“Everything I Do For A Living Is Connected to Art In Some Way”: An Interview With Cadence Weapon About ‘Bedroom Rapper’

Isaac Fontes speaks to the Edmonton rapper about the process of writing his first book, the significance of moving to Montreal, being exploited by record labels and much more.
By    January 9, 2023

Image via Cadence Weapon/Instagram

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Since his official 2005 debut, Breaking Kayfabe, Cadence Weapon’s music and writing have consistently served a higher purpose. He’s actively intentional with his language, never feeling the need to squeeze too many words into a bar and has never sacrificed his message for the sake of an intricate rhyme scheme. He doesn’t rap just to rap and never has compromised to fit in. After all, being a rapper in Canada in the early 2000’s was not yet a properly respected expression in the eyes of a judgmental mainstream. While the rest of the country was fixated on indie dance and rock bands, Weapon mixed his fascination for electronic music and his love for language into an expression that was all his own – even if not immediately understood or embraced by fellow Edmontonians.

While the multi-hyphenate born Rollie Pemberton was growing up in Edmonton, there was no real hip-hop scene in the city, and no regional Canadian formula to follow when pursuing his dream of becoming a rapper. Almost a decade later, he’s now widely considered among the second-wave pioneers of Canadian hip-hop. And last year, he published his first non-fiction book about his experiences in the music industry, Bedroom Rapper. “I’m at a point in my career where I’m in a position, in Canada at least, where I feel like I can lead other artists and I feel like I can take chances that other people can’t take and I wanna do that for people. I wanna lead people,” he explains.

After being inspired by his father, Teddy Pemberton, a prominent DJ in Edmonton, the future Cadence Weapon started rapping at 13. Growing up around an eclectic mix of genres and artists, the younger Pemberton quickly gained an appreciation, love and curiosity for diverse, underground music. “We grew up listening to everything, so I never saw a reason why there should be any separation between the things,” Pemberton says.

By 15, he was already guesting on his father’s station. After briefly attending journalism school in Virginia, he decided to drop out to pursue his music career. Before he turned 20, he had already made a name for himself as a knowledgeable and tough critic, regularly writing reviews for Pitchfork. He also began making beats on his laptop in his mom’s attic with pirated software and the cheapest gear he could find.

The feeling of being an outsider was nothing new – especially in Edmonton, where few at the time listened to obscure internet-centric underground rap and electronic music. In the same way that his father did with vinyl, Pemberton started digging through music blogs for sonic inspiration. Before long, he found a sense of community within early 2000s music-sharing chat rooms – something he had never found in the Prairies.

Once he seriously focused on his own music, he realized that the ultra-critical reviews he’d been writing would not have been appreciated if they were to have been written about his own music. “What ended up happening was I was an extremely hyper-critical reviewer, but I actually could not take any criticism myself for my own music. I had very thin skin when I was younger about that kind of thing,” Pemberton explains.

A review of one of his earlier albums offended him when he was branded a “bedroom rapper.”

“The interesting thing about it is in the moment, I didn’t think that was a positive; being able to totally make my career just off of a computer at my mom’s house as a child and just through pure ingenuity and using the internet. I didn’t think that was a plus at the time,” he wrote.

Reflection, maturity and the writing of his book caused him to change his perspective. “That’s the thing about this book, it’s like hindsight’s 20/20 and looking back, it’s like, oh actually, I was a pioneer for young musicians tryna make albums with their computer,” he continued.

At the time, he wasn’t yet aware of the significance of what he was doing and making. Essentially, he laid down the blueprint for other Canadian music nerds and lovers to follow his lead in becoming artists, regardless of the resources and support around them.

The Canadian music scene (more specifically its hip-hop scene) is one that has historically been behind the times in relation to the diversity and influence of the neighboring American world. Long before Drake broke through, Pemberton was paving the way for the next generation, alongside other underground acts like Shad and Buck 65.

His aforementioned debut, Breaking Kayfabe was met with largely positive reviews upon its release in 2005 and kickstarted his career as a household name in Canadian music. It went on to be nominated for the inaugural Canadian Polaris Music Prize the following year.

