In this Rising interview, the Toronto poet-turned-singer-songwriter talks about getting to the heart of his community’s grief, rage, and love on his upcoming debut project, When Smoke Rises.
Mustafa wasn’t too worried when police hauled him and two friends into a Toronto bullpen a couple of years ago. It was his first and only arrest, on a charge that would eventually get dropped, and he was confident he’d make bail in just a matter of days. But one dude, from a neighborhood known to clash with Mustafa’s, seemed ready to start a fight. Mustafa considered his options, and responded with a characteristic grasp at peace. “I was like, ‘Wallahi, no. Let’s play charades,’” he remembers, laughing, over a FaceTime call. He then mimes a vague swinging motion, lanky arms akimbo. “The guy we had a problem with looks up and says, ‘Tarzan.’” Tension successfully, and absurdly, deflected.
Mustafa, now 24, spent much of his youth amassing this even-keeled reputation. At 12, he gained local recognition for his precocious spoken-word poetry, in which he wove empathy and existential angst into pleading, incisive tales from Regent Park, the downtown Toronto neighborhood that’s home to the largest and oldest public housing project in Canada. In his teens, Mustafa was a frequent guest on the CBC and other national platforms, an earnest emissary for the Black and the poor. By dint of his visibility and diplomatic charm, he became the kind of guy who knew which grants would yield the most resources, how to scrounge up airfare when someone needed to fly home for a parent’s funeral, and when to show up for friends and neighbors who could use an advocate in interactions with institutions.
All the while, his poetry was drawing larger audiences, first in the performance circuit and later on social media, where Instagram cultivated fandoms for writers who shared simple, relatable words. His facility with language led to relationships within the city’s music scene, which in turn led Mustafa to a career in songwriting. In recent years, he’s earned the public support of Drake, placed songs with Camila Cabello and the Weeknd, and worked with people like Usher and Metro Boomin. His boys, too, were making moves. Childhood friends like Mo-G, Safe, Puffy L’z, and Smoke Dawg, collectively known as Halal Gang, turned Toronto’s newfound cachet into promising rap careers and towards a promised land beyond the structural and literal violence of Regent. But “visibility in the city with me and my friends has not served us very well,” says Mustafa, who now spends most of his time in Los Angeles. He is home in Toronto for a visit when we speak over the summer, but he prefers to share few details about where exactly in the city he’s staying.
The day after Mustafa made bail in 2018, Smoke Dawg was shot and killed. In a cruel twist, video of Smokey’s last moments, on the pavement outside a Toronto nightclub, was widely circulated on Canadian social media. As the number of friends and neighbors lost to murder, incarceration, mental health crises—the multi-pronged effects of systemic failure—grew, so did Mustafa’s hopelessness.