This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Andrew King
When she premiered the empowering video for her track “Bag Up” in mid-September, Haviah Mighty made clear that it would be the final piece of original content pertaining to her queen-making 2019 LP 13th Floor.
The vid dropped on September 16th, which is notable as it marked exactly one year since Mighty and 13th Floor were awarded the 2019 Polaris Music Prize – and what a whirlwind of a year it’s been.
After Polaris came the high-profile Canadian media hits, from Your Morning to Flow 93.5 to q to eTalk in Canada and the likes of XXL, Refinerry29, and Billboard on the global plateau. Then she was tapped to open for everyone from Rick Ross to Arkells amidst a busy fall. Brands like Stoli, New Era, and GoodLife came knocking for partnerships next. And that was just in the last few months of 2019.
Mighty seemed poised for an even bigger 2020, considering it started with her name on the lineups for major events like SXSW and Osheaga. She embarked on her first U.S. tour with highly-anticipated stops in NYC and L.A. and lit up Sway in the Morning with a fiery freestyle on the iconic “Five Fingers of Death” – a rite of passage for any MC that puts stock in their pen.
Of course, we all know what came next. But even a global pandemic and subsequently stalled live music industry couldn’t stop Mighty’s forward momentum.
Her incredibly powerful video for the track “Thirteen” dropped on Canada Day and generated all kinds of coverage and conversation thanks to its timely focus on anti-Black racism, the lingering aftermath of slavery, the prison industrial complex, and how they’ve all bled well beyond the U.S. border. She performed as part of both the CBC and City of Toronto’s Canada Day celebrations on that same day.
And now, with the “Bag Up” video earning some fanfare to formally close this incredibly momentous chapter of her career thus far, Mighty and her team have their heads high, eyes fixed on the future, and are putting their pens to the page to begin writing the next one.
“I’m just trying to gauge what feels right,” Mighty tells Canadian Musician about her next moves. “It’s hard to gauge what the future looks like, and I’m a very future-planning-kind of person, so I can’t do that in the ways I’m used to. But recognizing the strength of my last project and the impact those songs have had, I’m going to stay in that direction going forward — to make sure any music I’m putting out can make those same kinds of lasting connections as opposed to fleeting connections and make a real impact.”
To say 13th Floor made an impact would be an understatement. While some fans might boast about jumping on the Mighty Gang bandwagon with her breakout EP Flower City in 2017 or her work as part of emcee collective The Sorority around that same time. Her debut project, No Studio, actually dropped in late 2010, produced, written, recorded, and mixed entirely by the artist herself.
Three other collections followed ahead of Flower City, so while 13th Floor might seem like it came out of nowhere owing to its universal acclaim, it’s more accurately the product of that aforementioned future planning and over a decade of hard work and unwavering dedication.
“I’m a pretty eclectic artist and have the ability to tap into a lot of different sounds – and that was a problem for a while,” she admits. “I was making all this music trying to discover who I am as an artist and a person, and that’s all part of the process, but if you listen to records like No Studio and #Eighteen, you can hear me all over the map and trying all sorts of things.”
It’s Flower City, a tribute to her hometown of Brampton, where she hears her signature sound – gritty, rapid-fire rap and velvety vocal melodies backed by genre-bending, ultra-modern productions – starting to solidify. With 13th Floor, she cemented it. Tracks like “Blame” and “Smoke” show off the sheer power of her pen and unmistakable flow, whereas the R&B-rooted “You Don’t Love Me” and dancehall banger “Wishy Washy” find her flexing her vocal prowess, developed over years of singing lessons preceding her pivot to rap.
Mighty calls 13th Floor a concept album based on self-reflection and the process of coming into one’s own identity – or rather, identities; now, she’s readying the release of her next collection that, while it isn’t as singular in its theme, builds on that same idea.
“The new stuff isn’t as focused on self in the context of me as a Black female in Canada, but more so about self post-that-movement, and what goes through the mind of someone trying to achieve success, whatever success looks like to them.”
That idea was solidified during her string of U.S. dates in February, and Mighty got right to work shortly after SXSW’s cancellation sent her home a bit sooner than expected. “That tour really helped to manifests some of those original concept ideas of progression and growth and thinking that I’d reached the next step of my career – realizing I’m travelling and playing shows in places I never thought I’d get to go. So there’s still a lot of self-reflection, but it’s from a different place this time.”
Basically, the experiences she’s had and lessons she’s learned since her last introspective work made this a natural next step.
With that lyrical and thematic expansion comes a corresponding musical one, building on the foundation set with 13th Floor and branching off further in some directions while trying out some new ones. And whereas her last effort was co-executive produced by Mighty and Tim “2oolman” Hill of A Tribe Called Red, Mighty says she’s assumed that role entirely this time around.
“Pretty much everything is being filtered through me in an even more involved way than the last record, and I was very involved in the last record. How that changes the sound of the music, that’s hard to say, but it definitely feels like growth,” she says – “not just as a musician, not just as an artist that sings and raps and performs, but also as an arranger and producer and coordinator and engineer. I’m very much challenging myself in that way.”
