“I Feel the Formula is Not Me:” An Interview With Haviah Mighty

Kevin Yeung speaks to the Brampton, Ontario artist about releasing a pro-Black anthem on Canada Day and feeling comfortable not fitting into her scene.
By    September 16, 2020

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Haviah Mighty’s music sounds like Brampton, which is to say that it borrows, fuses, and collaborates. It’s steeped in the dense lyricism and hard-nosed energy of grassroots Brampton rap, but also weaves in different influences including trap, reggae, dancehall and neo-soul. In her eyes, that comes directly from the city. Mighty is of Jamaican and Bajan heritage, and grew up around Portuguese, Indian, and other Caribbean families.

Immigrants constitute over half of the population in Brampton. Unlike the poor and predominantly white Toronto neighborhood where she previously had lived, Brampton was open to different backgrounds and invited creative cross-pollination. In this vein, Haviah Mighty follows in the tradition of the Scarborough-raised, Kardinal Offishall, who was one of the first to successfully blend rap with dancehall and his own Jamaican roots back in the early 2000s. By doing so, he reimagined what a Toronto sound founded on its immigrant culture could be.

Mighty falls into this lineage more than the dark and emotional alternative that emerged from the mainstream success of Drake and The Weeknd. Earlier on, her music drew from an interest in battle rap. Her delivery has the punch of someone like Rapsody or Tierra Whack, but with a hint of patois and the range to headline Toronto’s Caribana cultural festival. In conversation, she speaks fast and has a lot to say; it’s that same kineticism and bent for shit talking that animates her best work.

Our conversation occurred amidst the backdrop of recent protests against the police in Toronto, following prominent killings including Regis Korchinski-Paquet and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mighty has been heavily involved with that movement too, whether attending protests in the streets, making her case on local news, or organizing across the province over Zoom. Her album last year, 13th Floor, took specific aim at the barriers that she’s felt as a Black woman in Canada, and the action feels like a natural progression from the art.

Interviews with Mighty have usually centered on her race and gender. Those are frequently recurring themes in her music, but reducing her to just her identity does a disservice to her range: to the Brampton lyricism, dancehall influences, and sexier R&B jams that can all live on the same album. It’s the tension between taking strength in your identity and being perceived through that lens entirely. Mighty comes to life when she switches things up, whether speeding up the flow over minimal production on “Blame,” slinking along the melodic bassline of “Ride,” or turning dancehall into a family act with sister Omega Mighty on “Wishy Washy.” Her musicality is a mosaic, something that embodies a joy found in difference, and in that sense, she defies categorization. — Kevin Yeung

What was it like for you growing up in Toronto and then Brampton?

Haviah Mighty: Toronto was an experience. I grew up in an area that was not financially well off, and it’s also extremely white. We were the only Black family in the area, so the treatment was very obvious. There was a lot of racism in the area, there was a lot of discrimination and unfair treatment which resulted in a restricted upbringing. I wasn’t really allowed outside or to make friends, so in Toronto, there just was not a lot of social interaction going on. There was a lot of internalizing, like, differences of race and also fairness and equality as a young person, but not really actively expressing what I felt about those things outward because I was protected by my parents. We had two instances of people throwing bricks through our window with the N-word written on it, or throwing eggs at our cars. I remember these instances, but I think my parents did the most they could to limit me noticing or interacting with these things happening.

When I moved to Brampton, there was just this really large difference of restriction. I was able to ride my bike on the street, I was able to make friends with other kids on the block, I was able to go to the park. The thing for me being a young person, exploring and being social started a bit late, and it started in Brampton just due to the difference of my upbringing. The school system in Toronto was also much more negative compared to Brampton for me, and I would say it’s probably region-based. When I was in Toronto, there was a lot of, “Oh, you probably need anger management, let’s get you on these pills.” Then, Brampton was like, “Oh, you have an IEP [Toronto’s special education program], and you’re gifted, and let’s put you in an extra class.” I recognize how big of a difference environment makes and how the perception of you from other people, how big of a difference that makes is based on where I lived.

I’m also Toronto-based too, to be clear. Which part of Toronto did you grow up in?

Haviah Mighty: I grew up in, it was around Greenwood and Gerrard.

When you were in Brampton, what were the people in that community around you like?

