The Afrofuturism of Paul Chin

The Toronto DJ talks mental health in Black communities, how technology is amplifying social justice, and how Black music is both the past and the future.

paul chin

Image via Indoor Recess

paul chin

Paul Chin’s music hits that spot—weighty with bass but still gossamer, tangled with minimal drum and bass and pierced with the kind of delicately strung, distant-sounding synth that makes your heart ache. If you have a honey at home, this is the music for getting close with the lights low. Chin’s latest EP is the type of record that leaves you a little love-drunk, its kaleidoscopic scope swallowing a sound that almost makes you feel colour. Every sound and genre artfully darned into the tapestry of Chin’s electronica is given the kind of texture, sensory attention, and exacting production that makes the album earn its name: Full Spectrum.

The Caymanian DJ thanks his diasporic life for the rich and varied sounds that bloom over and over through the record. “I never meant to end up in Canada. It was purely circumstantial, but it ended up being the best possible outcome. Toronto ended up making such an indelible mark on me. It’s one of the best places on earth. And it’s a really special place to be an immigrant.” Chin had been living in Toronto for the better part of a decade before having to return to the Cayman Islands to process his immigration. The electronica producer came back to the 6ix after tying the knot with his long-time partner and got back to the grind, pumping out a slew of meticulously produced projects that would net him acclaim from prestigious institutions such as the Polaris Music Prize.

When COVID kicked into full gear, Chin had just dropped Full Spectrum, and the pandemic snuffed the hope of being able to effectively promote the album. But now Paul is using the record to fund initiatives for Black mental health, which is being invariably challenged by the ongoing police brutality against innocent and unarmed Black people.

“I put out Full Spectrum the week before lockdown protocol went into effect. I was like, 'Cool, this whole record is a write-off for me. I wasn’t expecting it to perform or do as well as I would have hoped. But that’s made it easier for me to say that whatever money came from it, I could donate it to the cause, because I wasn't counting on it, right? This seemed like a good way to essentially just kind of use something that I already had at my disposal, which was like, you know, a new record to promote.”

We sat down with Paul to talk mental health in Black communities, how technology is amplifying the reality of social justice, and how Black music is both the past and the future.

How would you say technology is connecting to or amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement right now?

I feel like every single time we have one of these protests and falsified riots instigated by law enforcement, there seems to be a wider sight and a clearer understanding of the scope of the problem. It is unfortunate that progress comes at an absolutely glacial pace, and that it takes something like this every single time to help people see a little more of the picture. We've also kinda cracked through to a new threshold for everybody. A lot of people are starting to not only condemn what has happened, but to take the burden of the responsibility of being anti-racist. People have now figured out that racism is the default. Now you have to go out of your way and be actively anti-racist and anti-fascist. I think a lot of these non-Black populations have finally tapped into that. But at the same time, you have these Instagram influencers out here, painting themselves in blackface, like in honour of George, because they think that that's the thing to do. There's still people not actually listening to our voices, and trying to center themselves in these conversations. I don't know if that's ever going away. But yeah, it's been nice to see that at least we've kind of hit a wide enough threshold [and] this conversation around being actively anti-racist has become part of the Zeitgeist.

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What does anti-racism look like to you?

My take around all this stuff is, you know, look: It's 2020 and like, Google is free, right? You don't have excuses for not knowing or for not being able to access the information around what you need to do. For me, the thing that I most appreciate is that I've had a lot of people calling in to check on me or step in on my behalf so that I don't have to spend my good time on the internet, educating people around stuff that I'm not being paid for or compensated for. It's been nice to see people take that approach to allyship; that people are unloading the labour that is just living in the world as a Black person. I’ve also read stories about white people who are going super hard on the frontlines of protests and using themselves as shields to protect Black protesters. Things like that begin to harness and weaponize that privilege against the systemic forces that give it to them in the first place. That’s the work of being anti-racist. Then you apply that to, you know, the different people that you interact with and people that you engage with and the people that you show up for: cis Black men and women, as well as queer Black men and women, and gender non-conforming Black people. Anti-racist allyship in the beginning seems exhausting... but it's only exhausting because you've gone so long in your life never having to do it. So now's the time to get those reps in until it becomes normal for you.

"Mainstream culture is just Black culture. That's what it is, it's Black culture, X number of degrees removed from the source, which is truly haunting and horrifying."

And so what drove you to support the Black Mental Health Matters Fund?

