Cadence Weapon spent the last year separated from his fans, but he’s talking to them more directly than ever.
Like so many of us, the rapper, author, journalist, and poet also known as Rollie Pemberton spent the pandemic taking a step back and reflecting. As he spent more and more time online, he started thinking about ways social media surveils and separates us. He thought about the ways the record industry exploits him and other musicians, especially Black artists. And he thought about gentrification, class and displacement in his own backyard. He wanted to find a way to create connections without the corrupting forces of capitalism and greed.
So he wrote about it. His album, Parallel World, could be described as a record about the dystopian present. It won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album of the year. It was his third time on the shortlist, and his two other records made the longlist.
When he was nominated for the very first Polaris in 2006, he was one of only two artists of colour (the other was K’naan). This year, the shortlist was more diverse than ever. And his music is resonating in all new ways.
“I think that’s what Polaris is really great for—it’s a great indication of where the Canadian music world is,” he says. “I’ve always been making this kind of music, but it feels like for the first time in my life I have the right music at the right time.”
The album was written and recorded during the pandemic, but now he finally has a chance to play it live. This week, on September 28 and 29, Cadence Weapon is playing two intimate reduced-capacity shows to reopen stalwart Toronto live music venue the Garrison.
We caught up with Pemberton on Zoom to talk about the gradual return, his newfound Toronto civic engagement and his upcoming debut non-fiction book, Bedroom Rapper.
You’ve been getting back on stage, but you wrote Parallel World while venues were shut down. It’s influenced by the fact that we’re all more online than ever, and all the surveillance technology and connection issues that come with that. How does it feel now taking those songs into the real world?
You’re right, it is a very online album. There are a lot of parallels between my Twitter feed and what I was writing, because it was an articulation of what I’m absorbing off of the internet. All the George Floyd stuff, all the videos, I experienced that online—the same way we’re seeing the Haitian refugees getting whipped now. Experiencing this cycle of Black pain, I think we’re realizing that there’s a thinner line between online and IRL than we once realized.
Part of what I wanted to talk about on the album was how online can inform reality, reality versus perception and these ideas of how we present ourselves to the world versus how we really are, the idea of double consciousness. The internet, it really does have this insidious effect. It’s like, the more followers I get, the more opportunities I get. The more popping I seem, the more people hit me up for different opportunities. There is a direct correlation and it’s starting to affect me. It’s wild.
During the pandemic, you got onto a lot of different platforms you weren’t on before: writing a Substack newsletter and DJing on Twitch and freestyling on TikTok. Is it just because you were bored? Are you trying to find new places the music can take you?
Well sure, part of it was that I had the time. But I was also trying to find a different way to navigate the audience/artist relationship. On Substack, I can directly communicate with people and I hadn’t had that for a really long time. It’s like maybe a thousand people, but these people really actually care about what I’m talking about. The algorithm doesn’t have to decide for them whether they’re going to see it. I wanted to get rid of the middleman and take control. And I found it very empowering. The thing I really loved with Twitch was that anyone who would go on that journey with me is a die hard fan. It was really cool to communicate with them and find out what they like.
Was that type of communication especially important during the pandemic when you couldn’t go out and play live?
Definitely. These apps [like Spotify and Facebook, etc] are purely profit. The way they make an artist feel is: if I don’t pay to get my ad through, nobody likes me. No one cares. Unless I pay on Facebook, it will be as if I don’t have any fans. I get tired of these companies holding my fans ransom. Especially streaming companies. They don’t let you communicate with the fans. I know thousands of people listen to my records every month, but I don’t know who they are. I can’t talk to them in any way.
It was different when I first started making music. The internet was a freer and more beautiful place. If I had a blog and my friend had a blog, we’re sharing music, we have a community. It’s not monetized, it’s an open source environment. I’ve been searching for that connection again.
Even though this record is critical of the internet, it’s not the cliche Luddite message of: our phones are actually supposed to connect us, but they’re actually bringing us farther apart. You’re critical of the internet, but you’ve been there from the beginning even when you debuted around 2006.
I was extremely online. That’s how I got my record deal. I got posted on a blog. All my [production and recording] programs are ripped, cracked programs that I downloaded. I couldn’t exist without the internet.
It was more fun back then. I love chaos. A lot of beautiful things can come out of chaos. My first record was a celebration of chaos. Musically, I knew the rules. So I knew what to break. I had studied all the records. I downloaded them all. I listened to every rap album. And I was just like, I want to destroy this. Now I’m getting back to that impulse of wanting to really search and destroy.
You had a Substack post that went viral recently about your first record contract and how it screwed you over for a lot of years. In it, you wrote about the extractive nature of the record industry, especially as a Black artist. Is that one of the things you’re trying to navigate when you’re looking for direct or authentic relationships with your fans—finding a way to avoid the exploitative mediums?