In 2009, Rollie was named Edmonton’s newest poet laureate, replacing E.D. Blodgett, a 74-year-old white professor who had published 19 collections of poetry. The decision to appoint him as the city’s new cultural ambassador was a testament to his growth and commitment to repping his city.

From the video game-inspired production on Breaking Kayfabe to the house-inspired reflections and tales of Afterparty Babies to the political commentary over an array of upbeat production inspired by genres all over the world on the Polaris Prize-winning Parallel World, Pemberton has never been predictable.

Throughout his book’s entire 11th chapter, Pemberton writes openly about his experiences being exploited by record labels. Experiences like that are precisely why Pemberton made the writing of Bedroom Rapper a reality. “Maybe some young artists will be able to avoid going through a situation like I went through because they read this. Nothing would make me happier than if that turns out to be true.” – Isaac Fontes

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Was there at all a sense of urgency in writing this book like the way you felt with releasing Parallel World?

Rollie Pemberton: Not in the same way. I feel like with Parallel World, I really felt like I needed to speak to the moment in time that we were in and it was really the first time I’d ever done that with my music, where I was like, ‘I want this to be very right now.’ But the book led to the album, I think, in a lot of ways. Just going back to the very beginning and thinking back to how I used to make music in my mom’s attic and just that mindstate of being able to just focus and singularly focus on something in a way that I hadn’t been able to with touring and everything that always gets in the way. It just reminded me of the way I kinda used to engage with music and I brought that process back for the album, as a result of writing the book.

Great, and I saw you say in an interview – I think it was with CBC, that when you’re writing a book, every day is different. Like, some days a lot of words will come to you, some days are spent just researching. So I was curious too, with that in mind.. I mean, I know it’s your life story, but it’s a lot of years that you’ve gone back. How do you ensure that you didn’t leave anything out?

Rollie Pemberton: Well I mean, there were things that I had to leave out by process of elimination. I couldn’t put everything in, and I didn’t want to. You know, I had read a lot of music memoirs when I was working on the book and one thing I didn’t wanna do was write about my favorite sandwich I had when I was in Austin, Texas once or something. There was a lot of that in some of the books.

For me, it was really a big research process of going back through my old emails. I keep really good records and I always have, and I just keep all the posters and stuff. I have all the exact dates for everything. I’m really very organized in that way, so that wasn’t difficult for me. But thankfully I still have my old emails from like, 2002-2003, when I really started.

Right. But that has to be difficult at some point too, going back through emails, especially in relation to your relationship with Upper Class Records and things like that, where the treatment was just horrible. I mean, they ended up ghosting you, you had all of this money that you were owed that you never got. So is that a difficult process to go back and relive these memories or is it almost kind of empowering to write about it in this way?

Rollie Pemberton: It was very traumatic. That part of it, reliving that stuff, was very painful and it was really hard to me to get to the point where I could even write about that stuff, because for a long time, I would push it back and be like, ‘OK, I’ll write about everything, except for that stuff.’ It became like this big wall that I had to climb or something, but I think eventually, once I actually did write about it and I got it clear in my mind.. You know, ‘cause the thing is, I never really talked about this stuff to people in the moment. You know, a couple artists that I know here and there, or like ex-girlfriends or whatever, but I never really publicly talked about my experience. So it was very cathartic in that way, once I actually finished writing it. And it felt like it had less power over me, after I had committed it to the page.

That’s amazing. Would you say, so far, that is the most rewarding part of writing this book?

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, I think that’s definitely one of the most rewarding things about it is that I got to speak my truth, and it’s just committed to paper and no one can take it away from me. But I think also, just the idea of giving people a clearer picture of who I am as an artist, ‘cause I think I’m a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people might only know me as a DJ or something, or might only know me from [the] underground rap world or some people might only know me as this guy who raps over electronic music.

And I feel like it was important for me to tie everything together for people, and that’s why I wrote the book in the way that I did; it’s not totally linear, because I feel like I’ve had so many different lives that were happening at the same time, that I had to break it up into thematic sections, where it’s like, ‘OK, this is all about DJ’ing and my philosophy on that, this is about being poet laureate of Edmonton and lyricism and stuff.’ Breaking it up that way was a lot more logical to me, and I think people who’ve known me for years have come away after reading the book, being like, ‘I didn’t even know that about you!’

