'Flying Colours' Has No Fear Of Sincerity

Shadrach Kabango, also known as Shad, writes about music that's earnest without being corny. The Kenyan-born, Ontario-raised rapper talks with host Rachel Martin about his new album, Flying Colours.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When you think about the geography of hip-hop, chances are you're thinking East Coast, West Coast, probably not north of the American border. That's why you probably haven't heard of Canadian hip-hop star Shad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHADRACH KOBANGO: (Rapping) (unintelligible) Warmest wishes of snow (unintelligible) the show (unintelligible) what I'm spitting. Oh, Michigan snow. Listen, no, I don't put on airs. I'm conditioned to blow...

MARTIN: Shad, more formally known as Shadrach Kabango, is a big deal in the Canadian music scene, for good reason. His catalog stretches from tongue-in-cheek odes to the virtue of thrift, or to earnest meditations on race handled with equal style. We talked with Shad about his new album, "Flying Colours," and about how a Kenyan kid from a Rwandan family eventually found a home in London, Ontario and a career matching the rhyme and rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOBANGO: (Rapping) Hear the pistol blast when I hit the track. Running like a Kenyan 'cause I'm Kenyan, as my mama. Yeah, I'm running like a Kenyan. See, I'm running like Obama on the ticket. This is wicked as that Broadway play with the witches in it. Tell me who's the sickest 'cause I'm putting on a clinic. Listen...

MARTIN: So you were born in Kenya.

KOBANGO: Yeah.

MARTIN: How old were you when you came to Canada?

KOBANGO: I was just a year old. I was a baby. I was a year old. My sister was three. And my parents were around my age but younger maybe.

MARTIN: Why did your family leave Kenya?

KOBANGO: My family is actually originally from Rwanda. My parents grew up there but actually had to leave when they were maybe five or so, because of a conflict around 1959. So they were refugees their whole life. We were refugees in Uganda for a while, everywhere basically in Central and East Africa. Then I was born in Kenya and we were still refugees at that point. So my parents said let's try and find a place where we can stay for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAM JAM")

KOBANGO: (Rapping) Oh, knowing your Third World War born but First World formed sometimes you feel pride, sometimes you feel torn. See, my Mother's tongue is not where they speak where my Mother is from. She moved to London with her husband when her son was one. And one time after family ties, I turned on the news and saw my family died. Why? Why? Pops said there's murder in the motherland. Things about and things about colonialism I didn't understand. All the things...

MARTIN: In that song that we just heard, you talk about seeing the stories of the Rwandan genocide in the news.

KOBANGO: Yes.

MARTIN: And in a song of yours from your first album, you talked explicitly about the genocide. Let's play a little bit of that older song. It's called "I'll Never Understand."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND")

BERNADETTE KOBANGO: I've talked to you in tears and anger, spat on you in rage, whispered to you in sorrow, tied you in chains, thrown you in jail. I pulled you out, asked you many questions knowing there would be no answers...

KOBANGO: (Rapping) I'll never understand how flesh being torn apart feels. Or how after all this suffering a heart heals on the rich green fields where they killed old and young, cold and numb, under the light of a golden sun. It still stuns...

So the way this song is kind of organized is I do three short verses and my Mom does three short verses. My Mom's parts are actually one poem that she wrote. The poem is actually addressed to the people that killed some of her family, her siblings in Rwanda. So it's actually a really powerful poem about forgiveness. And she uses this metaphor of her wanting to, like, confront the perpetrators and kind of wrap them up in chains.

And in the metaphor, she's kind of wrapping them up in chains enraged, going around and around them until she's tied to them as well, as a sort of metaphor for the way that kind of bitterness and resentment can kind of tie you to, you know, someone that's hurt you. So that her last verse is about sort of untying those...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND")

KOBANGO: I untied the chains painfully, purposefully knowing the one who said to do it 70 times seven, totally understands the depth of my pain.

MARTIN: In one of the songs on this album, you describe your relationship with music as a man in love with his therapist...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...which is kind of interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about that analogy? Are you working out some stuff when you're writing a song?

KOBANGO: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. And I don't know, it's just like the easier place to go is to your music, I think. It's a safe place to go to with all these, like, dark feelings and turn it into something that we can share and something that's hopefully beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOBANGO: (Rapping) I like to write when it's late and I'm sleep deprived, that's when I'm more inclined to joke and to speak my mind. As far as what love means, well, I can read a line from the dictionary but I think I need to redefine. I need to live it to know it. That means I got to give it and let it be, giving back to grow with. I got to sew it to get it. Like really get it, I got to show it. Not just talk about it like...

MARTIN: Shadrach Kobango, he performs as Shad. He spoke with us from the studios of Chat Radio, just outside Medicine Hat, Alberta. His new album is called "Flying Colours," spelled C-O-L-O-U-R-S.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Shad.

KOBANGO: Yeah, thanks Rachel. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOBANGO: (Rapping) It's like a man that's in love with his therapist. And the affair is alive but I'm scared 'cause I truly care. And being cared for bears a risk. I wake up and I ask God for help, then go online if my last song would sell out. Forget about the pain and gasp on...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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