Re-introducing the conventions of Hip Hop, as if it’s her duty to preserve them, Toronto-based emcee and producer, XOLISA, (pronounced “KO-Lee-Sah”) exudes an essence reminiscent of Hip Hop icons, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Nas.
Xolisa has dedicated her career to crafting a sound and executing a lyrical delivery that is technical, yet fluid; Boom Bap, yet futuristic; Abstract, yet all the while familiar as she continues to unapologetically spread her messages of self- love, resilience, political awareness and spirituality.
Kicking off summer 2016 with the release of her debut, full-length, self-produced album, “And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges” (June 1, 2016), The Trinidadian-Canadian is currently undertaking her first international tour where she has already rocked stages within Canada, Australia and the U.S.A and prepares to take over stages in the Caribbean, the Yukon Territories and more for the 2017 leg of the “Gaps To Bridges Tour” – delivering a jolting message on civil rights and her faith in humanity- moving the masses one city at a time!
1. How have you been since we last interviewed you in early 2015? It was around the time you dropped your EP Rhyme Until My Spirit Needs No Words To Fly which was an amazing project.
I’ve been great! Busier than ever and thriving in every way! Thank you by the way, it’s great to connect with you once again, on another project.
A lot has happened since the Rhyme Until project, a lot of travelling, a lot of new music, many different challenges, gains and new adventures to say the least.
2. How has the Toronto music scene progressed in the past couple years? It seems like there’s a pretty big spotlight on the city now for obvious reasons.
I would definitely have to agree with you on that. There is surely a big spotlight on the city, for well deserved reasons- on an independent level, you have more incredibly dope Toronto emcees being highlighted and brought to the forefront – The Sorority, Sean Leon, Raz Fresco, Jazz Cartier, Kayo, Clairmont The Second, Dillan Ponders, Tory Lanez, John River to name a few.
These are men and women in Hip Hop who are holding their own within the city and beyond and it warms my heart to see them being heard by ears across the world.
I myself am only one part of our music scene and often enough I become so tunnel vision, focusing in on what I have to do within my own career that I don’t think I have the most open perspective to the city’s overall progression in the past couple of years, but what I will say is this.
I have been doing a lot of travelling and in doing so, I’ve gotten to look at Toronto from the outside in, and gain a clearer perspective on where we are in the grander scheme of things and how our scene operates in comparison to the scenes I’ve visited thus far in different cities.
I feel like there is an undeniable knowing amongst everyone here that eyes are on us – especially when coming to our Hip Hop, R&B, Rap and even Pop scenes – you’re seeing more and more independent artists coming out of the woodworks and getting international recognition and that’s just on the independent front and the truth is, they aren’t even really coming out of the woodworks because they’ve been here all along grinding, but to those who are unfamiliar with those artists then yes- they’re popping up out of the blue.
We have Drake, The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, Alessia Cara and more out there representing in their own way, in their own lanes and on a massive stage. I’ve noticed the new interest that people outside of Canada take when there is mention of Toronto and I get the feeling that, that level of interest did not always exist.
Our music scene has definitely progressed in the past couple of years through international recognition and interest. Within the city itself, I personally feel a new energy and sense of pride that artists have in making sure it’s known that they are in fact from Toronto but I’m still in observation mode in understanding that progression because there are still aspects within the music scene here itself that I personally would like to see strengthened, changed and in some cases, ended.
3. Your latest music video, “Here” was filmed, directed and edited by you. How long have you been doing all of these things by yourself?
I’ve had a growing understanding of film, directing and editing for the last 8 years – beginning in college when I took a basic film course. Since then, I’ve used those skills to do video projects of my own, whether it be actually editing a full music video for myself, or filming content material for myself.
Those basic skills learnt in college and grown along the way have also been applied to all of my past video projects where I’ve in some cases been entrusted to edit the content shot by other videographers or, in other cases have worked as a co-director with directors of my past music videos.
The music video for my single, “Yield” off of the “Rhyme Until My Spirit Needs No Words To Fly” EP was actually my very first experience shooting and editing my own music video- although that process was a lot simpler as the shooting portion of it was done by my stationed laptop. The shooting for “Here” was on a whole different level, in comparison.
For me it’s all about relatable and transferrable skills. With every new task I am introduced to, I try to find a way to relate to it by using something I’m already familiar with or very well versed in and then, it’s just a matter of using those points of reference to build up new skills and knowledge.
When coming to filming and video editing for example, I choose to look at it the same way as I do when I’m producing – I am creating a visual song, rather than an audio song. I am piecing together different images, rather piecing together different sounds.
I am creating one solid finished moving image made up of different smaller moving images, rather than creating one solid finished moving sound, made up of different smaller moving sounds.
