“It feels we are at this interesting stage in our societies,” says Shad. “America and Canada, where we need to make some decisions.”
That may sound heavy, but Shad isn’t scared of heavy topics. Our conversation doesn’t linger long in the shallow end of the pool. That’s not to say he isn’t relaxed. He is. He’s calm, engaging, even funny — but you can tell he’s a man who takes life seriously. He’s got a lot on his mind.
“As the world continues to change, as technology continues to change, we need to get to the bottom of what we collectively think a human being is,” he continues. “What do we think a good life is? And how can we, together, create the institutions and the structures that help us live into that?”
That’s no mean feat, but it’s a subject Shad has spent the last few years puzzling over what that might look like. You can see it in his work as a rapper, where he’s gotten a lot of acclaim in Canada — including a Juno Award (the Canadian version of the Grammys) for best Rap album. He’s also the host of Netflix’s Emmy-award winning series Hip-Hop Evolution. He’s a busy guy.
But he’s interested in using his art to explore not just exterior realities, but possibilities. He’s been thinking a lot about the state of the modern world, and the broader, systemic forces that are shaping our ideas about what it means to be human. He’s concerned about them. But he also sees a way forward.
“We need each other to do it,” he says. “My individual practices only go so far. And I think we get told a lot in our society that it’s on you. You recycle, you connect with nature, you do your five-minute meditation on your app and you get grounded. I just don’t believe that’s how it works.”
“I think that we have to do it in community,” he says. “Or else it does not work.”
Ok. But do what exactly in community?
Growing Up Shad
Shad was born Shadrach Kabango in Kenya, though his parents are Rwandan. They moved with him to Ontario when Shad was young, and Shad started pursuing music while attending Wilfrid Laurier University. He won enough money from a local hip-hop contest to finance his debut When This Is Over. His follow-up The Old Prince was nominated for a Juno. His third album, TSOL, won. He beat Drake’s Thank Me Later.
Since then, Shad’s been a frequent and welcome fixture in Canada’s hip-hop scene, getting shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize (another big Canadian’s music award) more than any other artist. He’s doing well, professionally and artistically — but he’s preoccupied by deeper subjects.
He says creatively, he’s guided by an “image” that occurred to him years ago.
“There’s this circle,” he says. “And then the circle is breaking into various pieces; let’s say seven, eight pieces, right? And then those pieces start to float away from each other and eventually those pieces are all disintegrating and disappearing. That image occurred to me in the context of thinking about the various aspects of our lives.”
For Shad, this is the state of the modern person — a whole, complete being that’s being pulled apart into smaller pieces and, eventually, disintegrating into the ether.
“We have a work life, we have relationships — a relationship to nature and a relationship to the sacred. We think of our lives this way as comprised of different pieces,” he says. “All of these different pieces seem to be under threat. If you think about what is happening in the world of work, if you think about what’s happening to the environment, if you think about what’s happening to relationships, it’s like each of these various aspects seem to be under some serious threat.”
Then COVID-19 hit.
Shad on Lockdown
Shad had already been sensing an existential threat to these fundamental relationships when the pandemic hit, but for him, COVID turned everything he’d been feeling up a few degrees. He thinks it’s doing the same thing for all of us.
“On the one hand, the pandemic is this brand new thing,” he muses. “But on the other hand, what it’s highlighted is things that were already happening.
As an example, he points to work, which was already taking up an enormously outsized place in people’s lives when, suddenly, it took on a new sense of importance, invading our personal lives in a new way through Work From Home guidelines in a way that felt both invasive and precarious.
That wasn’t all. People were already growing concerned about the wealth gap, but the pandemic put a new, uncomfortable spotlight on how billionaire fortunes continued to increase unabated even as millions of people saw their industries vanish.
Meanwhile, a generation already feeling isolated from their communities found themselves in a position of having to stay inside.
We adapted. That’s what humans do. We get used to our new realities and we cope with it. But Shad is concerned that all that coping has come with a pricetag — and we may already be paying it in ways we’re not aware of. “We have adapted so much to this new situation that I wonder if we realize what we’ve lost,” he says. “It’s like in a human body when you have an injury. The rest of your body compensates and you forget that you have that injury. But you still have it. It’s actually getting worse.”
He takes a beat and reflects on his metaphor.
“I think we might be getting worse and not knowing it,” he says. “Our social muscles might be atrophying, we don’t even know it. The extreme inequality just becomes the new normal, and we don’t even know it.”
“I worry about that a little bit,” he says. “I worry if the pandemic has dulled our senses.”
Shad’s new album TAO may have been spurred by this growing sense of dissociation, but it’s really about connectedness. It’s a defiant tribute to resisting the forces pulling us apart, and a celebration of unity — both internally and externally.
“It’s what I love to do with music,” he says. “It’s really my great pleasure to try to make music that feels exciting and has life. I do feel like I go back and forth a little bit between what it is to be disconnected from this aspect of life and what it is to be connected to this aspect of life.”
For Shad, being connected is about more than just having a few friends. It’s a revolutionary act of choosing to see life as a team effort, resisting the systemic efforts to pull us apart. It happens in our relationships with our friends, our families, our jobs, our creativity and even God.
“Spiritual practice is a big thing,” he says. “Prayer, church — all the traditional things and the consistent commitment to that practice is huge for me.”
But the reason it’s huge for him is that it’s not just for him. For Shad, Christianity is a group effort. It’s part of that attitude of resistance. “In the Christian tradition, you don’t practice your religion by yourself. That’s not how it works in any religion. You don’t do it by yourself. It’s not how it works.”
As Shad explains it, understanding that element of this has been the key to figuring out the rest of it. Because he’s been able to see how important the communal aspect of Christianity is, he can see how bringing that mentality to the rest of these “floating circles” could help solve the crisis he’s perceiving.
“It’s a real privilege because I get to put all these different pieces of myself into one coherent picture, and commit all this time to thinking through that,” he says. “Not everybody gets that. And that gives me a tremendous sense of wholeness because it’s literally my job to try to put together a picture of my world and myself that makes sense to me. That’s been helpful.”
The Material World
Maybe at the bottom of all this is the sense that there’s more to this world than just the material things — jobs, money, even physical health. Shad seems to feel in his soul that if we could connect to something outside of ourselves, then we’d also be connect to each other. And maybe that would pull all our floating circles back together.
“I do think there’s this thing where, if everything is just material, we lose something important,” he says. “The conversation of mental health, the conversation of mindfulness and meditation — this is all getting at that.”
These are important conversations, but he thinks they’re also ways of expressing the sense that there’s more to life than our individual separations. Our connection to each other, to nature, to our work and even to God are all worth fighting for, and they’re worth fighting for together. And if we can learn to do that, then maybe we can reverse the trend of isolation.
“We’ve lost a connection to something deeper and bigger than just the material zeroes and ones in the digital world, than just assets and liabilities on a balance sheet,” he says. “We’re more than that. Life is more than that.”