Haviah Mighty: It was a lot more multicultural, again maybe region-based, but there was just a lot of different cultures on even my street. I remember there being like a Portugese family to the right of us, Indian family to the left of us, other Caribbean families up the street, and I was allowed to interact with their kids. I was able to hang out with kids on their porches or their garages, go to my friends’ houses. I remember there was a young guy who was a little bit mentally challenged, and I used to go to his house and help him read. It was just really different than Toronto, where I wasn’t allowed to interact with the other kids. There was always a fear of negative treatment, immediately in front of the home even. We weren’t allowed on the porch. Again, it was because we grew up in an area being harassed. The police were called on us often for the piano being played too loudly, and stuff like that.

In Brampton, it was the actual opposite, like I really was able to be a kid and even in school I was able to excel. I was recognized for, I guess, my learnability. I started to feel like, not only was I not full of anger, but I was really excited to learn and do extra projects. I was pretty nerdy! I wasn’t able to express myself at all in Toronto. I wasn’t developing into who I really am until I moved. That’s why one of my records, my fifth record, I called Flower City [after Brampton’s nickname], because I recognized a little about myself when I came to Brampton and I was able to explore myself. The community was just more open to the perception of me as a young Black woman. I had the opportunity to actually prove myself, as opposed to the perception of me dictating who I’m going to become or all I can do.

I feel like Brampton is coming on too, like it’s starting to have this cultural relevance beyond just the Toronto area. Like, I know people in the US who could hold a conversation about Brampton, or at least pick up on some of the jokes and references. How do you feel about it, the visibility and the way that people are beginning to see what Brampton is all about?

Haviah Mighty: Yeah, I say the same thing, like there’s a lot of people from Brampton who are starting to be recognized for their talent. Alessia Cara, Tory Lanez and other artists that are blowing up from the city too and being recognized. I’ve heard interviews from big U.S. outlets and Brampton will come up. It’s cool that two regions that I heavily identify with, being born in Toronto but raised in Brampton, are both being recognized for talent. What’s cool about Brampton, other than the jokes and memes about driving and stuff like that [laughs], is that there is talent, there’s a recognition of the artists that are doing stuff from the city.

A lot of the artists that are from Brampton or identify with Brampton, the music that they put out is really artistic and really creative and different. A lot of the artists from the west end are really lyrical, and I find different regions are home to different vibes and different styles of music. Brampton, we get that kind of artistic realm or lyrical realm, and I like the association because I think it’s relative to the type of music that I make as well. There’s an association of a sound that’s specific to Brampton that I rock with. I find a lot of the rappers that are from this city are super lyrical storytellers, and a lot of the vocalists are just really strong vocalists. So, yeah, I just find high-quality content is associated with Brampton.

You have contributions from your family all over your album, and you’re obviously showing them a lot of love throughout. What was your family like for you when you were growing up?

Haviah Mighty: Oh, they were my rock. I think that the one thing that really saved me, especially from negative treatment growing up in Toronto, was that I had so much positive treatment in the home. The sheltering that happened really protected me from becoming a really angry person, just because I grew up with three older sisters who look like me. I didn’t feel invalidated or devalued based on being a young Black woman because of my environment. My home was my major environment, and that was due to the protection. Mom and dad in the home were really reminding all of us as their children that we are valued, that we are great. They were also always reinforcing music. We took music lessons, I was in singing class for seven years as a child. My sisters played the piano, so there was always something to strive for that I wasn’t doing that they were doing. I was always looking up to them. I feel like because I had this lack of balance when it came to being social from the age of, like, one to eight, my parents filled that void and reminded me of my own self-worth.

So, by the time we moved to Brampton and people were more accepting of me and the perception of me wasn’t so negative, I feel like I really excelled. That came from my sisters always being around me and them also being singers, them also reinforcing musicality. We used to sing together as the Mighty Sisters. I remember performing at Caribana, at the airport, being in newspapers and my first studio session being with my sisters. Every early origin really came from having an example, or I guess three examples with three older sisters. Three examples of what I can be, so I got lucky in that way, being surrounded by examples of positivity.

So you had this song “Thirteen” last year, which was really powerful on slavery and how the 13th Amendment brought a lot of those underlying ideologies forward into other institutions, and then you dropped the video for it about a month after George Floyd was killed. What did you want to do by choosing to drop it at that time specifically?

Haviah Mighty: We had intentions of dropping it at the end of the summer anyway, but the video was done in April and it felt universal to release it at that time. The video was ready to go, the song and the message was something important to contribute to the current conversation at that time. I was working on another release that just wouldn’t have fit the conversation of what was going on anyway either, so it was like, let’s swap these releases, let’s contribute to this conversation.

