Sullenly and triumphantly, Drake once rapped that he had started from the bottom. He should have looked down.
On Monday night, Haviah Mighty became the first full-on hip-hop artist to win Canada’s Polaris Music Prize. The prize, awarded for the year’s best album, has been around since 2006. “It is time,” is something I heard from more than one commentator following the announcement of Mighty’s historic $50,000 win. About time, is more like it. Mighty is not only a rapper of colour, but a female one – a bright, defiant light in the field of feminist hip hop. A “feminist” female rapper, as if there were any other kind to be.
“They used to say I’m too loud, but that’s cool now,” Mighty lays it out on In Women Colour, from her unstoppable winning album 13th Floor. “Love my skin, always been proud, guess that’s in now,” she goes on, nearly two decades after India Arie’s smooth, assured anthem Brown Skin. An album opener with a clacking beat and occasional swirls of piano, In Women Colour is a chin-raised manifesto, a memoir’s inspiring preface and an audacious introduction that quiets the room quicker than a feedbacking microphone.
I’m darker than my friends
And finally they see it,
and they start to get the trend
I gotta do two times more to get four times less
But it’s cool ‘cause I’m sharper in the end
Still, let’s talk about it.
So, an invitation for dialogue. And if the floor wasn’t all Mighty’s when she released her first solo album this spring, it is now.
Mighty is an emcee based in Brampton, Ont.. In addition to her solo career, she’s an active member of the all-women hip-hop collective the Sorority, which this fall will tour British Columbia and Ontario with Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a First Nations hip-hop duo who stood an excellent chance (with its vibrant, arresting history lesson Trapline) of winning the Polaris on Monday themselves.
The 27-year-old Mighty appeared on radars a year ago when she was named one of the 2018/2019 Allan Slaight Juno Master Class winners, which gave her an opportunity for spot-lit performances and industry mentorship.
Preceded by an assortment of mixed tapes and EPs, 13th Floor is Mighty’s boldly confident and charismatic debut. On 13 tracks, style exclusivity and clichés are avoided. Mighty sings, raps and speaks perceptively and unambiguously. She name-checks Muhammad Ali, Fugees and Mahatma Gandhi. Profanity and politics are unavoidable. Nineties rap prevails over modern trap – Missy Elliott sends her love.
A guest rapper spits out a line about lip gloss, which might cause some listeners to giggle or gasp, though Mighty would not be among the shocked. One detects an admiration for reggaeton and possibly Rihanna. One song is led with, “I am calm in all arenas, but I am not in calm arenas.” A reference to composure in the face of hostility.
On the mid-album track Thirteen, a history book goes off script and on point when Mighty, to a smooth R&B groove that belies her serious message, delivers an explicit tutorial on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – about the abolition of slavery. She mentions melanin, Moors, nooses in trees and prisons as modern-day plantations.
“For me, the 13th floor is something that we remove from our reality because it is something that we don’t understand and therefore we dismiss it,” Mighty said in a statement after her Polaris win. She’s talking about the floor missing from some buildings because of the unlucky connotation of the number 13, and she’s talking about the constitutional alteration that doesn’t get mentioned as much as the second and first ones. “These people don’t necessarily share the narratives that I do, or the walks of life that I have, and yet, here we are, finally on what I believe is the 13th floor,” she continues. “This is the moment of resurgence where the dismissal that has existed is now being removed, and the discussion is being had.”
Many buildings are missing the 13th floor. Haviah Mighty goes there anyway.
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