“I remember the first time I experienced loss. I was 17 years old,” Mustafa tells American Songwriter.
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Raised in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood, the now-24-year-old poet, songwriter, filmmaker and activist has become well-acquainted with loss. While his career has been one amazing feat after another—he built a sizable following for his poetry, was appointed to Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council and has collaborated with folks like Drake, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and more—the poverty and corresponding violence plaguing Mustafa’s community weighs heavy on his heart. After losing several of his loved ones—including longtime-collaborator Smoke Dawg in 2018— to altercations with firearms, Mustafa began to feel the full ramifications of the weight of death and grief.
“I wanted to explore it, so I explored it through poetry,” he said. “But, in a way, I wasn’t speaking through my experience as much as I was speaking to it. I thought that because I was helping other people manage their grief and mourning that I was doing it for myself,…but I wasn’t. Looking back, the most important task was for me to explore my own grief in the madness of it all, but I was too afraid. Every time I faced it, I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Instead, Mustafa compartmentalized his emotions. By devoting himself to his work as a songwriter-for-hire and the task of advocating for his community, he was still able to be a source of inspiration for many. But his own grief was left unattended. This came to a breaking point in 2019 when Mustafa’s manager finally gave him an ultimatum: “He said ‘If you keep working with other artists, I can’t work with you anymore—I need you to focus on your story,’” Mustafa remembered. “I knew he was right.”
So, after years of helping others tell their stories, Mustafa finally got busy focusing on his own. Hunkering down in London, he began unpacking years of grief the only way he knew how: by writing about it. But this time, rather than writing poems like he did in the past, he decided to write songs.
For Mustafa, poems and songs are “completely different animals.” Thus, he approached the task of songwriting with an entirely different mindset, both thematically and aesthetically. For all of the acclaim he garnered in the R&B, pop and rap spheres, when it came time for his own expression, Mustafa decided to take a different lane: folk music.
Though some may think this move was unusual, he explained that his love for folk stretches back years. “I remember stumbling upon James Blake’s cover of ‘A Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell,” he said. “I was aware of her, but it wasn’t until I heard that cover that I was able to hear the words in a way that I hadn’t before. I was in high school at the time, and I fell deep into this rabbit hole of listening to Joni Mitchell.”
From there, Mustafa got into all sorts of folkies, ranging from Bob Dylan to Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and more. But, as brilliant as these artists are, there was still a gap between their experiences and Mustafa’s. None of them spoke to his upbringing as a black, Muslim child of Sudanese immigrants being raise in a turbulent environment. That changed when he discovered someone who did: Richie Havens.
“I remember the moment I saw Richie Havens perform in the Woodstock documentary,” Mustafa said. “I thought ‘Oh my God, here is this folk singer who is singing this song about freedom and tying these worlds together.’ Richie Havens broke it open for me and made me feel like it was possible to spell out my own experience through music and narratives like that.”
With all of those eclectic influences buzzing around in his mind alongside his own story, Mustafa eventually created one of the most poignant, intimate and authentic albums of recent memory: his debut record, When Smoke Rises. Featuring contributions from Blake (a full-circle moment for Mustafa), Sampha, Frank Dukes, Jamie xx and more, the record is a collage of fragmented memories, brilliant melodies and eternally impactful sentiments. From the tasteful arrangements to the melancholic guitar parts to Mustafa’s gorgeous voice repeating the chill-inducing refrain “just stay alive,” When Smoke Rises offers an incredibly humane look into the consequences of poverty.
“People don’t connect the theologization of life and all of the different theories they explore to others’ actual lived experience,” Mustafa says. And he’s right. For as much as things like poverty, crime and gun violence are discussed, there is still a disturbing gap between that discussion and action. In a way, Mustafa’s work is bridging that gap.
“The best possible way for me to be able to do that is through telling stories that explore those systems of oppression in the nuance of these stories,” he said. “If I can help them journey there through feeling, perhaps it’ll be easier for them to empathize. And I don’t just mean people from outside my community—even people within my community should be able to not blame themselves for the heartache, pain and obstruction of their own lives. Everyone deserves forgiveness and empathy. They deserve the answer to why they become the way they are. Everyone deserves mercy.”
Photo by Frank Dukes