Arts
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Polaris Prize-nominated rapper Shad on disconnection, the death of discourse, and how we might turn things around

The Juno Award-winner visits Victoria's Capital Ballroom on June 8

By Martin Bauman
June 7, 2022
Arts
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Polaris Prize-nominated rapper Shad on disconnection, the death of discourse, and how we might turn things around

The Juno Award-winner visits Victoria's Capital Ballroom on June 8

By Martin Bauman
Jun 7, 2022
Photo provided.
Photo provided.
Arts
Q&A
Generally one-sided, lightly edited with no opportunity for response.

Polaris Prize-nominated rapper Shad on disconnection, the death of discourse, and how we might turn things around

The Juno Award-winner visits Victoria's Capital Ballroom on June 8

By Martin Bauman
June 7, 2022
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Polaris Prize-nominated rapper Shad on disconnection, the death of discourse, and how we might turn things around

Polaris Prize nominee and Peabody Award-winning artist Shad is performing in Victoria on Wednesday, June 8 at The Capital Ballroom. 

Never one to shy from writing with a message at the core of his music, the London, Ont.-raised rapper’s seventh studio album, TAO, weaves from surveillance capitalism and the works of Shoshana Zuboff to social media addiction, job precarity, and the increasing social divide. On TAO, Shad asks the question: what happens when we’re broken apart? And is the answer to return things to the way they were, or allow them to make space for something new?

Capital Daily newsletter editor Martin Bauman spoke with Shad about disconnection, the influence of technology on our lives, and how we might come together.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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This feels very much like an album befitting the times. Maybe that's the nature of the pandemic: laying bare what was already there before, just in a louder, more in-your-face kind of way. Could you talk about the things that shaped this album, and how and when it came together for you? 

I think you're absolutely right; the pandemic has highlighted and amplified what was already happening, which, I think, is why this album still makes sense now, and maybe even makes more sense now. But what inspired this album in particular was this idea of disconnection.

[It seems to me] that we are increasingly disconnected from the various aspects of our lives: work, the environment, each other, a connection to a sense of the transcendent… all these different things that make up the human experience. It feels like they're under threat of disappearing. And that's been on my mind for a few years. 

Were there different dominoes you could point to that were falling that felt like, ‘Oh, that's another one,’ or was it a growing sense across the board? 

It just seemed like things and people [were] falling apart. It was really starting to feel like just being, just feeling okay, was something that almost nobody was experiencing. And that's just really, really troubling. 

I've talked a bit about this image of a circle that occurred to me: a circle that breaks into different pieces, and then the pieces start to float away from each other. That's when it really struck me, like, ‘Oh, wow, it's every aspect of our lives.’ You know, it's every aspect of our society that’s under threat—from work, to social cohesion, to the environment, you name it. All of these essential aspects of life are under threat. There’s obviously crises going on elsewhere in the world, but I think I’m talking mainly about our crisis here.

There’s a book that preceded some of the ideas on this album: The Abolition of Man, by CS Lewis. He's quoted on the album in “Tao, Pt. II”: “Human nature will be the last part of nature to surrender to man. The battle will indeed be won, but who precisely will have won?” How did you come across that book, and what stuck with you about it?

I came across that book many years ago in my father-in-law’s bookshelf. It’s less of a book and more of an essay. If you know CS Lewis, you know his fiction, but he’s also a very clear philosophical thinker. 

A few years later, I read this book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff. I would call it essential reading. It’s the history of the last 20 to 25 years since Google and Facebook started. And she is really trying to make clear what has happened… you know, Google [used to] function like this, and this is how it changed its relationship to us and so on. It’s about a decision that we have to make about what we think is good about human life. And what we want to preserve and protect against these super, almost unimaginably strong powers that now exist. I’m talking about, you know, big tech. 

The Abolition of Man was written in 1943, but it’s about the same thing. It didn’t imagine the technologies we have now, but it's still about [this] scientific way of looking at things. And what’s good about that, and the limits to that. And what CS Lewis is saying is the limit is when we start to see ourselves as data points: raw information, raw material. And that’s exactly what’s happening now. With these [tech] companies, we are the raw material that they mine. 

It made me think about a lot of different things that are going on in our world and [wonder], ‘Maybe this is the [underlying] question; we have to bring it down to this.’ We have a lot of big political conversations these days. But maybe we need to go one step deeper and say, ‘Before we even get into all that, what is a human being?’ Can we agree on that? Can we agree on what we want for human life? Because that might straighten out some of these political conversations we're having, whether it’s racism or housing.

It seems like part of this album reflects on the death of discourse, the dissolution of discourse. Why do you think we’ve become so bad at talking to each other? Or maybe listening to each other?

I think there’s a few reasons. But I think you can definitely start with technology [and] social media: the idea that we can communicate, or we can be community with just short forms of text. We should have known that that’s not going to work [laughs]. We lose context; we lose, like, 90% of the important parts of connection, right? So there’s that.