To that point, Mighty actually studied music and production at London, ON’s Fanshawe College and has the producer’s credit on much of her back catalogue as well as some of The Sorority’s work; still, she says she felt challenged relying entirely on those abilities at this stage of her career.
“I don’t look at myself as mainly a producer or engineer; I look at myself as an artist first, but I think I’ve really pushed my skills in those other areas this time,” she says. “It’s nice to prove to yourself that you’re capable of doing something that at least you’re proud of.”
As for how those skills have manifested themselves in her new output, Mighty plays it close to her chest for the time being. “I don’t want to get too specific with exactly where the music has gone, because I’d love for the songs to speak for themselves, but I think it’s very reflective of this year – of myself within this year, and just the year that we’ve experienced collectively. It’s been a heavy year, for sure.”
She’s also tight-lipped when it comes to any specific collaborators for the effort, either on the mic or behind the boards, but does note there are some familiar faces from the 13th Floor sessions along with some first timers she’s pretty excited about.
She also discloses a bit about new ground she’s covering sonically. “I’d say the biggest difference between what I did before and what I’m doing now is there’s a little more of a variety, and I’m trusting myself in different pockets of sound, getting more comfortable using my voice as an instrument. People might put me in the box of being a rapper, but I would say I’m so much more. I’m also a singer, I’m also an instrumentalist, I’m also a producer, a DJ… I’ve been pulling more from those other sides of my creativity and expanding on it.”
She also says she’s been focused on making “stand-alone records.” 13th Floor being a concept album meant its songs needed to exist in context alongside one another, and while she’s still incredibly proud of the collection, she knows that some of its offerings are stronger, or at least offer a more complete listening experience, than others. Essentially, she’s finally earned proper recognition as a rapper and writer; now, she wants to be recognized as multi-faceted, hit-making maestro.
“I’ve been doing a lot of self-discovery outside of my identity as a musician, and I don’t think people have seen me in the light these new records will put me in – the artist that can go in all these different pockets and have these different facets and different tentacles in everything,” Mighty asserts.
But she knows it’s critical to carefully plot how to go about achieving that goal – to slowly introduce new iterations of your artistry to a captive audience instead of throwing it all out at once and overwhelming or potentially alienating them. And speaking of that audience, another big difference between now and 2019 is that there are exponentially more eyes and ears anticipating what she’ll do this time around. With 13th Floor, the question was whether anyone was going to hear it; now, it’s what they’ll think when they do, and that’s a position she hasn’t been in before.
In fact, winning the Polaris Prize has put her in a number of new positions and places; sometimes, they’re ones that would be new to many female Black artists, and she recognizes the importance of her newfound ambassadorship.
“It’s good for representation to be on these stages where you wouldn’t normally see people like me,” she asserts. “I take the time to make something that will connect with people, and because of that, I’m honoured to be that representation because I’m confident in the standard I’ve set for myself. I had Lauryn Hill and a few other [role models], but it’s 2020 now, and representation looks different now than it did in the ‘90s, than it did in the ‘70s, so that has to keep progressing and I’m grateful to be part of that now. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I will maximize the opportunities. I won’t compromise myself for these opportunities, either. And when you marry that high [artistic] standard with Blackness or femininity or being a woman or non-gender conforming or any of these things I’m a representation of, that’s great and it’s very important for me and for other artists like me.”
She’s already the first Black woman and hip-hop artist to win Polaris; but there are more firsts sure to come. “Everything I’m making right now is fire,” she says proudly. “Everything I’m putting out for the next year is going to set my new standard” – at least in terms of its quality and integrity; thanks to the ongoing
pandemic, there’s still no standard for how that music will be presented to or enjoyed by her growing audience.
“When I’m writing, I’m still envisioning presenting these songs in front of people in that live show format, but in reality, now I’m not exactly sure how it’ll be consumed,” she admits.
“I’m still in a progressive mindset, so this feels like a setback, but I’m not convinced these [pandemic-related] changes will exist forever, so I’m navigating this for now like we’ll one day go back to what music looked like, what live performance looked like, and what connecting through music looked like. There’s nothing like performing in front of hundreds, thousands, or even just a few people.”
But when the music is good enough, it finds its own way to connect with people. 13th Floor did just that, thrusting its creator into the national and then international spotlight and earning the distinction of the best Canadian album of the year. Mighty thinks her new material is even stronger, so who knows which places or positions it might propel her towards.
MIGHTY GANG MASHUPS
2oolman on collaborating with Clairmont the Second on “Smoke” from 13th Floor
“When it came to matching Haviah’s energy on the track, we thought Clairmont would be the perfect fit. We had this moment where the song goes high energy and I knew I wanted to drop it back down into a calm, but also, we had a space open for someone and I think the opportunity for Clairmont really showed itself. We sent him the song and he was in immediately. He came into The Cabin studio with his brother Cola and went straight to the Wurlitzer and started playing to the track. Clairmont has a background in gospel music and he was playing some things that we just had to record and that became the beginning of his verse. He also uses Reason to produce, so I invited him to add to the track however he wanted and that section we wrote together. What a musician.”
Andrew King is the former Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Musician magazine.