Thinking about the past while building the future

There’s a sense of optimism glaringly evident in “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Rapper” KTheChosen, also known as Thabo Chinake. He came to Calgary from Zimbabwe in 2015 as a 19-year-old to attend university, and despite his family being a half a globe and over 40 hours of travel away, stayed. His memories of arriving reveal something about who he is and why he doesn’t just appreciate Calgary, but im-proves it by actively promoting music from the African and Caribbean diaspora.

“I am a very independent person, so when I arrived, I didn’t get a taxi or an Uber to the university campus. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to take my bags, get on the train and take a bus.” To me, I love learning places by getting lost. Probably not the smartest idea to do,” Chinake recalls. “I think I arrived at like 11:00 p.m., and this was during fall so it was pitch black. In retrospect that wasn’t smart. But Calgary’s such a safe city I remember getting on campus and was going the wrong direction and this couple said, ‘It’s late at night and this is probably where you need to be.’ And that’s what happened, they picked me up and dropped me off so I got there safely. Whereas you don’t have that kind of safety in other major cities, just because the more people you have it increases the problems of crime or danger.”

That independence and bravery shown traveling halfway across the world as a teen speak volumes about why Chinake, named a Top 20 Compelling Calgarian by the Calgary Herald in 2022, was a key player in creating the LYFE (Lost Yesterday, Found Eternity) Project which brings together newcomer Calgary musicians and honours the lived layers of their music. The project has over 10 rappers and singers, including 2023 YYC Music Awards People’s Choice nominee Tea Fannie and many instrumentalists such as saxophonist and DJ Slim Tyme. The first single, Nigerian-born Jey Oh’s Eternal Memory, a lovely, layered R&B song that’s a perfect summer soundtrack, hit the pavement July 7. Something Different, a song by K-Riz x The Blue that marries rap with a flowing sense of musicality, was released in early September
The entire LYFE album will be released Nov. 17.

The project emerged from the seeds of a casual conversation between Chinake and executive director of the Immigrant Council for Arts Innovation, Toyin Oladele, just before the pandemic when the two noticed a trend. “We go to all these events, you know, Ethnik Festival, other festivals, and it’s the same performers every time, and the music might be from a Black artist but it doesn’t really represent the culture where they are from,” Chinake says.

There were ongoing conversations, but as with everything else, the pandemic slowed action down. Chinake’s vision was to invite newcomers to lend their musical talents to enhance the bigger picture. Over time, the LYFE Project emerged.

“In terms of trying to formalize it, we would have video calls and just try to formalize … what would this project look like, who would be on the project, what’s the best way to do it … I think collaborative projects are great because you’ve got so many voices involved, but there need to be clear objectives and clear leaders, right, because otherwise they kind of expand horizontally but don’t actually move forward.”

Chinake, aware of a diaspora of people from Africa and the Caribbean, wanted to capture some of their experiences. “So, we talked about what’s the perfect team, and that was around the time that (3rd Verse Record’s Nii Ayi) and I started talking. He was coming into the industry from the managerial and studio manager perspective. It’s funny because I’d spoken to Toyin about Nii, ‘Oh, he’s creating a studio that might be an ideal location to record.’

“As we started talking about his goals and things he wanted to do it was like, you know what, I think we’re all talking about the same things from different perspectives. That would have been earlier this year, early March.” 

Ayi adds, “September or October me and (3rd Verse producer and engineer) Chef Beatz and a couple of producers started talking about doing a collaborative project for the city. And seeing as I ran 3rd Verse Records, the music studio here, when you work with some artists you don’t have much control over release dates … So, when we first started the studio, you felt like there’s an element that’s outside of your control if you want to market or have people hear your sounds. So, I think I need to do a project that represents the city that brings people together, that could be a label project.” Ayi and Chef Beatz had already put out a “beat pack” featuring R&B, hip-hop, Afrobeats and “house techno type vibes.”

