Photo by Bruno Destombes

Montreal’s Waahli is a soapbox storyteller on several levels

An interview with the trilingual singer, rapper and songwriter, of Nomadic Massive and Kalmunity fame, about his second solo album Soap Box.

These days, it feels like everyone’s standing on top of a soapbox, whether they’re actually making a speech at a political rally or simply spewing hot takes on social media. 

Sometimes, though, people can use them for good: to tell stories, share ideas and empower others. For Waahli (himself an actual soap maker), the concept of soapboxes serves as inspiration for the title of his second full-length album, Soap Box.

Known partly for his involvement with Kalmunity and co-founding Nomadic Massive, this trilingual Montreal singer/rapper/songwriter — born to Haitian parents and raised in Saint-Michel — blends hip hop with a host of other genres like jazz, Afrobeat, dancehall, Haitian music, funk, Latin and soul. Performing in English, French and Haitian Creole, his music aims to break language barriers by making sure the vibe outweighs and overcomes any inability to understand his lyrics.

With Soap Box, Waahli has made a project that not only reaffirms his identity, but also acts as a love letter to the Haitian diaspora and an homage to his parents who fled Duvalier’s regime to build a better life for themselves in Montreal. We also hear Waahli occasionally showcasing his singing abilities, in contrast to his more rap-focused debut, 2018’s Black Soap.

Though he admits the pandemic was a “blessing in disguise” for him, and says it was “perfect” for him to have more time to focus on himself and his music, that good feeling would eventually wear off — at least momentarily — after the first year and a half of COVID life.

“I hit an all-time low with my creative juices, and my motivation and inspiration,” he says. “It came back up a month after, and I was able to complete my album. But (the pandemic has) had its highs and lows. For the first year and a half, it was kind of a blessing for me, because I could slow down for a second.” 

In fact, Soap Box was completed about a year ago — done thanks to him and co-producer Boogat exchanging WAV files from home (“There was a lot of time spent on computers,” he adds), a definite adjustment compared with being “all crammed up in the studio” with collaborators. Furthering the fully-remote approach to making the album, Soap Box was mixed in Mexico and mastered in Germany, after Waahli had done his parts from Montreal’s Sud-Ouest and Boogat’s from the Eastern Townships.

Even if it wasn’t the communal in-person vibe he was used to while making new projects, Waahli says he’s glad the album is out in the universe and the process behind making it is behind him. That doesn’t mean the album wasn’t a collaborative endeavour, as he rallied Clerel (the title track and lead single), Malika Tirolien (“Bridge”), Sam I Am (“Invisible”), Dr. Mad (closing track “Listen”) and Colombian duo Dawer X Damper (“Prince Waah”) to feature on the project. Tirolien also sings backup on “Te revoir,” and recorded her parts in Waahli’s apartment after some pandemic measures had been lifted.

Waahli tells us he listened to EARTHGANG, the Afrobeat genre and late Haitian folk musician Manno Charlemagne while making the album. Appropriately, songs like “Te revoir” — the last song he recorded for the album — have a strong Afrobeat feel to them, while short-and-sweet opening track “Mechann” (Haitian Creole for “merchant”) is based around a sample of vocal chanting from Cuba’s Grupo Vocal Desandann.

He also found inspiration in instrumental music for this project. “That’s how I find different ways of being inspired, and writing differently,” he explains. More specifically, he’d been bumping a lot of lo-fi hip hop, instrumental soul and loop-based hip hop productions without drum beats, such as the works of the Alchemist and local producer Nicholas Craven. 

“It opens new dimensions in approaching music, and how I’m writing,” he says. “I’ll sometimes test some of my verses on that, or write something on it, and see what inspires me.”

Continuing his trend of using soap-themed titles for his releases since he also works as an organic soap maker, the title of Waahli’s sophomore LP feels at first like an allusion to how often people love to express strong opinions on social media, as if they’re standing atop a theoretical soapbox. 

However, Waahli tells us its initial genesis came from his desire to find a title that was both emblematic of his music and his career as a soap maker. His work with young people under 25 at NDG’s Head and Hands, helping them in their personal development and teaching them how to make informed decisions, is another source of inspiration for the title. So are themes of racism, identity, discrimination, and being the son of an immigrant and part of the Haitian diaspora. 

“I feel like this album is me standing on a soapbox, and sharing my story with the people,” he adds.

The album’s title track, a collaboration with Montreal-via-Cameroon soul artist Clerel, boasts a video filmed on a yak farm in the Eastern Townships (East Bolton, to be more exact). This was due in part to the “bluesy, soulful influence” Waahli felt the song had, and also to not wanting to film the video in the city while simply rapping in front of a camera.

“I wanted to do something different,” he says. “I wanted to push boundaries. Sometimes, we dream and we don’t push our thoughts further. I was like, ‘Why not do it on a farm?’ I did a call-out online. I was like, ‘Do I know anyone in my network who knows anyone who has a farm? Please DM me!’

“People started sending me recommendations for farms. I was checking my DMs, and one of them was a friend of a friend who owns a yak farm in East Bolton. I showed them my idea, and they said yes. I feel like it fit really well with me and Clerel, and the theme and vibe of the song. To do it on a farm really only made sense.” 

Despite a great deal of time spent alone with no one to bounce ideas off of during the making of the album, Waahli feels a ton of chemistry with Boogat in particular. Even if their creative styles are distinct from one another, their mutual passion for music, hip hop and its culture is a common denominator for them both.

“Hip hop made me fall in love deeply with music,” Waahli continues. “When I discovered hip hop, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ When you discover jazz and all the sampling, you discover a lot of new artists. I think it’s the same with Boogat, who also has a deep passion for music and the art of sampling.”

The two started working together during the pandemic’s onset in 2020, with the first track they made together being “Bliye sa” — first released on the EP Soap Opera, and also included on Soap Box.

“I sent him my vision of the song, and how I see it. I sent him a maquette,” he says. “He worked on it, sent it back to me, and I was like, ‘Wow. It turned out really well.’ From that day, we started to collaborate. It’s been a joint venture since the last two years.”

Waahli intends to continue promoting the album and maximize its visibility for the remainder of 2022, with a tour in Canada, the U.S. and Europe (he also hopes to play in the Caribbean, specifically Haiti) in the works for 2023. He’ll also play some local gigs before year’s end, including on Dec. 6 at l’idéal bar.

As far as what Soap Box represents to him regarding where he’s currently at as an artist, Waahli feels it emphasizes him being a product of his environment—that, of course, being born and raised in Montreal with parents of Haitian origin. 

“It’s what makes me. It’s my identity,” he says. “It’s how I grew up. The statement is how I’m taking my space… I want to inspire people from the diaspora to take their space, as well. We are here. We’ve been here for a very long time. The statement is to take our space, be creative and go for yours.” ■

Montreal’s Waahli is a soapbox storyteller on several levels

For more on Waahli, please visit his website.

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

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