In advance of This is Worldtown’s One Year Anniversary Event ARCHV RMX, we chatted with performance artist OBUXUM about finding healing through hip hop, storytelling through live performance, and rejecting compromising her sound.
Obuxum is a performative music producer who draws on her Somali heritage to inform a visionary approach to electronic music steeped in R&B, hip hop, house and ambient styles. She’s been on the rise with performances at Kazoo! Fest, Electric Eclectics, Venus Fest, Wavelength Music Festival and more. OBUXUM made now Toronto’s list of Electronic Artists to Watch in 2018.
How did you get started?
Other than a musician I’m a community worker, so I work with youth at Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre. I wanted to learn how to use hip hop as a way to teach children about music production. So in 2011, I joined a program called LEAP, that focused on hip hop production. It was there that I met Soteeoh. He changed my life. He worked in that program back then, and I work there now. He encouraged me to do the program, and beat production. After a few months, I started putting music together. I started experimenting and coming up with music that was still in the hip hop realm. That was back in 2011. I took a break for a while but in 2015, I decided that Toronto deserves to know who I am. So I did my first project called 2991. It was mostly hip hop beats that I made in 2011 and 2012. But I didn’t care if people didn’t feel it, I just wanted them to know that I’m an artist. And I felt like it was important for me to put out some kind of work that would legitimize the fact that I’m an artist. I can be creative, I can do a lot of creative work, but if I have nothing to display, how do I legitimize the fact that I’m an artist? That was the first thing I put out.
From there, I continued it. I would make music, and then try to find ways to perform it live. In 2016 I did a set at Long Winter, and after that I started getting more bookings to do live sets. With each booking, I started to learn about performance in a new way and how to interact with my music differently. That relationship changed. Some people resonate with instrumentals, some people resonate with just words, but I wanted to make my performance in a way where it doesn’t matter what you like, you’ll be able to feel my story. So that’s how I perform live now. My sets are designed in a way where it tells a story of its own.
What was the inspiration behind your follow up work, The Metaphor Series?
After 2991, I decided I wanted to think of a concept, an idea, where I could put multiple projects out. The concept that I came out with became The Metaphor Series. It’s rooted in my journey being Somali, being a first generation Canadian, living in housing, and also making music that is considered left field, that doesn’t really fit in a box. And how all those different things inform the way that I make music and my moods. I dropped Luul, which was the first EP to the series. And my mother, her name is Asha, but her household name is Asha Luul, so I named it after her. In the project, I sampled conversations that my mom would have with my aunts. I had one track on the album, Shaah Iyo Sheeko – that means Tea and Conversation. And that’s exactly what was going on.
What inspired you to create the music that you do?
Experience with life, with people, with working in community. Experience performing live, being inspired by other artists no matter what art form. I’m not just inspired from musicians. I’m literally inspired by everything. Everybody has a creative ability in them. In your life journey, you have to find that niche, and what fits, and what you can translate that into.
When you were growing up, what kinds of music were you surrounded by?
My mom would watch a lot of old Hindi movies, the black and white ones. I remember, when I was 8, there was a movie called Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and I was so in love with the music. Hindi movies are very musical. They’re also super dramatic and three hours long. But I used to find myself copying what they were singing about and dancing in front of the TV. That’s really where I learned music, from Hindi films.
And the thing about Hindi films is that it would hit your heart. Positive, negative, whatever. You just feel it in your chest. And that’s what I constantly want to regurgitate, it’s that feeling.
I started getting into hip hop around the time I started working at the community centre, and I was going through a very depressive state. But I felt that hip hop just made it make sense. And that’s why I want to teach children about hip hop as a way of healing, because it helped me.
What are some of the themes in your music?
I think currently, my biggest theme is resistance. Now that I am performing live, it’s something I feel like I’m constantly faced with. I’m usually performing in white spaces. Sometimes I’ll be the only black girl in the whole line up, but I’ll be the one that they remember. For me, that’s a form of resistance. When I’m making music, for example, with H.E.R (Hearing Every Rhythm) – it comes from a very feminist standpoint. I have this track called HE(R)STORY and I sampled Eartha Kitt. And she was talking about compromise. Being female, being of colour, being a producer and performer; I can relate to that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they try to tell me to compromise my sound. But compromising my sound is compromising who I am.
What issues do you hope to change or address through the work that you do?
I would hope to inspire conversations around encouraging or creating spaces for women of colour that are interested in music production in Toronto. I know that’s so specific, but when I did a release party for H.E.R, it was difficult for me to find women of colour producers that would also perform live. You can find so many DJs but you can’t really find producers. That’s a problem for me. I would love to see new spaces that encourages women of colour producers to come out, play their beats, do their thing. That’s a conversation that I’d really like to start.
Why is it important to have physical spaces and digital spaces for artists of colour and specifically female artists of colour to share their work?
We already know how this world works. There’s so many of us but we’re so invisible. So when physical spaces are created, there is an actual existence of these women, and we are at the forefront. And we’re given that limelight to do whatever it is we want to do; to showcase the work that we produce in our bedrooms, in real life spaces. In the digital world, unless you have a label, it’s a lot harder. But that’s why I use my face on my album covers. I want you to know that I’m black. I want you to know that I’m a woman. And I want you to know that I made this music.
Have you found a community in the tech beats space? What’s that like, if you have?
Somewhat. Me and a really good friend of mine, who is also an amazing producer, Kilamanzego, we’re working on creating ideas of how we can do festivals that centre around women of colour that are producers. It’s called EF FEMME. Right now, we’re just focused on discovering other women of colour producers and try to share their work and circulate that.