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Cadence Weapon has won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize for his album Parallel World. The record by the Edmonton-born rapper (real name Rollie Pemberton) was selected by an 11-member jury as the Canadian album of the year.Colin Medley

After winning the 2021 Polaris Music Prize, hip-hop artist Rollie Pemberton (known professionally as Cadence Weapon) spoke about the seriousness behind his winning album, Parallel World. “I wanted it to be like I was rapping my last breath,” he said at a virtual news conference on Monday.

The Edmonton-born, Toronto-based Pemberton is not done rapping – or inhaling or exhaling or speaking his mind. Unprompted, he pledged to work on voter registration in preparation of future elections in Toronto and Ontario, while stressing the need to “change our leadership” and “make things equitable.”

Then he went federal.

“Justin Trudeau has worn blackface so many times, he can’t even remember how many times,” Pemberton said about the Prime Minister’s history of wearing racist makeup, something referenced on the song Play No Games. “And he was just given a third term, and that’s exactly why I need to be making rap records that are so political.”

But why stop with music? The morning after his political commentary and the announcement of his winning the annual $50,000 prize for the year’s best Canadian album, I half-jokingly ask Pemberton which riding he would represent in the next election.

“I was actually asked to run in this past federal election,” he says with a laugh. Pemberton didn’t divulge which party had approached him, but one can assume it wasn’t the People’s Party of Canada. “The reason I didn’t run was that I didn’t want to detract from my album,” he continues. “I also didn’t feel like I was ready.”

So, timing – which is everything, as they say. They also say “third time’s a charm,” something relevant to the 35-year-old Pemberton’s history with the Polaris Prize. His debut effort, Breaking Kayfabe, made the first ever Polaris short list of 10 albums in 2006; six year later, Hope in Dirt City also made the top 10.

On Monday, Mister Always The Bridesmaid caught the bouquet for a topical, stylistically futuristic and socially conscious hip-hop album powerfully and eloquently of its era, yet with historical inspirations that include the political music of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Clash’s Combat Rock and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, as well as the writings of the American sociologist, Pan-Africanist, teacher and writer W. E. B. Du Bois.

Pemberton’s song Eye to Eye references Du Bois’s idea of the “double-consciousness” of being Black in America: “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote in 1897. Explaining his own parallel worlds and the line “Got two minds that I live with” in Eye to Eye, Pemberton spoke to The Globe about walking alone at night and coming across a white couple.

“In my mind, I’m thinking, ‘It’s nighttime, I don’t want to be walking on the same side of the street. I don’t want to threaten them.’ So, I have to think about how they’re perceiving me and also how I perceive myself at the same time. This kind of mental calculus is something Black people have to deal with all the time, and the fact that I have to do it is exhausting and extremely frustrating.”

Elsewhere on the album, the former Edmonton poet laureate looks at the nature of fame (Play No Games), gentrification (Skyline) and the dystopia of modern day surveillance (On Me). On the album opening Africville (about the African-Canadian village north of Halifax that was demolished in the 1960s), Pemberton gives his listeners a business-card encapsulation of who he is: “Afrofuturist, Black urbanist, Black verbalist, Black journalist, revisionist.”

He’ll soon need to add “author” to his job titles. His book Bedroom Rapper is set to be published by McClelland & Stewart in May, 2022. “It’s partly a memoir, but also cultural criticism,” says the son of Edmonton hip-hop DJ Teddy Pemberton and the grandson of Edmonton CFLer Rollie Miles.

Pemberton, who recently signed up with Ottawa’s Kelp Management (home to fellow Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta), plays a pair of sold-out shows at Toronto’s Garrison club this week before beginning a U.S. tour in Denver with American rapper Fat Tony on Thursday,

Although the tour is in support of Parallel World, Pemberton has a new record already in mind, about the African diaspora. “It’s another opportunity to experiment and to have fun with research, which is what I love,” he says.

It’s also another opportunity to have an effect. “May make one music as before,” to quote Du Bois, “but vaster.”

Quick hits

Who’s the smartest person you know? My partner Sara

What’s your current bedtime reading? Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell And The Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992, by Tim Lawrence

Which Cadence Weapon song would you recommend to someone new to your music? On Me

What is your current state of mind? Frantic! Preparing for my first U.S. tour since 2018

What are you doing in 10 years? Running for office

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