Toronto native Haviah Mighty makes music for the underdogs, the people whose stories we have ignored for too long. In Canada, few artists have received acclaim for speaking on issues of inequality and racism. Sure, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell are renowned songwriters, but neither covers the same topics as Haviah. In that breath, the 27-year-old raps to let others know we still have a long way to go before we reach true equality.
In 2019, Haviah released her debut, 13th Floor, hoping the album would spark a broader dialogue about racism within Canada, and, with any luck, the rest of the world. She cites the project as an ode to herself, but more so an ode to the overall experience of being an underdog.
“You’re going to hear [me rap] about being a woman in a male-dominated field and being a black woman in Canada,” Haviah says. “When I was younger and speaking on my experiences, others would tell me I’m blowing things out of proportion. Any time I spoke about race, there would always be that one person that’s like, ‘You only feel this way because you’re black.’”
Haviah wants listeners to not only understand what she’s been through but also have them acknowledge the obstacles many others like her face every day. She wants her listeners to empathize even though they might not be able to relate fully. Haviah cites 50 Cent’s 2003 project, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, as an album that resonated with its listeners despite its source material.
The first song on 13th Floor, “In Women Colour,” radiates confidence. Haviah’s flows are just as immaculate as her bars about being a woman who raps. She rejects the notion of needing a cosign when she sings, “You think I’m proud to be associated with you / I don’t need shit / And most importantly I don’t need you.”
“Thirteen” encapsulates Haviah’s sentiments about racial inequalities the most. The number 13 is symbolic of the Toronto rapper. There are 13 tracks on the record, and on that same track, Haviah tackles the infamous 13th amendment written in the American constitution.
“I stumbled on the 13th amendment which intrinsically states the only way a person can be deemed a slave is if they are a criminal,” Haviah explains. “In 2020, this is still an active amendment.”
“Thirteen” is what Haviah calls a non-fiction song—a track written of the harsh realities caused by the amendment. “I didn’t think too much about who I might be offending,” she says. “I read a fact, and I was stunned. Then the realities of what that meant poured out of me, and that led to the creation of the song.”
The Canadian rapper’s lyrics are unapologetic. We get the full fervor of Haviah’s disdain for the racial status quo instilled in North American society since the Atlantic slave trade. She believes there’s a lot of work to be done, and that having a conversation is the first step.
“I know [our experiences] exist,” Haviah says. “If we’re not willing to talk about it, then we won’t have the opportunity to grow from it.”
When Haviah released 13th Floor in May 2019, the discourse livened.
Suddenly, she became a critical darling. Popular Canadian outlets like the CBC and Exclaim! began to cover her work; Pitchfork reviewed her album favorably. And then she was shortlisted for the most prestigious award a Canadian artist can achieve: the Polaris Music Prize.
The Polaris Music Prize is given to the best Canadian album based solely on artistic merit regardless of sales. As you can imagine, this recognition was a big deal for a female artist trying to stand out in a sea of male rappers. In fact, up until the recognition, a rapper had never won the award; neither had a black woman.
“There’s a difficulty that comes with being marginalized and speaking in defense of that same group of people,” Haviah adds. “Like being a white person and speaking to the trials and tribulations of what white people face, and someone who’s not white would say, ‘Of course you’d say that you’re white.’”
She continues: “So for me, as a black woman, when you speak to certain themes like blackness or womanhood, other people might say, ‘Of course that’s your perspective because you’re such and such’ and therefore it ‘null-and-voids’ the validity of what you’re saying. That’s always been a fear of mine when working on new content because my goal isn’t for these songs to fall on deaf ears.”
Canada is changing. The Polaris Music Prize hasn’t been bestowed upon a white artist since 2013. Since then, indigenous artists, black artists, and even a Colombian-Canadian singer have won the award. To see Haviah take home the prize in 2019 is just further proof that Canadians are beginning to welcome more diverse backgrounds into their music scene.
“Given that 13th Floor was acknowledged by [the Polaris Music Prize], I’m hoping that will mean the conversation will be more welcomed in different facets, especially outside of music,” Haviah concludes. “I’m happy to see we’re willing to publicly acknowledge music that speaks on the female perspective and the colored person’s experience more than we used to. It’s important for our stories to be told and for them not to be one-sided.”
Haviah Mighty alone won’t solve all the issues embedded into North American society. Still, her music is an accessible entry point into the troubling racial and gender disparities in Canada and the United States.