Yeah, that’s a cool thing. Out of all your creative outlets – you have so many: poetry, writing, even journalism, you have music, DJ’ing, rapping.. What would you label as your most effective? The one where you’re able to express yourself the most or the most freely?

Rollie Pemberton: I think for me, it’s really just speaking. For me, it’s really activism. That’s probably the unifying factor behind everything I do and it took me a long time to realize that I can be a leader in that way. I think I was really reluctant to be more outspoken about how I feel, whether it’s about politics or different things in society and you know, I would hint at it in my records, but it really wasn’t until Parallel World that I was just like, ‘OK, let me just go in as hard as I can about how I feel,’ and that really resonated with people.

So I think yeah, the future for me is maybe not so much in rap, but maybe it’s like public speaking or public service or something. Lately, I know Twitter is not doing so well right now, but I feel like I’ve had the occasional viral tweet and it really just comes from me speaking directly from the heart. I feel like that is my true power, is to speak truth to power, and I’m able to do that and make connections in a way that resonates with people. And so, I feel like that’s something that is consistent in everything that I do.

I wanted to talk about the name of the book too. I love that you chose “Bedroom Rapper” as the title, especially after reading it and finding out why – it was a term used to describe you in a review that you were initially offended by, and rightfully so. I don’t know exactly what it is about it, but especially when it’s in a review, it’s just kinda limiting you to just a bedroom rapper almost. But now that you’re here and you’ve written the book, and you chose to name it, you’re basically embracing this, and that makes sense because although it has these negative connotations to it, it does also speak to the fact that you did build your career on your own and you started in your bedroom, right?

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, totally. You know, the interesting thing about it is in the moment, I didn’t think that was a positive; being able to totally make my career just off of a computer at my mom’s house as a child and just through pure ingenuity and using the internet. I didn’t think that was a plus at the time. But now, looking back.. That’s the thing about this book, it’s like hindsight’s 20/20 and looking back, it’s like, oh actually, I was a pioneer for young musicians tryna make albums with their computer.

It wasn’t a very common thing at the time and I realize that I kinda represent this era of rap musicians who weren’t using hardware. I was one of the first people I knew that was sending my music to people on the internet, and I remember people would laugh at me and thought I was crazy. They were like, ‘you’re emailing a record label? How do you even do that?’ People thought I was totally insane and now it’s just obviously the most commonplace thing you can imagine. And I feel like any aspiring rapper, any young rapper today, just to see where I went wrong, see what it used to be like to be someone like me back then, I think there’s a lot that people can learn from reading the book.

Yeah, of course. How would you say that your experience as a music journalist has informed your relationship with music writing and music criticism now that you’re an artist yourself?

Rollie Pemberton: Well you know, it changed a lot once I actually put out records, ‘cause I had been making music before I was putting out reviews. It was kinda around the same time. I saw them as a similar thing almost, like a hobby or something that I was doing. But then both of them got taken seriously at different times, which was an unlikely situation, and then what ended up happening was I was an extremely hyper-critical reviewer, but I actually could not take any criticism myself for my own music. I had very thin skin when I was younger about that kind of thing.

But now, the way I see it – the value in music criticism has changed, I think because of the fact that you can listen to any record on streaming, you can find out about the kind of music that you like in a way that almost eliminates the need for a music review. But I still think there is this desire for consensus that people still have, so I think there is something important about it, but just for me, I think my perspective is, I like to just write about what interests me, what I’m excited about and I only wanna write when I wanna write. I’m not good with deadlines or any kind of constrictions around the writing. So that’s the way I see it now.

I’m really enjoying writing books and I am gonna keep writing books. I think it will eventually become more of a thing for me than music, ultimately.

I wanted to get into a little bit of before you started making music yourself. So your father was a well-known DJ in Edmonton who was credited with being the first to play hip-hop on the radio in Edmonton. So with that, you write about your experiences getting to tag along with him and him passing down records that he didn’t necessarily want. With that, you grew up listening to and had access to a diverse range of sounds when it wasn’t as easy as it is today to explore music online. So how important do you see this as defining your taste and curiousness of music? And if you didn’t have those experiences with your dad as a DJ, do you think you would’ve found your curiosity for music?

