“We notorious,” goes the opening line in the Rascalz’ 1998 CanCon classic “Northern Touch.” Two decades later, that statement rings especially true for Canada. Whether it be the top of the Billboard charts or the sports world, the Great White North has found a new gear, producing more world-famous talent at a higher rate than ever. So we’re capturing a few of those rising stars before they go supernova. This is Northern Clutch.
Haviah Mighty hasn’t been playing games on her way to the top: she’s spit bars on the cypher battle rap circuit during her time with the all-female MC collective The Sorority, spun up quicksilver freestyle rhymes on Sway in the Morning, and proven that she has the ear, artistry, and producing prowess to craft groundbreaking music deserving of Canada’s most prestigious music award, the Polaris Prize, with her 2019 record, 13th Floor. Last year’s project was a resounding and unapologetic exploration of the underdog, interlacing bass, brass, and beats from a range of genres from dancehall to hip-hop. The 13-track record had all of the delightful trappings of breakout album, most notably Haviah’s whip-smart, wound-tight lyrical cadence that has vaulted her career to being the first Black woman to take home the Polaris, and beyond.
"The 13th Floor is about stories that have been dismissed," says Mighty, who has often used music to parse through the hardship and discrimination that she faced in her early childhood in Toronto. “I think it really speaks to who I am as a person, and the music that I write. There's a lot of elements that, if you look back to my origin years, it feels like there are things I’m still trying to unwind. I'm still trying to feel validated in what I feel based on the pain that my family experienced, or things I know my dad went through and ways he's been treated that he can't express outwardly.”
This is the perfect launching point for Haviah to catapult into her latest single, "Atlantic," which mainlines right into the most poignant lyrics of the track: "Never seen Atlanta, but we travel the Atlantic." The song explores the brutality of the slave trade, its everlasting impact on the modern economy, and how capitalism has reconfigured to promote more modern forms of exploitation.
“I went into the songwriting process channeling these sensations and resonating with the hopelessness my ancestors must have felt, and how that hopelessness hasn't disappeared. What ties this hopelessness together, past to present, is the concept of money,” Mighty tells Complex.
We managed to catch up with Haviah to talk about the duality of living through and observing these challenges, how they impact the current social climate in 2020, and how all of this has propelled her evolution as an artist.
What have the last six months looked like for you?
I wasn't on the road the way I expected to be. I did a lot of writing and made a lot of new music. I was already wondering, 'How am I going to work on new music while I'm traveling?' because I had a lot of shows booked. And while they were unfortunately cancelled, the silver lining of that was the ability to work on this new music and just write in my studio at home and have more time than I could have ever anticipated. I'm grateful for the ability to have been able to put all of me into the music… but obviously the shows and obligations and cool things we had lined up, all that stuff kind of went out the door.
I’ve also been focusing on songwriting the last six months. With the idea of making music, the goal at the end of the day is to have a connection with as many people as possible and be validated in the messages that I'm sharing. I’m just trying to improve on my songwriting and being able to tell the stories that I have in my head more efficiently and being able to connect in a more fluid way.
"We're seeing more females in hip-hop that are filling different spaces, taking up space in ways that don't look the way that we expect it to look."
What’s your recording process like? How have you been recording and what differences are you noticing?
My process hasn't changed significantly from when I was working on the 13th Floor project. I did do half of the vocal recordings in my house and half in a studio for that, so all of the records that I've worked on this year have been recorded in my house. Luckily, I had invested in some equipment in January, which was great to have when everything shut down. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be able to make the progress that I have.
Let’s talk about your most recent video "Bag Up."
It was produced by my brother, Prince Mighty. The idea behind the video was kind of an interpretation of getting the bag, but interpreted through the eyes of women. It explores working hard yourself and self-growth. It was celebrating it in a way that doesn't look like typical rap visuals: girls, bottles, money, nice cars… I didn't really want to go that traditional route of showcasing financial success. I wanted it to reflect internal success and empowerment of women as well.
Being a woman in hip-hop, how do you feel about the depiction of womanhood in the genre?
I think we're seeing a little bit of a shift now—we're seeing more females in hip-hop that are filling different spaces, taking up space in ways that don't look the way that we expect it to look. I’m just happy to be a representation of that in some way to show that there is a broader story that’s finally being projected.
How do you feel about the current world we live in and social injustice? And how have you been channeling that into your music?
I’m a Black female in Canada, so it can be a lonely place. As a young younger person, I would always try to understand why I don't fit into certain spaces, or why things didn’t feel inclusive to me. Why am I not understood by coworkers, why do I have to adjust my behaviour to get the job? There’s this realization that what exists within you, that the internal you and the external you are not comfortably received by your counterparts. So I think that’s where the concept for the song and the video of "13" came from, being able to recognize and understand that.
I think I was also considering the overrepresentation of Black people in the prison system. I remember initially thinking to write to this production from 2oolman from A Tribe Called Red and Robotaki. I remember I really wanted the song to connect and I was thinking about a friend of mine in jail. If I were to write to him, about the over representation of people like him in the prison system, what would I say? And then I wrote a song, as if I was speaking to him. And then I stumbled upon the 13th Amendment that outlined in layman's terms that a slave and a criminal are intrinsically one in the same according to the U.S. Constitution. I think that for me immediately [provided] answers to questions I'd had throughout my life, and parallels that I'd seen between the transatlantic slave trade movement and the jail system. And then already just naturally feeling [like an] underdog [who] doesn't fit for the majority of my life and having to have this adaptability... I wanted to present these ideas not just as a Black woman, but as a fact.
What are some of the goals and aspirations you have coming up?
I say my biggest goal and aspiration is to do something I haven't done before. I have done cypher videos and stuff. And I'll do that stuff again. I’ve proven that I have the ability to hear a beat and spit bars that connect. I put out a project that won the Polaris Music Prize, and I'm really grateful for that. And through that, I've been able to prove that I can make a body of work. And so with this next wave of music, I want to try to do something that I haven't done before. And I think the best way to do that is to just make records and individual songs that can stand alone as a song and tell a story that is impactful in such a way that it doesn’t need to lean on anything else, but itself.
I want to make really good songs. I want to make bangers, and I want to make bangers even if they're ballads. I want to be able to make better songs on the first try. I want my demos to sound like final records. I want things to be at the next level all the time. And it's so amazing that now that I've created this body of this array of elementals to call these traps that I've put together. I already feel like I'm starting to get better than them and they're not even out yet. That's the goal at the end of the day: to just keep getting better.