On March 7, 2019, a Toronto hip-hop artist named Shopé was crowned winner of Searchlight, our yearly hunt for Canada's best undiscovered talent.
But who is Shopé? Where is he from and what motivates him to create music? We found all of that out in a wide-ranging Q&A the day he won. Below is his amazing story.
Congratulations on the huge win! You describe yourself as a Nigerian-Canadian artist. Can you tell us about your Nigerian roots?
I was born in a city called Abeokuta, just outside of Lagos, Nigeria, however my family moved to Lagos before I was a year old, where I spent the first part of my life. So practically speaking, I'm from Lagos, Nigeria. I do have quite vivid memories of Nigeria. I remember our old house, the neighbourhood, the path I used to walk to my elementary school (we called it a "primary" school), as well as the time I spent at boarding school.
Music was a big part of my family life. I recall my parents had what at the time looked like a giant chest of vinyl records. I wonder if the chest would look as big, now that I'm older. In any case, they must have had hundreds of records ranging from African legend Fela Kuti to Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson to Sade and many, many more.
My parents' love for music was evident not only in the record collection, but in the fact that something was often playing in the house or someone was singing. Not to mention the piano lessons I was forced to take, that I now regret quitting.
What was the catalyst that caused your family to decide to move to Canada? How did that happen? Why here?
Although we were pretty well-to-do in Nigeria (upper-middle class), given the political and economic climate of the country, my dad wasn't sure of the prospect of his children's future. Nigeria is an amazing country but has had its share of issues post-independence in 1960. So my parents wanted to solidify a stable and prosperous future for their children.
Also because both my parents had had the opportunity to travel, they had a global perspective and wanted their children to be global citizens. They understood the value of holding a Western citizenship and the advantages that would bring on the global stage. So they packed up everything, my dad said goodbye to a successful 30-plus year career and started all over again in Toronto.
We landed in Canada because this great country opened up its doors to us. Honestly, we had initially tried the U.S. but we were denied. Canada, however, being a place that openly embraces diversity, gave us a chance — something we have been incredibly grateful for ever since. In hindsight (especially given everything going on now), thank god we ended up in Canada. I wouldn't have it any other way.
What are your memories of arriving in Canada, especially coming from an equatorial country like Nigeria?
We touched down at Pearson International Airport on October 20th, 2000, when I was 11 years old. I remember feeling very cold. We had done our best to prepare by purchasing "winter" jackets in a tropical country. As you can imagine, they didn't cut it. If I can sum it up in one word (aside from the cold), my first impression of Canada was "clean." I was in awe of how clean the streets were, and how organized things seemed to be. The traffic lights worked, there seemed to be a mysterious set of driving rules that everyone voluntarily followed, and the air just seemed fresh. It was a very exciting time.
There was some difficulty, of course. Aside from now being a low-income family, I got all the teases you might expect an African immigrant kid would get, and I was bullied at times. Fortunately, my Grade 6 homeroom teacher, Mrs. Reiken, was a godsend. She not only pulled me in close, watching over me, [but] she paired me with another student whose job it was to show me around and help me adjust to Canadian life. Many years later, I'm still very close to this guy and Mrs. Reiken today.
What did your parents do for work when they got here?
With respect to my parent's work, this is one of the primary reasons my dad is my greatest living role model. He left a lucrative HR career in Nigeria to work several low-income jobs. He was willing to do anything, anything (legal) to provide for his family, and he did such a great job at it. For a season, he was a salesman for a furniture company, then he did overnight security, then he worked for a financial services company, all the while pursuing his own side business ventures. Due to my mom's health, she wasn't able to hold a job for any length of time, so it all fell to my dad — and he worked!
When did music become a major focus of your life?
It happened in the second year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. I had been dabbling with music and flirting with the idea of pursuing it for several years. I wasn't sure if it was worth abandoning the medical career my parents and I had planned out. But during a lecture in Con Hall (I forget the exact course), I had an epiphany. I had zoned out of whatever was being taught and was instead working on a song. In that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks: "Of course this is what I want to do with my life!"