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like, just through being around my dad – you know, he had a very particular perspective on music. He was the first person to play rap in Edmonton, possibly Alberta, but that wasn’t all he played. He was playing funk, soul, R&B, but also, he played Jimi Hendrix or he’d play the 2001 Space Odyssey theme. He was like a multi-format, almost mashup-style DJ before it was a thing. I think that this disregard for genre and for separating music really influenced me. I think it’s why I make the kind of music I make today. We grew up just listening to everything, so I never saw a reason why there should be any separation between the things.

I just love that genre isn’t really as prominent anymore, we’re kinda less focused on labeling it as a genre and just enjoying the music for what it is, which is something that your music has always done. Like, you were rapping on video game-inspired beats on your debut album, on Breaking Kayfabe. You’ve always had electronic elements to your music as well, so it’s cool.

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like throughout my career, everything I’ve done, I have encountered a lot of resistance to it. All the time. Like when I did my first album, Breaking Kayfabe, people were like, ‘oh, this is not rap’ or something. ‘Cause it’s just not what people were used to listening to or whatever. Even in Edmonton, people just thought I was super weird. I was younger than everybody, I was dressing like a total hipster before that was a thing, really. I just have always been a total outsider as a result of that.

But I used to feel really bad about that, but time continues to prove me right! (Laughs) ‘Cause everytime I do something, it ends up being the mainstream thing like five or 10 years later. So now I’m just kinda like, ‘OK, well I’m just gonna be me.’ I don’t follow any trends or whatever. I get into what I’m into, I like what I like and I put it through my lens, and then I disregard everything else, basically. So I think that approach has really been rewarding for me.

For sure, it gives you a lot of freedom as an artist when expressing yourself..

Rollie Pemberton: I have total freedom as an artist. It’s really nice. There was never any Edmonton sound that I had to do or something, when I first came on the scene. I’m so glad that I’m not from New York or something, where it’s like, ‘oh, you gotta rap over this drill music now, because this is what we all do from this area’ or whatever. I never had that. I never had any constraints and as a result, I just made the weird music I made.

One thing that stuck out to me too, just talking about getting started in Edmonton, was you mentioned you had to get love outside of the city first almost, and it took labels from outside the city because of what you just said.. The music that you were making was so foreign, that Edmonton and even Canada in general, the Canadian music scene has kinda been behind historically. One quote that stuck out to me was when you write, ‘I existed in a nebulous space. Too indie for the rap scene. Too rap for the indie scene.’ What was that experience like? Did you ever feel resentment towards the city of Edmonton for not being as receptive to your music or what are your sentiments there?

Rollie Pemberton: I did at one point. I think that was partly why I did move away to Montreal. I lived in Montreal for like six years and I wanted to go where there was maybe a wider appreciation of outsider music. But now the way I look back on it, cities change over time and I feel like now people back in Alberta have a lot of pride for me and the fact that I’ve changed the conversation about what art is in Alberta, ‘cause before it was just people talking about country music and that there’s no art in Alberta.

Now it’s like I’m the number one spokesman for Alberta basically, to say there’s art here, there’s a DIY scene, there’s people who really care about this stuff and you don’t have to be from Toronto to make noise as an artist in Canada.

What was that experience like of being close to artists who happened to make it big while they were around you and while you were collaborating with them? You know, while you met and started working with Grimes and Mac DeMarco, at that point was when they had really blown up and like you said, taken over music in the world, not just Canada. You write that it was hard not to compare your own success to that of your friends’, even though it was the total opposite. You called it an “apple to oranges situation.”

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, you know, for me, it didn’t bother me that much. My role already.. It was like I was an elder statesman for the other artists. I had already put out a lot of records and stuff, like I’d been nominated for the Polaris Prize, I’d already toured a lot. I’d already done a bunch of stuff, so people would ask me for advice like I was younger and stuff, ‘cause I just started so young.