On top of that, what is a blessing for me is the fact that I am surrounded by videographers whom I highly respect and have been extremely helpful along the way in offering their advice and suggestions when coming to maneuvering a camera and other technical things that I have gotten stuck on. Plus, there are great YouTube tutorials out there that also are extremely helpful…some not so much.
In the end, having a strong vision and idea of what I want to see is what always plays the biggest role with music videos, whether it is me handling the shooting and editing, or working with another director/videographer.
Without a strong and clear vision, there’s a lot of cluelessness in what is to be achieved in the shooting phase and if it’s one thing I’ve learnt, the shots that are captured – they mean everything!
Because when it’s all said and done and you’re sitting there in front of your computer with all of the images you’ve shot and you are now expected to lace them together to tell this story, if all you have are crappy shots…then the only materials you have to use is exactly that- crappy shots. Which can only produce a what? A crappy video!
4. What was it like shooting part of the video in Melbourne?
Shooting in Melbourne was such an incredible experience, one that has just helped to further build confidence within myself as an individual and as an artist. I shot for a total of maybe 3 days during my stay in Melbourne.
Some shots were taken while I was in the passenger seat of a car, some shots taken while at the airport, some shots taken within the home I was staying in- but the majority of the shots used in this video and the majority of shots that I captured period were shot on foot while walking around downtown Melbourne.
During my stay, I was for the most part always with one or more of the lovely team of individuals who looked after me during my visit. On the day that I decided to shoot the largest chunk of the video, I decided to go on my own, so learning the tram routes, learning street names and places of interest was just an adventure in itself.
Leading up to the day of shooting, a lot of the friends I met in Melbourne gave me insights on where I should check out and how to get access to certain sweet spots in the city, which was a huge help.
When the day came, I left early in the morning, took the #19 tram and made my way into the city with “Here” playing on repeat. Filming was great, I got to see structures and signs come to life in relation to the song and it allowed me to take my time to see the beauty of the city. I met great people along the way and had an opportunity to learn their stories as well.
5. How was your time in Melbourne by the way? Any plans to come back?
My time in Melbourne was amazing! The community of people that I was introduced to welcomed me with open arms and was so good to me. That trip stood as so many different “firsts”.
It was my first international trip done solo, it was my first international trip done solo to perform, it was the very first show on the “Gaps To Bridges Tour” and the tour itself, was and is my very first time touring.
The Hip Hop scene in Melbourne is incredibly dope. I can’t say I was there long enough to be an expert or anything but, the community that I was introduced to and surrounded by was just so supportive.
But it wasn’t just their support – it was the fact that literally everyone I met was an emcee and a DOPE emcee at that, in their own right. What stood out especially within that was the amount of women I met who were emcee’s.
If they weren’t emcees, then the people I was meeting were DJ’s, spoken word artists, producers or just serious lovers of music. What I experienced there was a community of people who invest into good music and are not afraid to spend their money to experience something new, something they may have absolutely no familiarity with.
Before or after performances, I would make it a habit to spend time in the crowd and ask people what brought them to the show and the general consensus was that they were either online looking for live music that night and saw the promotion for this show and decided to check it out, or they were curious to see who this Canadian rapper woman was and what she was all about. I don’t see that level of curiosity and action in Toronto’s Hip Hop scene, so it really stood out to me as something refreshing to witness.
My travel to Melbourne has left a very warm impression in my heart and it’s entirely due to the people I met and connected with. For that reason, I’m definitely planning to go back and continue what I began in building a following and listening base.
6. As someone who has had extensive experience performing live in Canada, Australia and the US, what are some of the things you’ve learnt during your journey?
This is one tour of what I hope to be many tour experiences in my life. Touring is in no way an easy task, especially as an independent artist and it has truly showed me new things about myself. I’d say the two most valuable and important things that I’ve learnt during this journey of touring is 1.
No matter where in the world you are given the opportunity to perform and no matter what audience you are given the opportunity to perform in front of – you have to be true to yourself and true to your music.
Performing in Melbourne for me meant performing a brand new body of music that I had never performed live before in front of an audience that had never experienced me before. It meant performing music that was politically charged and challenged a lot of what was going on in society and that had me in a place of fear at a certain point.
You instantly realize that you’re no longer on familiar grounds in a city that you’ve performed in regularly, or around your core base of listeners who are familiar with the raw energy and passion that comes with a Xolisa show, or that you are no longer in a community that may share the same political and social views as you and because I made that trip alone, you also realize that yeah, your team is not physically there with you.
Everything is brand new and you don’t really have a way of gauging things until you just get up on stage and see what happens when you do you.
