Celebrating healing from loss is what Toronto singer-songwriter Mustafa Ahmed bravely brings to his music.
The musician, poet (who came to prominence as a teen, when he was known as Mustafa the Poet) and co-writer of tracks for superstar artists like The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes and Usher invited the audience to do the same Wednesday night at his sold-out Massey Hall concert – just a few blocks away from Regent Park, the neighbourhood he grew up in and so compellingly writes about on his debut album, When Smoke Rises.
Released earlier this year, the Polaris Prize-shortlisted When Smoke Rises is an eight-song meditation on the grief resulting from gun violence in Regent Park – a topic Mustafa has been talking and performing poetry about from the age of 12, and for which he was appointed to a youth advisory council by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. The album is a tribute to friends who were murdered, including local rapper Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart, killed in 2018, and features cameos from members of Halal Gang, a hip-hop collective that both Mustafa and Smoke Dawg were members of.
The Massey Hall performance was Mustafa’s first time showcasing his deeply personal songs in front of a massive hometown audience that included families of the friends he’d lost in adolescence. Taking the audience on a journey through his grieving process, his set built on the folk-music tradition of legends such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, bringing pain alive through storytelling.
“I know I’ve never seen a poet at this level before,” Ontario’s Poet Laureate, Randell Adjei, told The Globe and Mail at the concert. Adjei first met Mustafa while doing poetry events in Regent Park back in 2015, before the young artist had begun to incorporate music into his work.
“Seeing that he’s been able to get so many people from different demographics, different age groups, different races – seeing other poets take their careers to the next level, I think it’s inspiring. That lets me know that the future of art is coming out of Toronto – the sky is not the limit.”
Mustafa’s stage setup, featuring candles, Persian carpets and trees, seemed to contrast with what was outside: the police presence and metal detectors audience members had to go through upon entry. Hours before the show’s start time, Massey Hall tweeted that a “no bag policy” would be in effect at the show to “ensure a safe environment, eliminate unnecessary contact at entry, and to accelerate fan entry into the theatre” – unlike the venue’s usual “restricted bags” policy, which only limits large bags.
“Security policies for the recent Mustafa concert were determined in collaboration with the promoter and artist management,” Massey Hall later clarified in a statement.
Mustafa addressed the issue during his performance: “Toronto police flagged this as a public safety risk,” he said. “They attempted to cancel the show. I couldn’t have made more attempts at isolating myself, protect myself from violence, or even an aesthetic of revenge. But it doesn’t matter, right?”
Toronto police told The Globe and Mail that the division where the concert was held did not flag it as a public safety risk or advise the venue to cancel.
“However, as with all large concerts, we do advise on extra security measures and often have extra officers in the area,” said Toronto Police Service spokesperson Connie Osborne.
The security concerns failed to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm for Mustafa’s hometown live debut, however. Taking to the stage in a traditional thobe – a long, loose white robe – and a skullcap, along with a camouflage bulletproof vest worn backwards without plates (both for safety and fashion, he joked), he was joined by Toronto instrumental jazz/hip-hop group BadBadNotGood as his backing band.
If anyone in the audience didn’t know much about Mustafa before the show, his poetic preambles in between songs made sure they did. “I thought the bravest thing I could do is write about love that has no place to go,” he said. At only 25, his words felt wise beyond his years, while his performance came off as natural and intimate. Unplanned but heartfelt moments, such as his ribbing of audience members arriving late to their seats – “I recognized you guys walking in” – lightened the heaviness of his songs’ themes.
The crowd’s anticipation for the show – and their subsequent reaction – was palpable, as most knew Mustafa’s Massey performance was potentially a one-time experience, given that the artist has previously said he doesn’t plan to tour and hasn’t announced any future shows to date.
If it really was the only chance to see Mustafa perform his record live, he certainly delivered – starting with first single Stay Alive, his wistful, velvety vocals filling the pin-drop-silent hall.
Though seemingly uncalculated when speaking, the precise, carefully crafted artistry of his music was apparent. Days earlier, Mustafa brought that same artistic intimacy to a much smaller crowd, a women’s-only show on Nov. 29, where invitees were asked to remove their shoes before sitting on the floor, close to the stage. Amid the music, attendees were invited to converse about their struggles as first-generation immigrants navigating Western society, said Hasma Habibiy, who was at the private performance.
Similarly, at Massey Hall, Mustafa underscored that bridge between the local and the global – and his complicated relationship with his hometown – contrasting “the war that our parents left” in Sudan to the ongoing battles right here on city streets, and the grief many in his community had experienced when loved ones were taken to St. Michael’s Hospital’s emergency centre (directly across the street from Massey Hall) to the joy felt by gathering communally that night at the beautiful restored theatre.
Before singing the final song on his album, Ali, he noted the family of his late friend for whom it was written was in the audience. When he moved to the piano and sang, “There were no words to stop the bullets,” there was not a dry eye in the crowd – Mustafa himself pausing mid-song to bow his head and wipe away tears. With a supportive push from the audience, he continued the hushed, prayer-like melody.
“Started off as nothing and became something,” he sang – and if his Massey Hall debut was any indication, Mustafa’s musical rise is only just beginning.
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