But I think for some of the other people in the scene, you couldn’t help but compare yourself. You were like, ‘why not me?’ It had this weird effect on everyone, because at first, we used to all share our albums with each other and be like, ‘oh man, this new Sean Savage album’s amazing. I wanna make something as good as that.’ It was just this really good natured kind of competition, where everyone was just tryna make the best thing they could, you know?

Then it became this thing of like, ‘OK, Spin Magazine’s coming to town. Are they gonna interview me?’ And then, ‘oh, all these people wanna sign people to deals who are close to these artists,’ and it just kinda became this feeding frenzy. Then it was like, more people were moving to the Mile End specifically to be around our friend group, which was super weird. I don’t know, it just felt like a gold rush. It felt like everybody was tryna make it big and obviously, it ended up kind of destroying that scene because whenever you let capitalism in and it becomes a big determining factor around something, the art always suffers, I find.

Yeah, that’s a sad reality really. Another important place that you write about besides from Montreal, is the internet, which is a tool that you used at first to find other like-minded people and to kind of find that sense of community because you couldn’t find it in Edmonton physically. So I’m curious, what was that experience like? What was it like trying to do that in a time when the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is today?

Rollie Pemberton: I mean, it just blew my mind. ‘Cause for so long, I felt like I was the only person like me. Not only did people not look like me, but they also weren’t into the kind of music I was into or any of the cultural stuff, so I had a very lonely life for a long time. But then the internet came along and it held this promise of.. It’s gonna connect you to like-minded people around the world and it’s gonna be this great, democratizing element in the world, and for a long time it was. It really felt like such a fun place. It really felt like it was very radical.

Not only did it facilitate people getting together who couldn’t have met otherwise, but it also encouraged a certain extreme change to music. It really fostered the idea of mash-ups and bootlegs and alternate versions of tracks that you would just proliferate on the internet. It just felt like this kinda pirate attitude. It was just a very wild time for music that was super exciting in the moment. It was super fun to be a part of it. I just felt passionate about what I was doing, I was excited about sharing any ideas I had and I was just obsessed with music, so it just felt like a really good place for me. I feel like that enthusiasm really helped me to get my music out to people.

Yeah, it’s a great tool when we use it in ways like that, but in so many ways, it’s become almost invasive on our lives, especially in today’s world..

Rollie Pemberton: Oh yeah, it’s the most toxic element in modern society. It really has a bad impact on people now, but you know, again, this is another example of the influence of capitalism. ‘Cause you’re seeing this right now with Elon Musk and Twitter. We’re taking something that actually functions really well already, that is a very useful tool for people who use it and has been super useful for me and my career, but someone who seems to be purposefully destabilizing it for profit? It’s just confusing. That’s the thing about the internet today, is people will make an amazing app, but they’ll make their own app function worse if they can make more money from it. That is the internet today in a nutshell. People will cut off their own nose to spite their face.

I just had one more point about the DJ’ing thing that kinda blends in with everything else you’ve done within the music industry and having multiple sources of income as a member of the music community. It seems like that’s something that you have to do almost. If you’re someone who just wants to be a rapper, it’s almost impossible, at least to start, to just make a living off that.

You write about money coming in from DJ’ing, from writing and from royalties from your music as well, so I’m just curious, from your standpoint, how necessary is it to have multiple sources of income as someone in the industry?

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, I think it’s crucial. I think you can look at every artist and they have it. It’s just different for everyone, you know? I don’t have a liquor deal, but for me, I have a fellowship from the Atkinson Foundation. People have different kinds of sponsorships with different kinds of side hustles. Like, you know, Rick Ross has Wingstop or whatever. Everybody’s got something else going on. It’s just up to each individual artist to do the thing that makes sense for them. For me, it took me a really long time to actually make money from music. Whether it was just through the record label exploitation I was going through, but just the nature of the business.

It really took me over a decade to get to a point where I was like, ‘OK, I’m actually seeing some decent money come in here.’ So it’s important to just diversify what you’re doing. I think I just have been doing that anyway and I was never thinking of it like, ‘OK, I need to do this to make enough money to get by’ or whatever. It’s just a byproduct of how I’ve always seen things. You know, it’s like, I wanna do a little writing, I wanna make a little music, I wanna be creative in different ways, I wanna do speaking engagements and stuff. I realized I’m actually just diversifying, but it wasn’t an intentional decision.

