Meet Emanuel, the Idris Elba-Approved Singer Who Can Heal Us All

The Ontario singer who just signed with Motown in the U.S. talks about his new EP 'Session 2: Transformation.'

emanuel canadian artist signed tomotown idris elba

Image via Matt Barnes

emanuel canadian artist signed tomotown idris elba

R&B singer Emanuel has clear and lofty goals for his music. He's even written an artist's manifesto about his 2020 EP series he’s calling Alt Therapy, and put it out into the universe. That’s not typical of most artists; maybe theirs is sitting privately on a nightstand or affixed to the fridge.

Alt Therapy. It represents so many things. It is healing," he writes. "Healing for those things in the past that would have us in bondage, in depression, in sadness. Those voices that told us we weren’t important. It’s gratification for the yearning in our hearts to do something great for the people of this world." And so forth.

The London, Ontario-based mononymous singer-songwriter, whose surname is Assefa, was signed to Universal Music Canada by hip-hop great Kardinal Offishall—Emanuel adds “mentor and collaborator” to the A&R description (Kardi also has a credit on his single “Black Woman”)—and has been releasing music since April, when famed actor Idris Elba heard his song “Need You,” and reached out with an idea for a video. The Hobbs & Shaw star served as creative director, soliciting at-home clips from people in some 20 countries showing how they are getting through the quarantine. Elba is now the executive producer for Emanuel’s debut full-length album, Alt Therapy, due next year including a just-announced deal with Motown in the U.S.

In June, he put out the first EP, Alt Therapy Session 1: Disillusion. Out today (Dec. 4) is the follow-up, Session 2: Transformation, containingthree songs: the rich soul of “Magazine,” singing of a misguided, starry-eyed woman; “Black Woman,” his pained but beautiful I-see-you tribute; and “PTH,” an explicit come-on with background vocals by Saveria. They were all produced by his main co-writers John Fellner and Ryan Bakalarczyk. The EP also contains a remix of “Black Woman,” featuring Jamaican reggae singer Tarrus Riley, and produced by Supa Dups, whose credits are a who’s who, including Sean Paul, Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Kardi.

Complex Canada chatted with Emanuel right before his EP release to find out how he’s faring during COVID-19, how he will manifest the statements in the manifesto, why using explicit language in art can be effective, and what his plans are for 2021.

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You’ve had a productive year. It’s been a constant flow of music. But you’re living through a pandemic that's stopped our industry, plus it’s been heavy year with the Black Lives Matter movement. How have you been coping?

Before COVID, I was out in Toronto living alone. My family has been my biggest tool to coping, being here with my family, knowing that we're here together, always having that constant reassurance with each other being around and knowing that we're safe. Listening to music, that's been like a huge thing. Having those moments of cathartic release. All of those moments, there were certain things that I was forced to remember—not necessarily forced to remember, but it was a pleasant reigniting of certain bonds. 

Oh, positive things.

Yeah. Definitely a lot of positives. A lot of promises I've been trying to keep to myself. I've been trying to be more active. That definitely helps me cope a lot, trying to take control of the narrative. 

You wrote a manifesto, in which you say—among many other things—that you want your music to provide healing, not just for you, but for the listener. That’s a big goal that you have no control over. How do you want to enforce or convey that?

I think enforcing it is impossible. It's something of a goal. I have faith that there's a calling over my life to be able to convey certain messages or to be a channel for certain entities and certain vibes. It was something that I stumbled upon. I've always loved music. I've always loved to perform, but when I got on stage, I started to see people's reactions to what was going on in the music, people telling me about the experience that they had while listening to the music. Or the experiences that I have while listening to some of my favourite artists that I do want to emulate, those special things about the artists, those moments of wisdom... while still enjoying some of the most beautiful music ever made.

"It's cathartic to experience creating the songs, to see them have legs and to see what they can do in the world."

Who did provide that healing and inspiration for you?

A couple of big names are people like Frank Ocean, people like Kendrick Lamar. Listening to [Lamar’s]Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City or To Pimp A Butterfly or Overly Dedicated. Those moments where I would be alone, sometimes going through really hard times, and sometimes forgetting who I am and forgetting sometimes how much walk there is to enjoy in this life. 


You're a young man. When did you become so disillusioned with the world that you felt you needed to find therapy?

I think therapy would have been essential since I was a very young age. Since you start being cognisant that everybody's not perfect, that adults aren't perfect, as soon as you start to broaden your understanding. We do children a disservice by thinking that they don't have a more clear grasp on what's going on, or the state of the world, or that they [don't] feel the gravity of what's going on in the world. And I think there was a lot of things that trickle down and it can cause you to have sort of a grim outlook from a young age. At a young age, I was super aware of certain trends in the world, whether it be racism, whether it be some of the things that come along with that, or whether it something as simple as not feeling stimulated in class. This is something that takes up so much of my life, something that people reassure me is the top five or top two most important things that I have to do, but I just check out. So times like that, therapy would have been really nice, somebody to talk to.

Your answer to my very first question about how you were coping, you talked about having your family around you. I assume you had a happy, loving, supportive family and childhood.

