Interview: Xolisa Talks Debut Full Length, Indie Hip Hop & More

July 11, 2016

Toronto-based MC Xolisa (pronounced “koh-lee-sah”) just dropped her debut full length album, And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges, and is getting ready to hit her first international tour.

With an inherent ability to spit cool, thoughtful lyrics over dusty boom gap production, Xolisa has used this release as a way of touching on personal, social and global topics such as race and oppression in a new way for her. With a flow like Bahamadia and a sound that truly pays a nod to the earlier days of hip hop, she’s garnering more listeners in her hometown and abroad. Xolisa was kind enough to answer some questions about navigating the Toronto scene, tapping into the masses, and the new album before she takes off for tour:

When did you first start writing songs? How long before you were performing?

Xolisa: I believe the very first song I wrote was when I was about 13 years old – it wasn’t a song per se with verses and hooks, but more so a poem or a free flow of thoughts. I was writing quite a bit of poetry at that age. At that time I had no conscious idea that I wanted to rap, much less produce – or that I would go on to do both as my full time career. At that time, I just knew that music was the end goal for me however, the question had always been, “Xolisa, how do you want to contribute to music? What is the legacy you want to leave in music history?”

Fast-forward to the age of 20 – I wrote what would become my very first single entitled, “Until Then”. About a year after that, which would bring us to 2011, I began to slowly approach the world of live performance. Being on stage was not a new concept for me at that time as I’ve found myself on several stages during my elementary, middle school and high school years for talent shows where I would sing and dance and later on, play the piano. However, the year of 2011 was my debut to preforming as an MC who produces her own tracks – a whole world within itself.

How has it been to navigate Toronto’s music scene as a female MC?

All in all – navigating Toronto’s music scene as a female who is an MC has been a beautiful experience. I say that with all of the highs, lows and in between moments considered. As an MC within Toronto, you’re navigating within a city that does not have a strong infrastructure for hip hop. Throw in the fact that it is a genre that is in itself predominately male based – it simply means that the hard work I pour into my music and business needs to go even further.

My reality however, is that I do not wake up thinking to myself, “Xolisa, you are a woman in a male based industry- work harder!” I just get up and do what I need to do in order to have a productive day and get a step closer to achieving my goals – the thought of my sex is just not something that is on my mind when I’m working.

Yes, I am aware of all the categories, roles and images that women in hip hop are expected to fall into and yes, I am quick to catch on to any B.S. that is thrown my way that indicates any sort of discrimination due to my sex; and I’m just as quick to cut it down, but the truth is none of that phases me. None of that is on my mind when I’m writing or composing music, when I’m rocking a stage, when I’m sending emails, fulfilling merch orders, etc. There is nothing that I can complain about or that I have encountered that has been enough to stop me from moving forward. I believe the fact that I am able to navigate without any major hurdles due to me being a woman is highly due to the paths that the women in hip hop before me, in and out of Toronto, have carved out – Michie Mee, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia, Queen Latifah and the list goes on.

I’ve been blessed to have my music very well received by individuals of all walks of life, of all levels within the industry who genuinely respect and believe in the music I create, whether they know me personally or not.

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What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as an indie hip hop artist over the past few years? What is some underrated advice you’ve received?

I’ve been able to learn lessons within my career that I will take with me for a lifetime, lessons that have come to help me grow within my career and within my personal life. One of those lessons have been learning how to open up and allow those who truly love, appreciate, believe and support me – help me. I’ve gone the first three years of my career without a team. I’ve had trusted individuals who have been and still are my go to’s for advice, feedback and to be sounding boards when I need an ear, however, this is the first year that I am working with a solid team of individuals who sacrifice much to help me build my career and reach my vision. For me it’s always been a matter of not trusting. I have not trusted that I could find another person, much less two other persons, who would believe in me enough to give as much energy as I do into my dreams. The reality is that I have always been surrounded by individuals who have believed in me and have always been ready to help, it’s just taken more belief in myself and more belief and trust in my loved ones to recognize that.

The advice I’ve received through that lesson is that as an independent artist, you truly have to learn to trust yourself and your internal compass, all the while learning how to trust others. It’s this ebb and flow of allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to lean on another when in need, while still being able to have confidence in your own ability to make great decisions and choices.

What kind of an impact do you think access to streaming older and more ‘underground’ hip hop has had recently in terms of reaching younger, super active music listeners?

Considering that underground hip hop artists of the past and the present have the ability to easily get their music on major streaming outlets, I do believe that today’s access to streaming underground hip hop has been extremely impactful when coming to reaching a younger market. The transition from downloading music on outlets such as iTunes to streaming music on platforms such as Apple Music and Spotify has definitely increased and to add to that, there is no longer this obscure way of accessing older hip hop.