In the 11th chapter, you kinda dive into the horrific details and your experience with Upper Class Recrords, which ultimately led to being ghosted by them and your manager in 2014. You write that you were “left alone to pick up the pieces” of your own career. I’m just wondering, how much value do you see in sharing something like that so candidly? First of all, thank you for sharing that so candidly, because for aspiring artists and for anyone to hear that, it just really raises awareness to how bad this exploitation is in the industry.

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, I feel like being open, honest and vulnerable about exploitation in the music industry is the most important thing I think I’ll ever do in my career. Writing this book, I think, is gonna be the most impactful thing I do in my career. I think it’s something people are gonna come back to and it’s a story that only I could tell. I feel like, honestly, all that stuff happened to me so I could talk about it and demystify the industry for people. This exploitation can only go on if we don’t talk about it.

It’s the same thing with touring. I recently wrote this article about the state of touring right now and it resonated with a lot of people, and I think part of it is because I was so honest about how expensive touring is and I used the numbers. I talked about one of my own tours that I lost $2000 on or whatever. I think the more that we put up a front about, ‘oh yeah, I’m making all this money! I’m this impenetrable artist,’ all it does is help these entities who want to exploit it. That’s all it does. My whole thing is I wanna make things easier for artists coming after me. I think I can do that by using my voice.

Yeah, that’s amazing. I was gonna ask you too, about that article you had just written about touring and it’s another example of you never shying away from dollar values when you discuss the different expenses that come with touring.

But yeah, it just seems like such a sad reality and it’s one that people don’t really seem to take seriously. I love your article, towards the end you say ‘next time one of your artists cancels a show, don’t take it personally.’ You know, there’s probably some things going on behind the scenes that you’re not aware of and I think mental health and mental stress of artists is an extremely important thing that we need to also be aware of.

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, for sure. I think now more than ever, the pressure just keeps mounting on artists who are just tryna follow their heart and make the art that they wanna make. Especially, we’re in this pandemic landscape where everything has changed so much just in everyday life. Yeah, I just want people to really give artists a bit more slack and I think, ultimately, the point of why I wrote that piece was, I really wanna look into more music industry reform, ‘cause I think these things that we’ve accepted as being standard parts of touring, they shouldn’t be. I think if they were in any other industry, we would have strong unions who would fight for our rights and wouldn’t let these things happen. They wouldn’t let us go into these unsafe working conditions where we’re losing money constantly and we’re always in these precarious situations. The industry is so designed to extract from artists that it’s really hard to detangle yourself from it.

Whereas, say I wanna protest and I wanna take my music off Spotify, it’s like, ‘well, you can’t because you’ve licensed your music out to a record label and they control it now.’ And you have to convince them to take it down. You know, it’s like, ‘I’m gonna protest and not tour,’ or whatever and it’s like, well, they’ll get another artist who’ll do it. You don’t wanna do that Snoop Dogg tour, they’ll find somebody else who will pay.

Right, and then it kinda works both ways. It almost hurts you as well, because even if you could take your music down from streaming services at your own will.. I mean, streaming money is ridiculous, but that’s a source of income that you would no longer have, right?

Rollie Pemberton: Of course, and it’s like, less exposure. But the other thing too I was thinking while writing this piece is some people won’t wanna book me or something. I thought of that possibility. People don’t like me bringing these issues to the light. But for me, I don’t really care about that. I’m not afraid. I’ve died and come back again so many times in this industry, I can’t be hurt anymore. I’m at a point in my career where I’m in a position, in Canada at least, where I feel like I can lead other artists and I feel like I can take chances that other people can’t take and I wanna do that for people. I wanna lead people.

Yeah, that’s amazing that you acknowledge that that’s where you’re at in your career and that you’re using your platform to do stuff like that. And you’ve always been an advocate for social issues and you’re also an advocate for the Encampment Support Network?