I always am. I have a line on the song I did with Jacques Greene called Silencio: “Do something for my real fans, might do mail order like Jandek.” That’s some vision or dream situation where I disconnect totally from public life, but my fans are the only ones who can access me and all the other shit goes away. I’ve been really mulling this over.
That experience with my old label, you know, I nearly stopped making music. Before my self-titled album [in 2016], I felt like my career was over. To come back from that and get to the point where I’m at now, it took a lot of ingenuity. I had to kind of destroy my ego, to stop caring about: Am I relevant? Am I poppin’ right now? Do people think I’m wack? All that ego exercise, that’s gone now. Now, I don’t I don’t give a shit about numbers. I’m so freed from numbers. That’s just made my process so much cleaner and pure. Literally, I don’t play no games.
Your book, Bedroom Rapper, is coming out in May. Do you see it as part of a piece with your records?
Weirdly, I feel like it’s going to have a bigger impact than all my albums combined. I think it can be a guide for a lot of people going forward. A lot of it is autobiographical. I talk about my experience with my old label in depth. It’s a memoir, but it’s also cultural criticism, music criticism. I have a whole chapter about trap music and its trajectory and how it infiltrated America, and I have a chapter about myth of Canada. There’s another chapter all about my time writing for Pitchfork and what I think of music criticism. I have chapters about different events in my career, but they’re all broken up with things where I just vibe out about a specific topic. So it’s pretty far-reaching.
There was a time there before you moved to Toronto and put out the self-titled record when you changed your Twitter handle to your real name and it seemed like the Cadence Weapon project was over.
Yeah, and it was hard to get my handles back. It was like I was having an identity crisis. I was just trying to get away from the baggage of my old label. I was actually still with them at the time, but for a while I was considering just using my name just going by Rollie. There’s like a whole other album called Depanneur that was going to come out under that name. It was a very raw Montreal party record, but I never ended up putting it out. And then like, I was oh, well fuck it, I’m just gonna focus on writing for a while. I wrote one book proposal that never got accepted. And that was when I moved to Toronto, around 2015.
Whether it’s Edmonton, Montreal or now Toronto, your music is extremely place-based. In your music and in your writing, you’re talking about the gentrification of the city, encampment clearings, other local issues. Are you thinking of yourself more as a Toronto rapper?
This is definitely my most Toronto-centric record. It took a few years. I found Toronto a little impenetrable when I first moved here, because if you’re actually from here you have a different regional understanding depending on where you grew up. People didn’t really know how to parse me because I’m not from Rexdale or Mississauga, I don’t have that kind of narrative. I’m from Edmonton. So like, what is my deal? Like, who is this guy? Once I got beyond that and started to find my own community and my own place in Toronto, I started looking around and observing and seeing stuff that I wanted to talk about. I couldn’t believe the level of gentrification here. Especially coming from Montreal at the time, there was basically none. You could live very cheaply. It was like being in New York in the '70s or something.
I think gentrification is something that’s always been on my mind. I started off on songs like "Real Estate", "We Move Away", talking about it in a really myopic way. Okay, my friends are moving away from Edmonton. Why? But then I think with each record, I keep zooming further and further out. On High Rise, let me like think about a real estate developer and how they try and sell you on it, then what people are losing, what community they’re losing. And now I really zoom out into the institutional problem and what I want to change. I did a lot more research, especially writing the article I did for Hazlitt about Little Jamaica. I love research. It’s like digging in the crates for me. The more research I did, the more I realized that this was a systemic issue that often affects Black communities. I was like, damn, I really want to make these connections more in my music.
On social media, too, it seemed like you really engaged more in electoral politics and local activist circles. Is that something you engaged with more over the pandemic?
I used to use Twitter just for jokes. And then I started noticing that when I would make political observations, social observations, it would really resonate with people. For instance, I made this tweet comparing the GoFundMe for Adam Skelly with a GoFundMe for Black business grants in little Jamaica and the totally disproportionate amount of money on each side. That tweet went hella viral. And then I posted the Black business grant GoFundMe and thousands of dollars came in. So I thought, wow, holy shit, I can create positive change off some tweets? Man, I need to lean into this more, I can really make an impact. So that inspired me to write Skyline and get people thinking about what’s going on around us during the pandemic, what’s going on in our community.
Now I have a larger vision for where it can all go. For next year, I’m already talking to some institutions about funding some voter registration events. I’m going to get some bands and it’s going to be like a Rock The Vote type thing, but around the municipal and provincial elections. Because especially in my neighbourhood, I can see the barriers preventing people from voting, and also not informing people the value of voting in something like a city council election.
This is something I noticed during the pandemic: I’ve never been more politically engaged. I know, most of my friends have never been more politically engaged. We’re just sitting here watching. I was watching city council meetings for the first time and thinking: Who the fuck are these people? How did they how did this idiot get elected? So I started looking into it and seeing, oh shit, this person only won by like 1,000 votes. I’ve got 28,000 fucking Twitter followers. Let’s go. Let’s see if there’s some progressive people out there who really want to make a change. I want to get behind them.