I had an opportunity to perform on Canada Day, and I decided if I was going to perform on Canada Day, I was going to do that song. Over these years, I’ve learned a lot about what Canada Day is. As a child, I was raising the flag and waving it around and had no idea of the trauma and the history that surrounded Canada Day, the history that’s silenced of Indigenous people. I’ve learned so much more over the past five years and so for me, if I was going to accept the gig, I felt it was only right to accept it to further the education that I think we as Canadians need to have. It just became this plan, I’ll perform “Thirteen” for Canada Day, and why don’t we also release the video that day, too? Let’s make a statement out of it, let’s get this information out. Who cares about PR, who cares about whether it gets added to playlists? Let’s just get this message out at the right time.

Although the song is rooted in the U.S. Constitution and speaks specifically to the 13th Amendment which is U.S.-based, a lot of the themes and concepts in that song impact me as a Black Canadian. I don’t think that releasing it on Canada Day takes away in any way from the message. In fact, I think it adds to the conversation that these things that heavily impacted the U.S. also heavily impacted us.

I know you were really active in Toronto during the police protests. You were calling for certain changes, you were out in the streets protesting. Can you tell me about the ways you were getting involved around the city?

Haviah Mighty: At first, I had made a petition regarding body cameras and implementing them but without increasing the budget. Just recognizing the value in video footage from the George Floyd incident, and seeing how the community was rallying together based on what we saw. With Trayvon Martin in 2011, there was no camera footage, so something that seems so cut-and-dry was not. This was the first time something that seemed cut-and-dry to me and the larger Black community also seems cut-and-dry to everybody else. Then, starting to recognize more about politics and what happens when you implement changes, how budgets will get increased and how it might seem like what you’re pushing for is positive and then maybe it’s not. There were people pushing for Toronto councillors to decrease budgets for police, to increase for mental health sectors and social workers, and advocating that police maybe aren’t the ones to call for certain incidents. In the end, the only thing that was pushed forward was body cameras, and not even accountability over those body cameras.

I had conversations on [Toronto news station] CP24, on CTV News, I had an Instagram Live segment talking about breaking the chains of white supremacy. I think through having all these conversations through social media, through Twitter, through the news, through family members and friends and new people that I was meeting is that none of us have the answers yet. We’re all trying to figure out what the positive outcome is going to be. For me, I have some ideas of things that will help the perception of the Black community by the non-Black community, and also internally helping the Black community grow. A large part of it is us, not only studying our history and understanding the void of our culture, but also recognizing the value of entrepreneurship and ownership and how we’ve lost sense of that and how that has been stolen from us over the last 600 years.

As an artist first, of course, I will continue to try to contribute to these conversations through art. I was also trying to find ways to add to that conversation not only in an artistic way, whether that meant having conversations or attending protests and marches, which I also did, or Zoom calls with a community of people looking to make change in other regions that are not my own, like Ottawa or Kingston. Hopefully through all of these conversations, we can come to a plan of action that we can truly implement. I’m also trying to learn a lot and realize that I may not be the person to come up with the solution, and maybe I’m just here to contribute what these resolutions might look like.

You kind of touched on it earlier, but what has your own experience with the police been like?

Haviah Mighty: I was raised to know how to talk to police, and to know how to like, almost… I don’t know, I feel like I don’t really have rights with police. I really genuinely don’t believe I have the right to do things that I know I technically have the right to do. I look at police as an authoritative figure, and even if a police officer asks me something that’s technically against the law, I don’t know how much I would challenge them because of fear, to be honest. I think I’ve always encountered police in a fearful way.

It’s not fair for the average person to have to do that in order to live. I don’t think it’s fair that the onus is put on the civilian to be compliant. It’s the officer that’s on the job, and it’s their job to de-escalate it, it’s not our job to de-escalate it. What if police are encountering people who literally don’t have the capacity to navigate a conversation properly? That’s what I’ve realized more than anything recently. Police officers are encountering people with mental deficiencies and people with mental deficiencies are being killed. It doesn’t make any sense. The onus can’t be on them to know how to navigate police officers who have weapons and all these reinforcements for self-protection.

