Backxwash 2022

Backxwash on realizing creative dreams and being an anglo rapper in Quebec

We spoke to Backxwash ahead of her experimental theatre show at MAI and the production of her next album, tentatively titled Black Sailor Moon 2.

For those in tune with the Montreal scene over the past few years, Backxwash hardly needs an introduction. The Zambian-Canadian rapper has gone from frequenting open mic nights and the Urban Science Cypher to garnering a cult fanbase, critical success, cover stories in multiple magazines and winning the 2020 Polaris Music Prize despite her album being unavailable to stream due to uncleared samples.

Beyond this, she’s worked with Cadence Weapon, HEALTH, clipping. and Andy Morin of Death Grips; opened for local legends (and one of her major influences) Godspeed You! Black Emperor at la Tulipe in 2019, who she sampled on her track “Burn to Ashes”; and even got a co-sign and interview from Anthony Fantano. 

Her brash, menacing flow goes hand-in-hand with horror-influenced instrumentals, mixing influences from metal and industrial music. Backxwash’s lyrics often match this vibe, exploring topics like religion, death, trauma, mental health, forgiveness and life as a transgender woman in visceral detail.

Though she’s planning a full-time return to Montreal (and was here while speaking to Cult MTL over the phone), Backxwash — real name Ashanti Mutinta — is currently living two hours down the 417, in Ottawa. She’s back in town for now, gearing up to play a sold-out show at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) on Saturday night, with support from Magella and Honeydrip. 

At first glance, this may be a curious choice, since the MAI is known primarily for staging events relating to theatre, dance and contemporary art. But this looks like it won’t be your average Backxwash show, and it’s one she says has been in the works for a long time now.

“It’s going to be different in that it’s leaning more toward a performance, rather than something to get people hype,” she adds. “It’s got more of an element of performance art to it.”

Above all, the show on Saturday evening is more narrative-based than usual, essentially telling a story onstage in multiple acts. The tone of the performance will depend on the mood of each act, and Backxwash credits avant-garde artist Diamanda Galás as an influence for the set. To add to its spookiness, Backxwash doesn’t even come onstage until 11 p.m. 

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” she says. “The production of [the show] is really solid. The mixing going into the set is pretty dynamic, as well. It’s going to be really fun to do.” 

The MAI performance will be a unique concert experience for Backxwash fans while she spends most of her time this year making her upcoming studio album, tentatively titled Black Sailor Moon 2.

“It sounds sadder than the previous two albums,” she says. “It’s less hype and danceable! (laughs) But it’s funny, because each time I say this, you’ll still find people dancing at the shows. I think this [album] is a bit more Scott Walker-ish. I was listening to a lot of Scott Walker while making it.” 

Though she’d previously said Black Sailor Moon 2 would sound “even more noisy and abrasive” than last year’s hard-hitting I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses, Backxwash tells us she decided to change course on that to avoid repeating herself.

“I thought it would be nice to switch it up,” she continues. “I guess it’s my most melodic [of my releases]. Not melodic in terms of the style of  rapping — I’m still going to be rapping — but the elements being used are a bit more melodic. I was kind of trying to make a mirage of those two worlds together to make this sombre painting.” 

Black Sailor Moon 2 will also be the third full-length release in as many years for Backxwash, starting with 2020’s Polaris-winning God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. 2022 is also the fifth straight year she’s released a new project. Having a prolific and consistently well-received output of albums in a short timeframe might be creatively and mentally taxing for some artists, but Backxwash avoids this by committing to trying new things each time.

“The mantra under [2019’s] Deviancy was ‘This is the confidence to rap on my own beats,’ then God Has Nothing was, ‘This is me producing the whole thing and learning how to sample.’ Then [my 2020 EP] Stigmata was me learning how to sample while layering drums under it to make the sound wider and bigger. Then I Lie Here is bringing in all of that teaching and layering your noise on top of it. Now, what I’m learning is [to add] more musical dynamicity to it.”

Backxwash also credits Tyler, the Creator, Kanye West and JPEGMAFIA as artists with a lot of dynamic range and drama to their beats and arrangements. Speaking of JPEGMAFIA (one of Backxwash’s favourite artists), she’ll be opening for the Brooklyn rapper at Club Soda next Tuesday, June 7 — and she can hardly contain her excitement about it. 

“I saw the show go up, and I immediately bought a ticket,” she says. “We follow each other on Twitter. I was like, ‘Yo, I’m coming to your show. As soon as it went up, I already bought a ticket. He was like, ‘What do you mean you bought a ticket? You’re supposed to be on it!’ I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ After that, the person organizing it reached out, and that’s how we were able to get on the bill.” 

Despite how much of a name she’s built up for herself outside Montreal since her Polaris victory, she still admits to feeling a lack of recognition within our francophone-dominant rap scene — something she also told longtime Cult MTL contributor Erik Leijon in a 2020 interview with Complex Canada

“There are a lot of really talented anglophone rappers [in Montreal],” she says later. “It’s just that if the machine wants to give an opportunity, they’ll choose the francophone emcee. But there are really, really talented people [here] who are doing rap in English.”

Regardless, she believes the Montreal rap scene has grown a lot since she first started going to the Urban Science Cypher back in 2017 to test her rap skills — both freestyle and pre-written — out in public. 

“I think people are experimenting with sounds more,” she says. “That’s really great, because there’s an underground scene where people are making really forward-thinking hip hop. It’s nice to go to the shows and see what people are doing with the sound, and moulding it into what they like.”

Aside from the MAI performance and an upcoming date at Calgary’s Sled Island festival, Backxwash won’t be touring in 2022. Instead, she’ll be focusing her efforts on taking care of herself and completing Black Sailor Moon 2

“The advice that everybody takes when you’re first starting is, ‘You’ve got to make sure you put out singles. Go for singles first, rather than albums,’” she says. “But I like telling stories. I like doing albums and EPs, because that’s almost like directing a movie. With every release that comes out, I try not to do the same thing. I try to learn as much as I can.” ■

Backxwash live at the M for Montreal music festival.

For more on Backxwash, please visit her website.

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