Calgary-born Ayi, whose dad is Ghanian and mother Trinidadian, visited both countries often as a child. “I think of the influence that had on my own self-worth, self-value, understanding of who I am. my own strengths. Also, a massive part of that was the love of music, because we used to go to Ghana in (the mid-2000s), we’d bring back burned CDs. At that time, it was a highlight for hiplife (a fusion of hip-hop and Ghanian music), before Afrobeats (which began in the early oughts and from a mix of musical influences including sounds from Nigeria, Ghana and the UK), and we would listen to these CDs it would just say, Track 1, unknown artist, and we’d just be jammin’.

“That helped us here (understand) culture there and see how hip-hop and hiplife turned into Afrobeats and expanded or became more prominent in the western world. It almost changed the image of being African, because being African was being uncool as a kid growing up. It was cooler to be Caribbean than it was to be African because of Bob Marley, right?

“Africa was the fly in the eye — what are those commercials? You know, World Vision commercials, that was the perception. Now we’ve seen the perception of Africa change, even of African beauty, of African music, it’s all changed so much in the last I’d say 10, 15 years. That’s been an amazing experience for the diaspora and also why it’s so important for the diaspora to connect back with our roots to music.

“Because music’s our history – from Billie Holiday to NWA, whatever it is, it’s always in our music.”

A recent trip to Ghana inspired Ayi to bring momentum to the project, especially by bringing back music from several countries and inspiring local Black artists to return to their musical roots. “That’s something that’s always been important to me as a person, having people connect with their roots. Because I did grow up here as well so I’ve seen people sort of connecting with my own heritage in my life, so I want artists to experience the same thing.” The momentum meant Ayi and Chef Beatz completed most of the production work, reached out for grants, and started considering how to promote the project.

Chinake adds, “It’s been great learning from artists because we have different backgrounds. We also have different approaches to music. The single was kind of interesting that way because we have so many different songs to pick from but the initial reception of songs were all hip-hop. It was an intentional decision to pick one that was more Afrobeats which is how we went with Eternal Memory.”

“Yes, and Jey O has a really unique voice, which gives the album, like when people hear the single it kind of sets them up for something they haven’t really heard,” Ayi says. “The next single we’re releasing something different; the artists (K-Riz x The Blue) are so experienced on that track, so the momentum behind it will be a bit different. So, we get an unknown artist and a known artist but the quality is still the same.

“Circling back to diaspora, my parents came for education and I was born here. A lot of people came as refugees, and the refugee experience is so much different than the experience of people who came for education. 

“We’ve seen the impact that’s had on certain communities, like South Sudanese community, the Zimbabwe community, and that had a massive part of Calgary history from the early 2000s to maybe two years ago. There’s so much violence and stuff, and that gets expressed in the music, right?

“So that’s even, you said, how did you choose the first single? Why Afrobeats? Well, we grew up on hip-hop, we love hip-hop, there’s a certain aspect of hip-hop that’s not as marketable or relatable to some people, but it’s very much real to the people performing it, the people that wrote it, the people producing it that understand the situation, even in Calgary, Alberta.

“All our friends have lost people to gun violence. We all know these people so this is still a part of our city. So even after selecting the artists on the project, that was something to consider. We want to represent Calgary from the high to the low, but kind of keep that reality to it.”

Going forward, once the project is released, its creators want to take it on tour, including festivals next year, and sets by project musicians that could represent LYFE. Eventually, they would love to tour it in Africa. As Ayi explains, “To get Africans back to Africa, to share their talents, to show what it means to live here — that all comes back through people’s stories, through their music. They would also be receiving so much from the cultures there when they go home. That’s a hope of mine. That’s a vision of mine. And we’re going to just keep working to make sure we can execute it.”

The LYFE Project will be released Nov. 17. They’re also promoting a pair of shows: Ship Hop on Nov. 1 at the Ship & Anchor; and a night at Festival Hall Nov. 3 featuring project participant The Blue as well as KTheChosen, who is celebrating the release of his new EP, IRL.