for the entire set, and everyone stayed put and everyone was making a ton of noise. I was like, wow. This is really the first time I’m meeting my own audience, who listen to my album and are down with the show, the dancing, the Afrobeat. So we’re on cloud nine right now. We were in Tadoussac earlier this week and it was the same thing. We put on dynamic shows with the goal of getting everyone to have a good time and have fun. And it’s working, so I’m excited to keep going. 

DM: Your new single, “Bienvenue dans ma vie” keeps going from light to heavy, lyrically. You’re jumping from the Expos to white supremacy at one point. How does this single represent the next album? 

Sarahmée: It’s the first song on my upcoming album and I really wanted to come in with the kind of big rap sound that I love, with big bass, no filter, straight to the facts. I wanted it to set the tone. As I was writing the album, I realized that what I’m saying on this song gives a real glimpse into what the album is about. 

This year, I spent more time on the media side of things and less time representing my music, and I wanted to get back to the basics of the fact that I’m a rapper, this is my life, rap is what I love to do, and the third album has to start there.

In that song, there are shocking contradictions, and they evoke rapid images. I think we succeeded. I also want to continue to draw people into the visual aspect of what we do, through videos and through symbolism. It’s a very personal album and this time around I’m also more personally involved in the visual aspect surrounding the entire project. 

DM: Through the way you combine edgy pop, Afrobeat music and a classic rap sound, it’s obvious to me that you’re a real fan of those genres. What challenges does that pose as you work to weave those elements together to make them accessible, and listenable?

Sarahmée: It is a challenge because people try to put me in a certain category. “It’s pop,” or “It’s afrobeat,” or rap. As you said, it’s all music that I really like — I like pop, and rap, and Afrobeat, and house. I take the elements that attract me in those sounds and put my strengths to them, so it doesn’t end up sounding like anyone else. And a lot of that is balance. 

And also, now, I take ownership if it leans heavy into one sound or another, like “I don’t care!” if it’s hyper-pop, if it’s hyper-Afro. And the new album does that a lot, actually. It’s less “a little here, a little there” (of all these genres together) and more entrenched in distinct sounds. If it’s a big pop tune, or a big Afrobeat tune, then that’s what it is. Irréversible was really uptempo overall as an album, whereas the new one is a little more deliberate in that we worked the sounds, we worked the music to have something unique.

DM: You were the spokesperson in Quebec for Black History Month in 2020. From your perspective, what do these types of initiatives accomplish well? And where do they need to improve to avoid preaching to the choir, and to better engage in a conversation that helps people think and understand?

Sarahmée: I accepted to do that in a spirit of feeling that I could actually bring a certain public in terms of stopping to reflect, or take notice of the presence of the Black community in all aspects of society. 

Speaking from a personal point of view, the way a lot of people have gotten to know me, certainly in the last two or three years, has been through (roles I’ve had) in the media. 

I’ve had a lot of press coverage and television visibility, and I think I went and reached a large Québécois public, of all different races, including white. So I thought, with the bit of influence I might have, if I could be able to guide History Month toward subjects that are a bit more sensitive — as I do, I think, in my songs — my sense was that there are ears ready, increasingly, to hear these messages. In that sense, I felt it was important to try.

I think everything is a question of open-mindedness. You can’t speak to someone who doesn’t feel like speaking, or you can’t have a discussion with someone who isn’t willing. On both sides, there can sometimes be personalities that make people reticent about certain subjects, so I think it’s often a question of how we approach those subjects. And at the same time, these aren’t new subjects, and this isn’t revolutionary. But right now, we’re hitting a boiling point, and there are communities tired of putting up with the things they’ve put up with for so long, whether it’s Black communities, or First Nations communities, or what have you. At the foundation of any discourse is listening. 

And I’m not the spokesperson for the Black community at large, but I do have my experience, and if someone asks me about my perspective, I can share that. I think it’s each person’s experience that enriches and permits people to understand the big picture. Not just one side. ■

Sarahmée performs as part of ShazamFest (2722 Way’s Mills, Barnston West, QC) on Saturday, July 10. For more about the festival, which runs July 9–11, please visit its website.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.