Through much reflection, through taking the time to connect with my team and my loved ones back home, through the support and belief of my friends in Melbourne I was able to work through that fear and re-center myself by remembering my purpose, my intentions and what is important to me and put on a solid show each night.
Secondly, I’ve learnt how important it is that I maintain and keep up with my self-care regimens when coming to my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being – despite being on the road. When I travel, there is more of a challenge to maintain a healthy diet, exercise, etc.
Simply because I’m always on the go and not in a stationed place like my home where I can ensure that I’m cooking for myself and doing what I have to do, to take care of my well being.
I realize how much it affects me when that maintenance drops and in recognizing that, I’ve just taken more steps to ensuring that when I am on the road, I’m still taking care of me.
That can look like taking quiet time to myself to read, to meditate, to rehearse, to rest or making sure I take the time to pack foods and snacks that work for my diet or if possible, do some cooking – not to mention ensure that I’m always drinking water.
7. As an independent artist, would you say that touring is one of the most important aspects of your career?
Yes, I would. But it all depends on what you’re really looking to accomplish as an independent artist. If you’re really just trying to be the illest in your city, then touring may not be that important to you- but then again, city wide tours could be.
If you’re solely looking to put out covers on YouTube then again, touring may not be of importance to you. It all depends on what you want. There is no wrong vision.
If you do know that touring is something that is of importance to you, knowing what you want to get out of your tour first and foremost is key. Then it’s a matter of knowing what type of tour you need to embark on in order to get what you want, and then you figure out where it is you want to go. Once you’ve mapped out all of that, it’s all about the execution.
For myself, I was able to recognize that I had built strong roots within Toronto and had a foundation of dedicated listeners through years of performing here in the city and “working” the scene.
Expanding my listening base however, was the next step for me. I knew that if I wanted to expand my listening base, I would have to build strong roots just as I did in Toronto, in other cities across the world. Because my vision has always been on a large scale, with a vision of an international listening base of dedicated listeners in different cities/countries – an international tour is what made sense for me.
That being said, I knew that the purpose of this tour was not necessarily to rack in millions of millions of dollars. No, the purpose of this tour was and still is to introduce my music to new cities and lay down the beginning of a foundation between me and those new listeners with the intentions of continuing to go back to those cities and build from the ground up a solid relationship with those listeners and promoters, just as I’ve done and I’m still doing here in Toronto.
8. What would be your number one tip to an up-and-coming artist who has never toured before?
Be prepared to work! People think touring is this luxurious thing where you pull up in your tour bus, live in lavish hotels and perform for stadiums of people every night and leave with a big fat cheque in hand. I mean, yeah eventually that is what it may surely be and you as the hard working artist you are, are deserving of that.
But the reality is that as an independent artist who may not even have a manager, or a booking agent and may totally be on their own at this point – you’ve gotta be prepared to work your ass off because the work that is needed goes way beyond ensuring you have dope sets and dope merchandise.
You’ve got to be prepared to do outreach, to sell yourself, to do cold calls/emails to promoters and convince them that they should give you a chance to perform on their stage, in their city that you have no fan base in. You’ve got to be prepared to research visa’s and permits and what is required to even enter some of the countries that you intend on entering.
You’ve got to be prepared to be organized and mindful of currency exchange and shipping merch to international locations. You’ve got to be mindful of time differences and think about where you’re going to sleep and get to and from the venue, to the airport or to your hotel.
You’ve got to promote your gigs; you’ve got to be prepared to handle the inventory of items sold while on tour. You’ve got to be prepared to negotiate payment with promoters, be prepared to drive hours yourself, be prepared to go through car malfunctions and extreme weather conditions, taxes and tickets and the list goes on, plus still put on an incredibly dope show that those people will never forget.
If you create yourself a team to help you with these tasks, then even better, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually ready to do it all by yourself.
9. You dropped And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges back in 2016, you’ve toured the world and now we’ve got the visuals for “Here.” What’s next for you? What are your plans for 2017?
2017 is dedicated to wrapping up the “Gaps To Bridges Tour” and releasing more visuals for the album’s singles.
The tour began in July 2016 and will end in July 2017 with an appreciation show in Toronto. Till then, we’re gearing up to visit some very beautiful places for the remainder of the tour and bring the album to even new corners of the world.
Outside of the tour, I’m in a very creative zone right now where I really want to continue telling the story of this album visually. There are a few songs on the album that I’ll be working on releasing music videos and/or short mini videos for.
Outside of that, I’m intentionally not rushing myself with this album. A lot of time and effort went into its creation and I promised myself I would release as many of the creative ideas regarding this album that I could before I move on.
That being said, I’ve been creating some new music – not for an album in particular but just some treats that I intend on releasing when the time is right.