Rollie Pemberton: Yeah, the Encampment Support Network. They actually disbanded relatively recently, but yeah, that’s definitely an issue that’s still strong in my mind. Things are just really bad in Ontario right now, like where we’re at. We’re having a lot of issues with the provincial government and even the municipal leadership in Toronto, so I think we’re gonna need collective action more than ever. That was one of the best things about the pandemic was that all these artists who normally would be playing all these shows and be super busy, so many of us became more politically engaged and thought of different ways to point our energy.

I feel like I wanna keep that going. Definitely one of the things that I’m really fighting against is merch cuts. How venues and festivals, they take like 20-25% of artists’ merch. I don’t think a lot of fans don’t really know that, but it’s become a standard thing, especially in festivals. It’s really criminal that they still engage in this during the pandemic. You know, people coming back, playing these shows for the first time in years and still being like, ‘but we’re gonna take this 25%.’ It’s a crime.

Yeah, it really is. That’s wild. I wanted to talk about too, your time serving as the poet laureate for Edmonton and the pressure that you felt might’ve came with it, based on the fact that the guy you were replacing was a 74-year-old white professor. Because of that, you write about some backlash that you received based on you being a black rapper replacing him. I was curious, do you think that would still be an issue if that were to have happened today? Do you think that we’ve come a long way in getting hip-hop to be recognized as the poetry that it is?

Rollie Pemberton: Well I gotta preface that Canada is different from the States in this way, ‘cause it’s always a little bit behind. I was poet laureate in 2009, so back then in Canada, people were still like, ‘rap is crap.’ No one was playing it on the radio. It was really hard to find rap on the radio across Canada. Maybe there was like one station in Toronto playing rap, so yeah, the landscape was a lot different. I think if it were to happen now, people would be way more amenable to it. Hopefully because somebody like me came before, but also because you have things like Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize, just making it undeniable that hip-hop is art. Especially when you see Amanda Gorman out there, it’s like there are young, diverse voices in poetry.

Speaking of Canada being behind, you write that ‘the powers that be were often behind in times when it comes to rap music,’ and based on your experiences, why do you think that is? I mean, I know you can’t answer that question, but based on what you’ve seen and heard, why?

Rollie Pemberton: I think in Canada, we have this inferiority complex about Americans and American culture, and I think we are inherently reluctant to do things unless they are co-signed by Americans or have been done first by an American. Especially when it comes to rap, I think there’s a lot of resistance to going out on a limb and supporting our own artists on our own accord. I think also, just culturally, it’s not the same as America.

Canada’s becoming more diverse, especially way more than when I was growing up, but there’s still a lot of pockets of the country where there isn’t a lot of black culture and there isn’t a lot of appreciation for hip-hop. So there’s still a bit of a learning experience. I’m still having a lot of teachable moments when I go certain places in Canada.

Beyond being just a memoir and a reflection of your life and your career, towards the latter part of the book, there are also essays that you write about your take on certain aspects and subgenres of hip-hop. One part that stuck out to me was when you write about Future and his constant writing about something that he had admitted to no longer being a part of or no longer living, which was his drug use and the popularity of “Mask Off” despite that. You also write about the shift of meaning in the word ‘trap.’ It went from somewhere that you didn’t wanna be or somewhere that you were stuck, to being promoted by artists who were really living that life, so how fine do you think that line should be?

Rollie Pemberton: You know, that’s a good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that with regards to lyrics in court cases. Especially the scrutiny that rappers face when they go to prison or when they are murdered, like Takeoff or whoever. There’s this expectation that because ‘oh yeah, he raps about drugs or violence at some point,’ that maybe he had it coming. That’s like the implication that I feel like you see online, is that any of these black rappers, there’s an expectation of violence coming to them because of the genre they make or something, you know?

Yeah, but then with that viewpoint comes ignorance to consider the humanity behind it and why they were maybe forced to live this life or even write songs about it in the first place, right?

Rollie Pemberton: Oh yeah, it’s a very shallow reading. There’s institutional and systemic factors as to why people rap about what they rap about. It’s really just a reflection of their environment and there’s all kinds of reasons why black people are in the environments they are in America. But it’s hard to argue with somebody on Twitter about redlining. (Laughs) The problem with Twitter is there’s no room for nuance there. That’s why I like to write these long articles that are very difficult to refute.

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