Words: Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography: Kahlil Hernandez
The fact that McCallaman’s music stands out from the new Toronto sound is not intentional— it is because he is simply being himself. Just like any successful artist, staying true to his beliefs and sticking to what he likes has gained him some notoriety. He has landed a few beat placements on projects by artists like Tika Simone and Goldlink; he has also had his music played on Beats 1, Apple’s online streaming radio service. McCallaman’s last EP Boy You Better Sing was the turning point for me as a fan because he explicitly talks about faith and God. I learnt that instead of categorizing his music as Gospel, he prefers the term “Black Pop”.
While McCallaman is not at the pinnacle he wants to be at as an artist, he is gaining momentum and we wanted to have a feel for who he is, what he stands for, and why he makes music.
When did you realize that music was what you wanted to pursue?
I think it was around 17 or 18. That is when I realized it could be a possibility. I realized it could be a possibility doing it when I saw my peers doing the same.
Did you ever think it was impossible to do music?
Yeah, everyday it comes up. Should I look for a real job? A career job? Should I still keep doing this? With every release and the effort I put into it, it is sort of a game I play to see people’s reaction— to see if I can keep doing this or settle down. I am just going with the flow at the moment.
What pushes you to keep going and wanting to do this and not pursuing the comforts of a 9-5?
9-5s to me are not that comfortable. I am not comfortable working for the people— I never will. I love music and I hate working for people. That is what keeps me in this middle ground. I am not one of those guys that can clock in and clock out and be content; I would rather make music, make a lot of money, save it and make that be my pension.
For me it is a simple decision right now because I have the comfort of being young living at home and not having to pay for my rent, I pitch it where I can but I am not forced. I am trying to take advantage of this time, this freedom to make something happen before I am forced to compromise— even if I am not getting paid huge. I love it.
I love making music, I love meeting people while doing something like this. You cannot do this at a 9-5 job. I get to meet a lot of people when I do gigs or when I am in the studio with other artists. I love the culture of making music. When I go to work and I clock in to do my job, I am not really contributing to society in the way I should be— it wears on you, I feel like my talent is gathering dust. That does not make me happy.
You say something really interesting about the contribution to society and to the world. That is how I feel when someone offers me a government job and I am like my perspective and what I need to do does not belong behind a desk in some office. Do you feel your creativity serves a purpose?
I think every one is born with creativity. We are made in God’s image, God is creative and God created. That is what we do. We create other beings; we create a lifestyle. It is not just about creating in terms of creating an image or a piece of music— it is living creatively. So I believe we are supposed to create. A lot of people are living like slaves. White or black, a lot of people are living this lifestyle of working to get paid only enough to go back to work and to barely survive. If you understand that and you do not like that— my whole thing is why not do something about it so you do not have to rely on that.
What do you want your music to do for people?
I feel like my purpose for my music is to uplift and to heal people— that is the thing I am going for. You can hear it with the sounds I use; it is mostly tranquil, it is calming. Even outside of music I think a lot. I have different philosophies on things and I think what people need is healing. I look at my community, the black community for example and people need healing. There is more and more trauma, mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, so I try to create for myself and that is healing for me. If I get that feeling I hope that it transcends to other people who are listening— and on a very superficial level, I just want to be able to live to the fullest through music.
Do you feel people who create music are responsible to create something that is positive?
I do not think people have the responsibility to be positive— I think people need to be honest and to be themselves. Some people become policemen because they want to uphold peace, some people become policemen because they want to have power— it is the same for anything. Some people do music because they enjoy it and want to bring something positive to the people and some do it because it pays. I can only speak for myself. I am aware of the balance between good and evil and to be ignorant of that would not be smart because I know I try to do better.
Going back to what you said about music being so powerful and putting you into these moods— that is a real thing. I feel like I did not understand that until last year on how powerful it was. I listened to Young Thug a lot— he has some bangers. I would go on the subway and I was listening to him day in day out. I realized the way I looked at the world started to be different— the music shaped the way I was walking, the way I viewed people; other guys, girls, and I was going into a really dark place. I did not realize this until I started listening to more uplifting things. That shit changes your whole life. If you hear someone saying, “You can do it, you can make it”. You will feel like you can do anything as opposed to someone talking about something that is not as uplifting.
You produce and mix your stuff all by yourself— were you self taught?
Yeah, for the most part.
Did you go to college for anything?
Wow, that is so different from music. I went to school for criminology.
Where did you go?
Laurier. It was lit! But that degree was not lit!
For me, going to school was a back up plan.
Really? Do you believe in back up plans?
