Meet Backxwash, the Montreal Rapper Who Wants to Burn Down the Music Industry and Rebuild from the Ground Up
"My whole existence is political as a Black trans person, so I just wanted to write what I felt at the time. This is music, you gotta do what you do, you gotta write what you feel."
Published Jul 06, 2020Backxwash is blazing her own path to the top of the music industry, and if you're not on board, you know where the door is. The Montreal-based artist also known as Ashanti Mutinta has been blowing minds (and eardrums) with her ferocious, metal-inspired hip-hop, and her album God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It has earned attention from Bandcamp and the Needle Drop, along with a slot on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list — not to mention the top spot on Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2020 So Far. As if her rapid ascent wasn't already impressive enough, she did it all with minimal help from industry insiders like publicists, managers and agents.
In a time when the music industry is moving toward a model centred on big corporations like Spotify and Apple to get music to the masses, Backxwash's commitment to her own authenticity, and refusal to cater to those who aren't on her side, is refreshing and fiercely self-evident.
"I think that sometimes," she tells Exclaim!, "the publicist comes off as mechanical, and if you want to display your personality, I think the barrier between your publicist and yourself has to be very thin. You always see these things pop up like, 'Hire a publicist and maybe they'll be able to get your name out!' but the benefit of doing it yourself is having your personality show and being authentic, if that's the way you want to approach it."
Authenticity is the name of Backxwash's game. Across two EPs and two full-lengths, culminating in God Has Nothing to Do with This and 2019's Deviancy, Mutinta has delivered a series of aggressive flows tackling topics like witchcraft, self-love, racism and gender identity on top of industrial beats in the vein of clipping. and Death Grips. Backxwash distills the spirit of speed metal and hardcore into brisk, energetic bursts of horrorcore punctuated by smoother R&B-flecked jams like "You Like My Body the Way It Is" and "Redemption."
So what does Backxwash look for in a collaborator? First and foremost, it's a matter of shared ideals. "I wouldn't want to work with anyone who's a bigot, anybody who shares dangerous opinions," she says. "Anybody who is respectable is a person I want to work with, essentially. Most of the people I've been working with, a lot of the collaborators for the last album were mostly, I'd say, 90 per cent of them are trans people, because I think they can relate." It echoes the raison d'être she spits out in Deviancy track "Bad JuJu": "Fuck everybody, fuck patriarchy, fuck evil standards of beauty we're supposed to live in, fuck society."
Born in Zambia before moving to Vancouver, Mutinta's love of hip-hop was ignited after discovering "Mo Money Mo Problems" as a teenager. While Montreal was where Backxwash got her start after moving there in 2017, first at hip-hop institution Le Cypher and later through her high-octane live shows, she's just as quick to credit the internet for linking her with collaborators — including Ada Rook and Devi McCallion, both halves of recently disbanded Toronto-based noise-pop duo Black Dresses. "I'm very grateful for Black Dresses for everything they've given, they're incredible people," says Mutinta.
"I think people are able to make collectives and meet like-minded people in spaces where people don't really want to look your way until you look or sound a certain way. People on the internet are able to make connections and work with like-minded people. You talk to people on the internet and you can see what they're about and gauge if you want to work with them or not." She adds, "I think it's a great opportunity to gauge what the person's about, but again, it is through the internet, so there's no sure way of knowing so you have to judge with your heart."
It's why Backxwash aims to be herself in everything she does, every tweet (where she's just as likely to riff on her favourite video games and anime as she is her favourite music), every beat (she produced all but two tracks on God Has Nothing to Do with This) and every rhyme. Though you can hear the intensity and raw earnestness in her earlier albums, Mutinta only now believes she's finally cracked the code to making music that reflects her truth.
"I started writing lyrics for the new album and, when I was writing the lyrics, one element that I was always feeling was, 'This kinda feels plastic,'" she reveals. "If I wanted to at least say something, my whole existence is political as a Black trans person, so I just wanted to write what I felt at the time. This is music, you gotta do what you do, you gotta write what you feel. So I started writing what I feel, and I don't think I will stop!"
She's also been steadily getting her footing as a producer, and there's a reason why the title track opener of God Has Nothing to Do with This kicks off with a sample of Ozzy Osborne from Black Sabbath's iconic self-titled song. Her connection to metal will continue with her forthcoming EP, Stigmata, envisioned as a two- to three-track release built around samples of Christian melodic death metal bands.
Backxwash's unabashed love for her varied inspirations has led her to be surrounded by a mighty social media following and tight circle of like-minded collaborators, including QTPOC-focused label Grimalkin, a manager she teamed up with shortly after finishing up God Has Nothing to Do with This and a graphic designer, all of whom she sees more as partners instead of as colleagues or employees. As she explains, "I made sure that the person who I'm working with wants me to be my authentic self and doesn't want anything to come off as plastic. I don't want anything to come off as plastic. I just want to be who I am."
At a time when the largely white, cis, straight and male leadership of the music industry is being rightfully taken to task for decades of exclusionary practices, Backxwash's rapid rise to notability aligns with her desire to burn down the oppressive institutions that govern the industry (and society at large) and start anew.
"I think we would have to start it from the ground up, just restructure the whole industry. From predatory deals and predatory executives, not even executives but people who hold a certain power, and if we could just redistribute the wealth that is around in the industry, that could help a lot," she says.
"The difference between an artist just trying to find a next pay cheque and somebody who's making a lot from this is very, very high. I think the wealth disparity between an upcoming musician and a musician that's made it is very high. You get that weird thing where there's a hierarchy. In my ideal situation, the money around the industry wouldn't control a lot of the aspects of the industry."
Even the Polaris Music Prize, which annually awards $50,000 to a Canadian artist as determined by a jury of music critics, is in her sights: "In the time of coronavirus, I hope somebody who's not well off already wins that prize, because I think that would help a lot of people."
For years, Backxwash has found herself on the outside of the industry looking in, and by biding her time and honing her craft, she's now ready to burst in and burn it down from the inside.
"I remember trying to rap growing up and people coming through and saying, 'We can't really invest in your sound right now until you catch to us and sign this contract.' I'm pretty young while that is happening. Imagine being indebted to a recording contract while growing up. That would be terrible.
"I just really like the music that I make, and it's more about creating... saying that you just want to be in it for the love is a privilege in itself. I think most musicians would like to at least profit off the stuff they're doing. Some musicians just want to survive. I guess the dream for me is, the thing that takes priority is, I just really enjoy doing this stuff. I'd like to live off it if I could, but priority is, I just like to make this stuff and I would just like to be able to live comfortably while making really dope shit."