Yeah, a definitely loving and supporting family and definitely a loving and supporting childhood, but there's a lot of things that you're made aware of in life. Life happens to everybody. My mom is a really resilient woman. She always has a brave face on, but there's been times where things happen and we almost take on her brave face in that moment. And as a child, sometimes it can just be heavy for the whole family, even if there is real love and support.

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Back in mid-March, the pandemic hit, things closed down and a month later, you've got that video out for “Need You”.  How did Idris Elba become connected? It was such a beautiful concept, during lockdown. It must've got you through for a little while after that.

Definitely. I felt like there was no better time that that situation could have come together because we were in a position where we were having to pivot because of the lockdown. We were planning on having certain releases. And Idris Elba got a hold of some of the music and he was listening to it. And he came up with the idea for the video as a way to respond to the situation. We got over 20 countries, with people sending in videos of what they were doing during that lockdown. I think early on people were just really trying to get a grip on the situation and finding a way to connect again and finding a way for us to be able to share that moment with each other was really special.

And I think in that, in that same way, everybody came together. That's the mission, I guess, with Alt Therapy, what we lived out with that release, because everybody really did come together. Even the release [of the music video], we had everybody on a Zoom call. I think we had 200-plus people that had sent in video clips involved in the Zoom. So moments like that were really special. Everybody was super thrown off by lockdown, and Idris, the team at Universal, my team that helped direct and helped shoot the video, the opportunity to be able to come together and to create this was really special. Yeah, it did carry me for a while. 

"I wanted to show appreciation to let them know that they were seen, because there was something of a great awakening in me even realizing the importance of not just women, but Black women in my life."

You put both these EPS under the umbrella Alt Therapy. Is that for you or is that for us?

If you go back to the manifesto, it’s both. It's therapy for me. It's cathartic to release. It's cathartic to experience creating the songs, to see them have legs and to see what they can do in the world. It's a constantly changing and evolving therapy session for me to get the concept. As they grow, there's more responses, more conversation. So seeing that is definitely therapeutic. Also, hearing the responses from people about how the music's made them feel and the types of experiences and the type of time that the music been a benefactor in carrying them through, in that sense I believe that it's supposed to be therapy for everybody.

In the summer, you put out the first installment, Alt TherapySession 1: Disillusion. How did you determine which three songs were going on session one and which on two?

There's like a grand story of growth and coming of age within Alt Therapy. And I think we tried to take essential building blocks and essential pillars that we found from the entire body to try to convey the message before releasing the full-length.

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The new one, Alt Therapy Session 2: Transformation, all three songs are clearly about women. Talk about “Black Woman.” We had the #MeToo movement lift off three years ago and this year the Black Live Matters movement exploded globally. 

We were in the Cayman Islands. This was the summer of 2019. And I felt like I was putting enormous pressure on myself to create an important song. I was having a lot of conversations with mentors who were talking me off the ledge and simplifying the idea of singing what's really important to me and having a lot of conversations with those same people and coming to the conclusions that I came to. We were talking about Black women. We were talking about the impact that they have in our lives and also, the duality of the utter disenfranchisement that they face in their day-to-day lives. And it was inspired by the plight. And it was also like a love letter. I wanted to ask questions. It was in the spirit of art therapy, I guess. It was a moment where I wanted to learn. I wanted to show appreciation to let them know that they were seen, because there was something of a great awakening in me even realizing the importance of not just women, but Black women in my life.

You choose some strong language in some of the lyrics—pussy [“PTH” stands for "pussy tastes like heaven"] and ho [in “Magazines”]. How do you square that with wanting people to show respect for women?

If I was watching a movie about some of the subjects that I'm talking about, some of the most moving films are some of the most graphic. Some of those scenes, I had the most visceral reactions to because of the morbidity that's going on. So sometimes we speak from a really raw place in order to tell a story. With "Magazines," specifically, I was talking about people with broken hearts that fill those empty spaces with things that will never be able to fill those holes and will never be able to give them the healing that they need. And, also, we glamorize them. And so hopping into that person and hopping into that personality and speaking from that place was where a lot of the nuances come from. There was a line where Kendrick Lamar talks about [paraphrasing], 'I can talk about God. I can talk about guns. I can talk about drugs. I can talk about all of these things because I know where it's coming from, and I know the heart behind it.’ We know the story that we're trying to tell. I don't think the intention or the outcome should be misunderstood.

How are you planning for 2021 with touring up in the air?

We're really blessed to have stumbled upon a theme for this album and the story that we try to tell that was really needed and in a time like this in the world. As the world grows and as the world weathers this time that we're in right now, I think the world does need therapy and the world could benefit from this album. I think there's more to tell when it comes to the story about Alt Therapy and the songs that we have to release and more collaborations. So it's only going to get more relevant and more meaningful. After session two, we're going to be releasing the full-length.

You can't plan any shows just yet.

That been a really tough thing for me ‘cause I love to connect with people. Aside from people listening to the music, doing shows are really special to me. So that’s definitely gutted me. I'm definitely optimistic. I'm looking forward to the opportunities to be able to get back there and hopefully tour, maybe.

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