My love for music had been steadily growing for the past six years, as my desire for a medical career was equally waning. I still found the academic parts interesting (some of it at least), but not enough to work in it. The science didn't move me at the core of my heart the way the music did. At that point, in that lecture hall, I made the definitive decision to switch routes, to actively chase a music career after I finished my undergrad. Like a good African boy, I didn't drop out, but every spare moment I had from that point on was dedicated to honing my musical craft.
The judges were very impressed at your international performances. How have you been able to fund your projects so far?
Through a combination of investing my own money, as well as close friends and family. I credit a guy named Sola as the first person to really believe in me enough to put his money where his mouth was. He told me he believed in me and was willing to give me some money. I also haven't taken a paycheque from my music. Any money I've made from the music, I invested right back into my career.
Of the places you've already played around the world — U.S.A., Africa, Europe — what is the most memorable and why?
It's hard to pick just one! It was a show in a city you may have never heard of before: Bielefeld, Germany. I had no clue I had fans in this city. But thanks to the internet I was performing to a room of about 150 people, all of whom were there to have a good time and who knew the words to my songs! I was blown away! If I may add another: a very close second is Paris! Of all the places I've visited, Paris is in my top three cities in the world. Paris was really special because a year prior to my show, while visiting on vacation, I told myself I wanted to play a show there, not having a single contact or knowledge of how it would happen. Long story short, a year later I was touring Europe and headlining a show in Paris. Wild!
Amazing! How did you find out about Searchlight?
This year, it was through social media. I think it was Instagram. I saw the promo and it rang a bell. I remember I had seen something about Searchlight about two years ago, but never followed through. This time, I gave it a little more thought and decided to explore the page because I felt the strength of my material had grown over the years. It looked legit and the application was quick, so I submitted on a whim, hoping but not really expecting anything to come of it. I think the whole process was maybe 10 minutes from seeing the promo to submitting.
Well, it certainly worked out for you! Which prize are you most excited about and why?
The Allan Slaight Juno Master Class. I've been dreaming about (and working towards) a long and prosperous music career for about a decade now. Over the years I have learned that while talent is indispensable, it takes much more than talent to succeed in the industry. It takes a great team and a certain business know-how, so I've been self-teaching, networking and knocking on every door I come across hoping I get my chance. The exposure from the CBC Music Festival as well as Junofest will be awesome, but the Allan Slaight Juno Master Class, I believe, will be the key that helps me harness all of that momentum and parlay that into a solid, longterm career.
Are there artists — Canadian or otherwise — that you model your career after?
I mean, am I really from Toronto if I don't say Drake?! Certainly Drake has taken Canadian music to places very few of us imagined, so I admire his moves and art. He has what I believe is one of the strongest strategic teams in the industry. So I'd like some of whatever he's having.
Another artist I absolutely adore is Sade. She built such a solid brand that allows her to make music at her pace. She's like a precious flower that only blooms every few years (decades even). But the beauty of her person and music are so special, we all just patiently wait for her to re-emerge. Finally, of course, there's Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who used his music and platform to further social causes close to his heart, not to mention giving birth to the musical style of Afrobeat that I am now heavily influenced by. I want the kind of cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal that these three artists have.
Finally, what does Shopé mean?
My name means "make joy" in Yoruba, a language native to Nigeria. (There isn't a "Nigerian" language. The national language is English, with many other ethnic languages.) "Shopé" is a truncated and phonetically spelled version of my full first name, which is Mosopeoluwa.
For winning Searchlight 2019, Shopé receives a prestigious placement in the Allan Slaight Juno Master Class, five days of recording at Studio Bell (home of the National Music Centre in Calgary), a performance at JunoFest at the 2020 Juno Awards in Saskatoon, and a performance at the 2019 CBC Music Festival in Toronto.