My personal encounters with police have generally been okay. I’ve had instances that have been scary, but I’ve been trained to know, you know, police may behave like this, they will see me like this. I’m very aware of my perception before people approach me. I’ve been raised in it, and that’s a skill that I’ve developed through being an artist and being surrounded by white people at my shows, surrounded by white people in my interviews, and recognizing, oh, this is how I’m perceived. It’s not fair for people to have to navigate like that, no matter what their race and gender and their experience is. The onus should not be on the everyday person to know how to navigate police. I haven’t had any crazy instances, but I really think that that’s largely rooted in me being scared of cops.

Besides “Thirteen,” you have a lot of other music too, and it isn’t all necessarily the kind of stuff that wins awards. Like, you talk shit too, you’ve got sex jams and even a dancehall track with your sister Omega Mighty. Your music is fun, and I feel like there’s so many different kinds of music you want to make. Do you ever feel like those aspects of your character or your sound don’t really get talked about as much?

Haviah Mighty: Oh yeah, definitely. [Laughs] Most interviews with me, we focus on and talk about the racial aspect or the setback aspect or the underdog perspective. I know that I speak to those themes a lot on the album, so I’m more than okay to discuss these things, but I did try to create a record that had balance and fun, some more upbeat and enjoyable party elements that obviously don’t get discussed as much. I try to create a balance in the music that I make, especially with the new music that I’m working on as well. I am a Black woman from Canada, but that’s not all that I am. I want to make sure that my music is inclusive of all of the things that encompass me.

This album, a lot of it was, let’s discuss the narratives and these things that have impacted you. The new music won’t be 13th Floor, part two. I want to show people a little more of what I can do, what I’m thinking about, what concepts and themes pique my interest separate from the 13 tracks on 13th Floor.

Are there any specific directions that you want to get into with your future music, like the sound or the themes? Or just ideas of things you want to try, because you do try a lot of things on 13th Floor.

Haviah Mighty: Yeah, 13th Floor was a concept record though, right? Because it was a concept record, it’s really easy to focus on the overall theme of the record, which isn’t the overall theme of every song. Having a concept record, winning the Polaris Music Prize and having people realize I’m capable of doing that is a really powerful thing to me, because it’s hard to make a concept album. Now, I just want to focus on the individual stories of a song, and having those stories live alone instead of being associated with concepts.

I do a lot of different styles of music, as you said, and I want to explore that a little bit more as opposed to focusing on a body of work that has to speak to one overall theme. I just want to be a little bit more relaxed and focus on growing my craft as an actual musician, like as a producer, as an engineer and trying to be a little bit more hands-on with the records. Especially in quarantine, I’m not in a studio, I’m doing everything at home, so I wanted to evolve my sound as well. I’m writing my own lyrics always and I’m focused on what I’m saying, but I’m also producing a lot and building these records from the ground up, and I’m making harmonies. I’m creating the actual audible theme as well, focusing on a lot on that and getting my feet wet.

If I was asking you for one of your tracks that just bumps, do you have a personal favorite?

Haviah Mighty: Ooh, it’s hard. I think it shifts a lot. I like the songs where there’s a lot of switch-up of collaborative production. In “In Women Colour,” I produce the second half. “Squad,” I produced the outro. “Blame,” I produced the second half. I like the records where I reproduce something that the initial producer did, and make this additive to the story. I really like “Blame,” I feel like it’s really inclusive of my style as a rapper, as a singer and as a producer. Songs like “In Women Colour” too, where I get to sample my voice and play with harmonies and do a lot of switch-ups. I like that it’s hard to choose a favorite and that it fluctuates, because that indicates to me that the record is strong to me. Like, if it was really obvious what song was the strongest and that never changed, then that would mean the other songs can’t really live up. Because different records can be my favorite at different times, it’s like I’ve done the actual best I could with these songs, and they’re just speaking to me at different times. Again, [13th Floor] is my sixth project, and there’s no other project that I can look back on and feel as proud of each song. There’s always a favorite, or those few that I wish I didn’t put on the record or that I don’t like as much. For this album, there’s a lot less of that, and I’m glad that I was able to overcome that. I don’t like complacent records, I want all the songs to feel that they could be my favorite at a time.

For me personally, one of my favorites of yours is “Ride” —

Haviah Mighty: Oh!

— and I love that you’ve got really ambitious music like “Thirteen” on the same album as a sexier song like that.