People don't quite realize how much of a stigma there is around mental health in the Black community. I think we're only just starting to kind of see more healthy conversation, around that from within the community. If there's anybody who carries trauma, it is, you know, a community of people who have no connection to their origins, no connection to their ethnic backgrounds. All of these things are intergenerational, and we carry that and it manifests in new ways. A lot of us don't have the tools to handle that very well, especially if things continue to escalate to very stressful points under capitalism and white supremacy. My wife is also a practicing psychotherapist, and she put me onto this fundraiser that her colleagues started called The Healing Collective. They started this fund called the Black Mental Health Matters fund. So they are basically raising funds in order to allow Black therapists to offer their services to traumatized Black people, pro bono. The whole world is under compounded crises right now: we have a lot of people who are out of work, and, typically, when work shortages and things of that nature sort of come up, who is disproportionately targeted? It's often Black people.


You’ve had your own struggles with systemic racism in Canada. How does that find it’s way into your artistry and music?

When I had immigration struggles, I was so thrown, because living in Toronto as an immigrant is a unique and special experience. When it was time to do all of this, like, paperwork around, you know, my identity and living here and all of this stuff that's come to find out, oh, yeah, there are all these policies that don't really take into account the effort you’ve invested into your life as a true blue Torontonian. That's when I realized there’s a very specific kind of classicism in the way that you apply to immigrate here; there are certain things and certain types of people that are prioritized over others. On paper, it all looks like equal opportunity, but nothing happens in a vacuum. So, when you're saying that you prioritize people coming from certain professions or certain, you know, economic backgrounds.... After living here for the better part of a decade and having made a life here while living and working as an artist and designer, when it came time to apply, they're like, "Hey, this doesn't count because you didn't report to a boss, right? You didn't have a job job, right? Don’t mind the 80 hours a week you were working just to, like make ends meet and survive on your own." Like, that doesn't count for me. Which is crazy. Because also, that's a lot of people's experiences: moving to a country where you don't have a huge network other than your family or people who are close to you, but can't necessarily provide for you. And so you have to make your own opportunities. A lot of immigrants hustle, carrying three jobs and multiple side hustles. But somehow, apparently, this doesn’t match the checklist of things that you need to do to officially be living the “Canadian experience.”

Did having to move open up collaborations on Full Spectrum that wouldn’t have existed otherwise?

Not directly, no. I mean, I think all of that happening did definitely lead to a lot of other circumstances. After all of that kind of went down and I had to leave and go back home to the Cayman Islands, I was exhausted. Not just exhausted making music and hustling my music, but just… tired. I couldn’t think about making another record. But of course, my music is just how I think about life and how I see the world. And so, while I stopped making music for the purposes of releasing it, it just opened me up to refresh my own relationship with music. It really gave me an opportunity to reassess who I am as an artist. I think that in reframing my own career I was also able to have conversations with my fellow artists. We were able to connect in a lot of ways—all the guests on Spectrum were people who I've been having, like, long, ongoing conversations about what it means to be an artist. What does it mean to, like, be somebody who's making stuff and trying to release it in this very crowded, very saturated market right now? I think that worked out really well for me because I ended up making the music that I'm the most proud of. All the stuff on this record feels like stuff that will stand the test of time.

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How do you think that solace changed you as an artist?

One of the things that really stuck with me actually came my way via one of my favorite record labels, Ghostly International. They put out this shirt a couple of years ago and on the back of it, it says, “Things of quality have no fear of time.” Nobody can really even tell where it came from. It's just sort of like one of those like, internet graphic quotes or whatever. The origins have just been sort of lost to time. As I've gotten older, the longer I've done this, it's hard not to just be insecure about what you're doing, how you're spending your time. But as I reflect on that mantra a little bit, and I've just really thought about, 'Oh, yeah, like, what, what is the rush? Why are you thinking about these things in terms of how fast they're getting you to certain places or any of that stuff?' I really want to be able to do this forever, and that's not going to be able to happen if I keep kind of self-sabotaging my own psyche in this way. As an artist now, I think of myself as a work in progress in pursuit of becoming comfortable with making these artifacts for the future, essentially.

Thanks for shouting out Ghostly International. Last question: you’re Black and make electronic music. Can you talk about the Black origins of techno?

Think of all the music that we listen to, all the music that we love. Mainstream culture is just Black culture. That's what it is, it's Black culture, X number of degrees removed from the source, which is truly haunting and horrifying. But it is reality and it's high time we actually start having this conversation. Now, again, like none of this stuff is new. None of this stuff is hidden information. But, you know, since people seem to care about this stuff right now, I want to be yet another voice that kind of comes out and says it. Everything you love—everything in mainstream pop culture—very likely started from a Black person just doing it just to kind of appease themselves and keep themselves sane, safe, and joyful.

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