Spotlight: Ethiopia-born Naya Ali Among Winners of Inaugural Black Canadian Music Awards

Naya Ali, who was born in Ethiopia, came to Montreal as a preschooler and grew up in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Naya says the Ethiopian roots of her family has a defining influence on her art. According to the Canadian Postmedia Network: "Those songs rooted in Ethiopian culture will make up the second half of her debut album" that set to be released this year. “That’s where I’m from, those are my roots, those are my foundations,” Naya explains. “There’s a lot of history there.” (Photo: Montreal Gazette)

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Naya Ali is proud to be the only artist not from Ontario to win one of the five prizes at the inaugural Black Canadian Music Awards. The SOCAN Foundation announced Monday that the Montreal rap artist had won an award at the Toronto-based event, along with Ontario artists TOBi, RAAHiim, Hunnah and Dylan Sinclair. More than 300 artists from across Canada were competing for the awards.

It means a lot to Ali, she says, because it’s a sign her music is gaining recognition outside Montreal. Francophone hip hop in Quebec has made big progress commercially in recent years, but she feels more isolated as an anglophone rapper here, which is why it felt so good to win this prize at a Toronto-based event.

“It’s recognition,” said Ali, who was born in Ethiopia, came to Montreal as a preschooler and grew up in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. “To get an award from (songwriters group) SOCAN, it enables me to get on people’s radars, of people who haven’t heard of me before, in Toronto and across Canada. It’s going to facilitate more connections with key people, and that’s one of the greatest things about this prize.

“I never thought it was a problem being an English artist from here, being a Black woman from Montreal who raps. It kind of looks like on paper, ‘Ugh, what are the odds of this working?’ But at the end of the day, it gives me my edge.”

The stars seemed to be aligning for Ali early in 2020. She launched the first half of her debut album, Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude), in March, garnering much buzz, and she was set to launch the project at the prestigious South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex. She was also booked to be on the same bill as hip-hop superstar Travis Scott at the Metro Metro fest in Montreal in May.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard, and everything was cancelled. Like every other musical artist, Ali was stuck at home wondering what to do next, with most revenue streams shut down and little opportunity to promote her album.

But Ali isn’t one to stay down for long. The distinctive blend of gritty rapping and radio-friendly pop sounds on the eight songs on Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude) continued to win over folks in the industry. It was one of the nominees at the ADISQ gala, the Quebec music awards ceremony, as anglophone album of the year, a prize ultimately won by Patrick Watson’s Wave. Ali also had the chance to perform at the top-rated gala, delivering an intense version of Get It Right, belting it out standing on top of a giant freight container under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.

For the ADISQ performance, she wore a hoodie with names on the back of Black women killed as a result of police brutality. It also included the name of Joyce Echaquan, the Indigenous woman who died in a Joliette hospital last year as staff made degrading comments about her.

“The whole Black Lives Matter movement became more mainstream because people had a lot more time on their hands,” said Ali. “Because of confinement, they were not so distracted. Which is great. But at the end of the day, Black lives matter yesterday, today and tomorrow. It’s not a trend or a wave. If you actually believe in it, then it’s something you embody every day in your actions.”

Ali says N.D.G. helped form her musical persona. “It played a great part in me becoming the person I am today. When I was a teenager, rap music was really in the streets. It opened my ears to a whole culture and community.”

Another defining influence was the Ethiopian roots of her family, and she says that’s having a greater impact on the music she’s making now. Those songs rooted in Ethiopian culture will make up the second half of her debut album, which will launch this year.

“That’s where I’m from, those are my roots, those are my foundations,” said Ali. “There’s a lot of history there.”

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