For underground and independent hip hop artists like myself, it’s just another plus. There are more and more tools being developed and made available (such as TuneCore) that allow independent/underground artists to be a part of these major online digital music outlets, without the muscle of a major label – allowing us to be a apart of that accessibility to a younger market who are turning to streaming to listen to the latest music of some of the most underground acts.

That being said, it is also up to those underground acts to choose to use these platforms to get their music in a place that can be accessed by a younger crowd through streaming because if the music is not there, how will that younger audience find it through those means? Companies are recognizing that more artists are going the independent route and creating these platforms that make DIY look professional, clean and full of quality so for me – as long as those platforms are available and accessible for underground hip hop artists, then there is a way for us to be accessed by the masses.

Your latest album speaks of transcendence and loss, among other things – what kind of personal and social topics are you exploring on And Gaps Do Lead to Bridges?

And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges is my open letter to humanity – touching on the surface of my thoughts, emotions, frustrations, amazements, inspirations, fears, hopes and confusions of human actions, motives, resilience, truths, goods and evils. I’ve always been one that has for some time, internalized my observations and feelings when it comes to racism, discrimination, oppression, loss, corrupt systems, government dealings and the politics that follow suit. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been that way, but I felt it was time to use my outlet and my contribution to this world to speak on the many issues I’ve internalized for some time, the issues that are still as real, relevant and destructive as they were decades ago.

I can make music, I can tour, I can live my life and do whatever I want but at the end of the day, the fact remains that I am a young black woman who has to accept that there exists a very long history of people who look like her being treated in unfair and indescribable ways. At the end of the day, the fact remains that I am a part of a society that as a whole regardless of race, is working to overcome obstacles because we truly are all just one. Hip hop was intended to bring to the surface the topics that people were not speaking about openly. It was intended to bring the rawest of truths out in the open to be examined, discussed, changed and I believe I would be doing myself and my love for hip hop a disservice if I did not use my voice to do just the same and these are the raw truths that I feel comfortable expressing openly at this point of my life.

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Hip hop as a genre continues to be such an important platform for artists to align themselves with causes and movements. How do you hope to connect with your fans via lyrics?

With this album in particular, I’ve chosen to maintain my familiar style of songwriting and delivery which tends to be very honest, abstract, metaphoric,complex and contains layers and layers of meanings. However, while writing the songs of this album, I’ve also found it very important for me to be able to deliver direct, straightforward and concise messages to my audience. It was important for me to be able to get certain observations and emotions across in a more conversational tone, in a way that could be easily digested.

My hope is that listeners take their time with the lyrics of this album and that they really allow themselves to be guided by the words that I’ve weaved together, as there are many intricacies to the songs of this project, regardless of how simple or complex the delivery and song structure may be. There are lyrics in this album that are directed to people of colour, there are lyrics that are directed to black men and women specifically, there are lyrics directed to anyone who has ever chosen to oppress a person of colour or treat them unfairly whether in thought or in action, there are lyrics directed to our leaders, to followers. There are lyrics directed to myself, to my listeners and most importantly, there are lyrics that are directed to human kind period.

I’ve always been a huge fan of being able to read through the lyric booklets of albums, so in that same fashion I’ve provided the lyrics of this new album (as well as my past EP’s) to listeners through a dedicated lyric page on my website which allows listeners to stream through all of my songs while reading through the lyrics word for word at their own pace.

With a debut full length under your belt, what are your plans for marketing, engaging with fans and riding the momentum through 2016?

Creating And Gaps Do Lead To Bridges has allowed me to venture into many new areas within my songwriting, my production and the ways in which I use my voice.  I’ll be embarking on my very first tour, bringing this album to Melbourne (Australia), Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor, Montreal and New York.

The “Gaps To Bridges Tour” will be running from July to September and will serve as my major introduction to international markets. I’ve spent about four years now building and nurturing a listening base here in Toronto, and although I am nowhere finished with the investment into the Toronto market, I am ready to begin building and nurturing listening bases in international cities with the aim of seeing those roots continue to grow larger, grow stronger and spread.

Aside from the tour, I have some incredible music videos on the way for these songs that will allow listeners to receive yet another way of experiencing this album. I knew at a very early stage that both the sound and the visuals of this project were important factors and that hasn’t changed. I’m just looking forward to executing all of the visions and ideas I have for this project and allowing my listeners to continue to explore and delve deeper into these songs through the different opportunities I offer them to do just that.

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