I was reading this other book, and it was talking about digital and analog. So analog is very complex, very rich in information. Digital is [binary]: zeros and ones. And I thought, isn’t that poetic? Because that's how [we’ve] started to look at each other: zeros and ones. You are or you aren’t; you are for or against. To me, that very poetically sums up the problem. That’s not the analog world; it’s much richer than that. So that’s one of the reasons why discourse has broken down. 

You could add inequality to that. As inequality spirals, it’s hard to have conversations in that kind of climate. I lived in Vancouver for a time—not that Toronto isn’t hugely unequal [and] has [its own] problems. But you know, living in Vancouver, it’s all over the place: the stark contrast. And so, you know, all of those things factor into it.

That’s one of the things that came to mind for me listening to your song, "Work": thinking about the precarity of work nowadays, and the nature of the gig economy and unemployment. You’ve lived in two cities that are home to some of the wealthiest Canadians, and some of the very poorest—often living in close proximity to one another. Victoria is like that, too. How did your time in those cities bleed into that song and this album?

Hugely, because I’m around it all the time. I’m around the tension all the time. I get these snapshots. [When] I was living in Vancouver, I lived in a little two-storey walk-up, which [had] eight apartments in a little building. I was on the main floor, and my building manager came to the back deck [and] knocked on [my] door. He [was coming] to grab the rent cheque, and he said, ‘There's this dude [that] was just shooting up on your back deck.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, well, you know. That’s Vancouver.’

[The manager] was doing some work for our landlord, because he was kind of between jobs, and it was helping him pay his rent. Our landlord had a house on the west side of the city, a beautiful house on the water, and also had a castle in England that he was restoring, which is why he needed a building manager. And I suddenly got this snapshot of, like, four people: there's our landlord, [the] building manager, there’s me, and there's this guy on my deck. And we all have a stake in my little one-bedroom apartment. And our existences are all very different. So, that was one story where I was like, ‘Wow, this is where we've gotten to.’ 

I get these pictures every once in a while, like, ‘Wow, this is where we arrived at, and this was not the world that I [grew up with].’ You know, I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Nothing changed in terms of [our] worldview in North America. And then huge shifts happened in the last 20, 25 years. And suddenly, this is it. So those experiences definitely shaped this album [and] shaped the album before it, because I walk around with a sense of that: the tensions that exist, and an understanding of how they’re only intensifying.

One of the other things that I can’t help but think about in the context of your album, TAO, is the fact that in Canada, we had a federal election [in the fall]. And in this election, we saw the People’s Party of Canada get more share of the popular vote than the Green Party—and this is during the middle of a climate crisis. How did we get here?

We live in a very strange time. What I was thinking about [with] this election [is] the fact that just a couple months prior on July 1, 2021, we kind of collectively decided that we're not sure if there’s much to celebrate in this construct called “Canada.” So to my mind, it was like, ‘This is so weird that we're having an election now. We haven’t resolved this question. We’re not sure who we are. We don’t have a clear sense of that anymore.’ And again, maybe we have to get down to some really basic questions first, and build up from there. Because it feels strange to me to talk about anything else when we haven’t figured that out. 

And yeah, the polarization, it’s extreme; people are living in very different worlds. And then there’s part of it is just, you know, things are changing really fast. And some of those changes are really important and good, but people can’t handle it. They want the old world. And it’s just not there; it’s not there anymore. And it’s not coming back. [And] I don't know what can be done for those people. 

You know, I really felt a strong sense of it after the last American election, and just seeing the amount of people that voted for Donald Trump—those people that doubled down. I actually felt bad. Because I felt like, by doubling down on Donald Trump, you’re basically saying that you want to go back to a world that doesn’t exist, and that won’t exist. And history is just gonna leave you there. 

Going back to this image of a circle coming apart, I’m reminded of a conversation that you had with Tom Power on CBC’s Q. He was asking you what happens when the circle breaks apart. And one thought you shared was maybe the thing to do is to help that circle die well; to make space for something new. Could you pick up on that thread?

That occurred to me recently. [When] I was making the album, I was thinking about the circle breaking apart and coming back together, and then it occurred to me a little bit later: maybe coming back together looks different. Maybe it doesn’t look like just [the pieces] getting drawn back together by some gravity; maybe they fall apart, and they come back new. 

That’s an ancient story, and we see it time and time again; it’s in the great religions of the world. It’s this idea of death being a part of life and new life. I do think we’re in a stage where there’s a lot of things we [need] to let go of, whether that's old ideas, [or] old notions of who we are. Are we going to cling to that old thing and try to put it back, or are we going to say, ‘You know what, it's time to let that idea, that notion of who we are die, and let it be replaced by something, make space for some new thing.’ 

And I think the same is true for a lot of ideas, [and] maybe even institutions; it’s hard to let these things die. We feel like they're so important. But I think the ancient story with death and new life is never clinging to anything but what’s good and essential, you know, and what serves humanity, and what is love. You have to be willing to let everything else go. And so maybe that is a big part of what we need to do going forward. 

And one thing I’m trying to say with this album too, is we can’t do this transformative work on our own. We really need each other. We really need to get together and get in touch with how much we love and enjoy one another and need one another.

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Martin Bauman
Newsletter Editor
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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