Haviah Mighty: That’s awesome, “Ride” is one of the songs that I hear a lot less about. It’s one of those silent killers. I’ve heard a few people say that that’s their favorite, but because it wasn’t a single, because it’s not as much rap, it kind of goes under the radar a little bit. When I hear people say they really love “Ride” or “Oh My,” I’m like, oh! Like, I totally forgot about those songs, but I think what’s beautiful about them is that when I listen to them, I’m reminded of how strong they are. I don’t feel like they’re weaker songs or they don’t live up to the mark. I just feel like they weren’t singles or the focus records, and maybe not as associated with me because they’re more R&B-centric. The fact that they’re able to live on the record, the fact they feel like really strong songs that are still impactful, and also the fact that here and there, people are reminding me that that’s their favorite is like, yeah, this shows the inclusivity as well.

“Ride” is, like you said, it’s a lot sexier of a record. It’s got this R&B vibe, this really runny bassline, a lot of harmonies and lush vocals. That’s like, super me. I think a lot of people would associate, like, battle rap vibes and just bars with me. They think that that’s all I am, but I actually sang for seven years before I ever rapped. “Ride” is so me as well. It’s really nice to hear that it’s somebody’s favorite, that it’s still resonating.

I feel like in Toronto, the type of rap artists that get elevated, at least to the national level, are mostly male and a lot of times their music has this tendency to sound sort of similar. I don’t know if you agree with that exactly, but how do you see that scene and yourself within it?

Haviah Mighty: I kind of see what you’re saying, where it’s like, a lot of male rappers fall into a certain stylistic genre of rap or pop. Yeah, I definitely recognize that, I can see the difference with people that get those mainstream numbers or those mainstream looks. I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities as an up-and-coming artist with show opportunities and kicking the doors of some of those gatekeepers, and I’m really grateful for those. I definitely recognize the distinction between how what I do is received and what some of the more mainstream male artists from our area, what they do and what’s actually recognized and put on a pedestal.

I just don’t follow the formula. I feel the formula is not me, the themes in the formula are not themes that I feel like I have a lot to say about. I honestly believe that the only people that should be tapping into that formula are the people that live it, you know? And I just don’t. There’s a lot of male rappers that live that formula, they rap that vibe, they get all those beats, and it’s believable because it’s them. It’s cool, it’s a vibe, it’s just not my vibe. I feel like if I was even to try to tap into it, the inauthenticity would scream at you, because it’s just not me.

A lot of these rappers that we’re thinking of, you said a lot of them were similar, get grouped into this box, and then it’s hard to set yourself apart within that. I don’t know what’s better, to be wrapped up in a box of 20 dudes that all sound like you and then have to break out of that, or just kind of carve your own path from the beginning. First of all, I’m not a guy, so I’m already not in the pack. I didn’t get the ticket, and I won’t get the ticket, you know? But I grew up without the ticket. As a female rapper, I’ve never fit in. I can’t write from the same perspective of a man, as a woman.

Obviously, I don’t fully fit in with the Nav’s and the Pressa’s, a lot of the rappers from our ends who get those mainstream looks. I’m just clearly not in that category, and I’m kind of grateful for that, you know? I think it would be a little bit harder for me to set myself apart. At the same time, it also makes it harder for me to get access to that mainstream audience, because I’m not as palatable to them. I am a female, I’m a little bit more aggressive. I’m not the Meg thee Stallion vibe, or the Cardi B vibe either. From that perspective, yeah, sometimes you have hard days of, like, no one resonates with me, nobody gets what I do, but then I get booked for shows and I get these awesome opportunities. I’m reminded that, though I’m not mainstream palatable yet, I am kind of representing something new and different and I’m actually happy to fill that void.

Who do you listen to, who are the influences that you draw from?

Haviah Mighty: I’m all around. I’m just listening to, I would say, different records. I’m just going to pop into my Spotify right now because it’s so just like, week by week that I don’t even know that I could say there’s a continuity.
Right now, I’m listening to this group THEY. a lot, I really like what they do. A$AP Ferg, I’ve been listening to. Just a lot of heavier hip-hop. I like the uniqueness of some of the more heavy, almost like Trick Daddy, gang type of rap. For some reason, I’ve been listening to all of Toni Braxton’s album Secrets. I grew up on that album and I’m really in that right now, I don’t know why. I’ve been listening to some of Koffee’s new music and seeing where that’s going as a young Caribbean artist, seeing her evolve. Drake dropped a couple new records that I’ve been listening to. The concept of using different languages in your music, I find that very interesting as well. Clairmont the Second dropped a new record that I’ve also been listening to, I think it’s really, really innovative. Everything he does is pretty innovative.

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