I do not. As a kid when you are 17 and you are living with your parents, they want the best for you. I felt like I was obligated to go do something so I did it. Ever since I graduated I have not looked for work in that field or anything. I was like screw that; I am doing music— but I might have to start looking for a job soon.
“I think perseverance is a key element to being successful— sticking through it no matter what.”
Because music is not paying that much man! Not like that. It is not like a steady stream of income right now.
So you think you might not be successful in what you are trying to do?
I have a healthy level of fear.
I think I would go crazy if I could not do what I wanted to do and if I had to find a job using my criminology degree. Would that not drive you crazy? Go and find an office job and do something that does not make you happy?
Nothing really drives me crazy. I get upset and frustrated. I am not sure what you mean.
Well you are going to look for job, you are risking your happiness in a sense right?
I do not know; I have not gotten it yet. I try not to close my mind to things. If I get a job, it is a job. I have worked at jobs and I have been able to do music. I do not see that as the end of my life. If I get a job and it is like 60 hours weekly— that is throwing in the towel. If it is part time, that is a different case. I can not just say because I have a job, I am a failure.
“If your goal is to be different, you can not be drinking the same juice everyone is drinking”.
Ahh, that’s an interesting perspective.
I always work strategically with something in mind. The first job I ever got was at Tim Horton’s when I was 16 and I worked so I could save up to get a laptop to produce. I saved all my money and when Boxing Day came, I bought my laptop and I quit. If I need a synthesizer, I get another job, I save my money, buy it, and then I quit.
Would you say everyone should figure out a strategy in how to pursue their dreams in the arts or should they go cold turkey and be a starving artist until they make it?
I do not know— different things work for different people. Some people really get lucky, they get invested in and they do not have to work. I think perseverance is a key element to being successful— sticking through it no matter what. At the end of the day we live in Canada and as horrible as a job can be, we are pretty well off.
Yeah. It is crazy, my grandmother was telling me how teachers in Nigeria have not been paid for the past six months— I wonder, how does one survive in that climate?
You know what I realized? People in general— when you have to, you will find a way to survive. Going back to the creativity thing, that is one thing I feel people who have been oppressed for long periods of time are really good at— being creative and finding ways to make end meets with little. I am a huge fan of living creatively. Sometimes you might need new shirt and then you make one.
Creativity is solving a problem.
Yeah it is. The best creative output comes out when you are in a tight corner.
It is interesting you say that. I was in Nigeria for boarding school for a few years and we did not have access to irons and I remember I would fold my shirt, put it under my pillow and then sleep on it. By morning time, the shirt would be smooth and pressed from the pressure of my head while sleeping.
There you go! That sort of creativity and inspiration is useful. Even with the whole problem of finding how to live creatively, you can solve it using creativity. I do not just produce and make money off beat placements, I also DJ and I would do photography. There are different ways. I also mix music. I would mix an artist’s project.
Boy You Better Sing. What inspired that phrase?
What do you think when you hear that phrase?
Church. Did you always sing in church?
Nah I played drums, but yeah it is a phrase that came to mind. You know being inspired by gospel and my grandparents and people before me— I am really inspired by my heritage and my culture. That phrase is what I realized I have to do. Boy You Better Sing— it is having no more fear. I used sing at home and in the shower but not for anyone.
Switching things up. I want to argue that in todays world I find it is harder to be an individual. I always say that a kid could see a person with thousands of followers, get free sneakers for posting certain types of images, and that would make them shoot the same way adding to the noise. Can you say that is same thing for music? How do you find the willingness to stick to what you know?
Yeah it is the same way. There is a Toronto sound— the filtered sound, fast high hats, the 808s. That was being done like ten to fifteen years ago. It is cool but how many times are you going to hear the same thing. What is the pay off when you try to make something like someone? I do not like that feeling. Some people get a high off of it. “Oh it sounds like a Boi-1da beat”. How come you can not do your own thing? Why do you have to “rip” from somebody? The whole point of creativity is to create something new and to be you— to be honest to yourself. For me it is not difficult to do that— I just do me. When I make music I make it so that it is hard to copy; the chord structures for example. I am purposely out to make something that is not cool.
So how does one tap into the mindset of being an individual?
I think it it is a matter of strength. Strength in yourself and strength in knowing who you are. A lot of people do not know who they are, they just know what they like. They are like I want to do something like that. It is a matter of knowing yourself and if what you are looking at is influencing you— maybe turn it off. That takes discipline and not a lot of people have the discipline to turn off Instagram or Twitter.
If your goal is to be different, you can not be drinking the same juice everyone is drinking.