Today, Muslim poet and songwriter Mustafa details his debut project When Smoke Rises, due May 28th via his own Regent Park Songs / Remote Control Records. After revealing its title and speaking about the body of work in his recent GQ Middle East cover story, Mustafa is sharing one more offering from the new record, the powerful ‘Ali’, which arrives alongside a self-directed visual.
Mustafa’s two singles to date – ‘Stay Alive’ and ‘Air Forces’ – have been met with adoration from fellow artists, critics and fans and serve as a near-perfect introduction to an important new voice in music. Both songs will be included on When Smoke Rises alongside the aforementioned ‘Ali’. They exemplify a style Mustafa himself describes as “inner city folk music” that finds musical inspiration in the folk greats such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Richie Havens but channelled through the contemporary lens of Mustafa’s modern day Toronto.
Mustafa was moved to release his own music following the loss of close friends to gun violence. Much of his music is addressed to those departed friends and to his Toronto neighborhood, Regent Park; a vehicle to honor and affirm the concerns of his community while providing sonic solace for those looking to make sense of their own loss. The video for ‘Stay Alive’ prominently features footage of Regent Park, one of the first housing projects in North America and one of the biggest redevelopment projects on the continent. Mustafa‘s experience of seeing the blocks, community, and culture that raised him transform into something unrecognisable is a story that is playing out in neighbourhoods across the world – the inner city from which his folk songs are born.
Twenty-four year old singer/songwriter Mustafa Ahmed grew up fighting. He would do so firstly as a child growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park community, matching up with other children his age at the behest of the older kids from around the way. Somehow, it did not harden him. He would continue fighting, though now against stereotypes, as an adolescent poet dispelling notions of who Black Muslims from Regent Park were with every stanza of his continuously celebrated poetry. He would attempt to fight again, this time on behalf of his immediate community, as a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council, an effort that helped him realise his mission would be better served by amplifying the stories he’d collected over the years through song. And that is how we got Mustafa, child of Sudanese Muslim immigrants, one time Pan American Games Poet Laureate, cherished collaborator of acts like Majid Jordan, The Weeknd, and Khalid, and the artist whose debut project When Smoke Rises aims to exalt the Regent Park MC whose legacy Mustafa fights for now, Jahvante “Smoke Dawg” Smart.
“It just kind of shattered my entire world,”Mustafa says of Smoke Dawg’s murder. “I didn’t even realize how much weight we shared until I had to take that weight on for myself.” More painfully then, When Smoke Rises isn’t even only about Smoke Dawg. The project references a number of presences taken from Mustafa, names like Ano, Santana, and Ali, the friend whose doom Mustafa might have actually felt when he’d ask Ali to relocate for fear of such an unsavory end. That story, titled for its subject, appears as track six on When Smoke Rises. “All of the deaths that I experienced, I experienced through the time constraints of mourning,”Mustafa says. “Specifically, for young black people in inner city communities that die while at war with the state or at war with themselves, I wanted to beautify those departures. Because none of those departures were made beautiful for me.” On When Smoke Rises, Mustafa has sewn these departures – and his attempts to cope with them – into song, immortalising friends in the most honest way he knows how. Through his interpretation of folk music.
“The first folk singer I was introduced to was Joni Mitchell,”Mustafa says. “But Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – they were anodising the White experience. But in hearing them, there was a kind of melancholy or sadness – something I didn’t hear in the songs that were representing the nuances of my life.” Ultimately, it was a video of Black American folk singer Richie Havens performing Woodstock that would empower him to perfect his medium. “When you see someone that looks like you, that feels like you, embodying the emotion that you are familiar with, it gives you the courage to walk in that path,”Mustafa says. He would reference the performance at every recording session thereafter. Racking up songwriting credits for pop stars while he developed his personal style, Mustafa would become one of the industry’s most sought after pens, understanding that the kind of music he helped to make great for others couldn’t possibly support the stories he needed to tell. For his diligence, both as student and creator, we get When Smoke Rises, a release that balances the impossible heft of honoring fallen comrades with the tenderness of a mother singing to a newborn. And it’s buttressed by Islam.
“It’s so important to be able to look at God,”Mustafa says. “As something someone can hold for themselves. Of course I want to be able to raise people’s tolerance level for Muslims, but even bigger than that, I want Muslims, themselves, to know that no one can take God away from them.” You’re likely to believe you hear God working through Mustafa on songs like ‘Stay Alive’, where he declares unconditional support for the Regent Park archetypes he knows so well and on ‘Air Forces’, where he can be heard pleading with these same affiliates to do their best to stay out of harm’s way. Then there is ‘What About Heaven’ where he wonders if the friends he’s lost have done enough to be forgiven for their sins and ‘The Hearse’ where a startling authenticity trumps even the singer’s purest intentions, Mustafa acknowledging revenge impulses in the presence of a friend’s dead body. “With my dogs/Right or wrong,” he sings.
The project features production from heavy-hitters Frank Dukes and Jamie xx, along with multiple contributions from similarly forlorn geniuses Sampha and James Blake. In them, Mustafa has found both established creators and kindred spirits, the kind of people who can’t help but feel the young singer’s vision. Also present on When Smoke Rises are the voices of longtime friends and Regent Park natives Rax, Puffy L’z, cityboymoe, and both the dearly departed Ali and Smoke Dawg. They are the ones, of course, without whom When Smoke Rises would not exist. More importantly though, they are at least some of the people it is for. “My entire plight, since I was young, has been in and around protecting and preserving the stories of my community,” Mustafa says. “It’s the reason that I began writing poetry. I’m like how am I going to preserve the stories that are not currently being told with any authenticity?” When Smoke Rises is our answer.