Deep Digs: Blaxäm – Kiss My Afro (1998)
By: Daniel G. Wilson | Art by: Laura Stanley
In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. This month, writer Daniel G. Wilson revisits Toronto funk rock band Blaxäm’s debut EP “Kiss My Afro” and examines the history of Black-fronted rock bands in Toronto during the 90s.
Toronto has been called one the most diverse cities in the world and has been home to an illustrious music scene for decades, especially in the realm of rock music. Unfortunately, the contributions and involvement of Black musicians in that side of the scene has largely been overlooked. Blaxäm is one such band. Around for only seven years in the 1990s, and with only one fascinating release to their name, they would prove to have one of the most enduring, yet underappreciated, legacies in the Toronto music scene. With this year marking the 25th anniversary of their EP “Kiss My Afro,” it is a good time to look back at the history of the band and the musical scene that surrounded them.
“CanRock” is a fascinating term that usually refers to two things. The first is as a short form of “Canadian Rock,” and the second is a reference to a particular period from the late 1980s into the early ‘00s when there was an attempt to categorize and document a particular type of rock music coming out of of Canada, with the bands most commonly associated with this period including The Tragically Hip and Sloan. This period was directly following a period of late 1970s and ‘80s alternative groups such as The Rheostatics, Change of Heart, A Neon Rome, and Spirit of the West to name but a few. Many of these bands drew from either punk, country, or folk and would influence the bands that would come after. It must be acknowledged that many of the bands that are typically associated with CanRock, both at the time and in historical retrospectives, were largely white in in make up both in terms of band members and in terms of sound and influence, with very few prominent bands featuring a visibly non-white member.
But in Canada, and especially in Toronto, the history of rock music made by Black musicians is as long and as storied as the genre itself. Going back to the “Toronto Sound” era of the ‘60s and early ‘70s when acts such as the Rick-James-led Mynah Birds were the talk of the town, the underappreciated Jackie Shane was blazing trails for future queer musicians, and Eric Mercury brought a progressive memphis-tinged rawness to the city with both his band the Soul Searchers and his solo work. This torch was carried into the ‘70s with groups like Motherlode and Crack of Dawn, who would be the first all Black Canadian band to get a major record deal in the late ‘70s, as well as Canadian reggae Pioneers Messenjah who, while not directly rock adjacent, would incorporate rock-inspired elements into their live performances.
Unfortunately the Black presence in Torontonian rock of the ‘80s is, in contrast, much less well-documented, with many bands of the era being largely forgotten. Alta Moda’s post-disco and art-rock-influenced funk rock sound would come under fire for being “too Black” for the Canadian market of the day. Alta Moda vocalist Molly Johnson’s next band, The Infidels, would go on to have a more conventional late ‘80s pop-rock sound. A lesser known yet equally influential band from this period was Age of Reason that blended elements of soul and glam rock. “Age of Reason was this all Black band. That was very… almost Bowie-esque. The music was really amazing,” explains Tuku Matthews, cofounder of Blaxäm, in an unpublished interview I did with her in 2022 on the history of that period. “From amazing harmonies [Age of Reason was] just very, very ahead of its time. Definitely ahead of Toronto’s time. They were wearing weaves and nail polish and there was a strong theatrical element to it.” Both The Infidels and Age of Reason would include the late Toronto jazz keyboardist and singer Washington Savage who would also go on to become a founding member of Blaxäm.
Blaxäm was active from 1994 to 2001 and included a roster of talented musicians who had spent years in the Toronto music scene made up of a venerable who’s who of Torontonian jazz, blues, and R&B musicians such as the aforementioned Savage, Sekou Lumumba, John “JK” Kanakis, Adrian Eccleston. It was fronted by Shannon Maracle and sister vocalists Tuku Matthews and Saidah Baba Talibah (daughters of renowned jazz singer Salome Bey). Each musician was a fixture in a genre-fluid micro scene of musicians in the late ‘80s. “Through the ‘90s there were also some interesting residencies like Tom Davis, rest in peace. He used to host a weekly singers’ showcase at the Cameron House called ‘beatnik beats.’ A lot of us used to spend our Saturday nights there,” explains Matthews. “Seeing everything from jazz, to funk, to blues… that scene fostered lots of different people.”
The band’s sound, which they had described as “blue groove,” as showcased on their only release— the 1998 Kiss My Afro EP— was, in many ways, spiritually if not directly, following in the tradition of funk-and-psychedelic-soul-influenced rock music with obvious parallels being the works of Betty Davis, Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder in the classic ‘70s period, Chameleon-era Labelle, and Prince. Other less prominent parallels can be drawn with the rock-influenced sounds of live reggae in the late ‘70s and the genre-fluid escapades of acts like Fishbone and Manu Chao. Powerful and dynamic vocals expertly blend with fuzzed out guitars, as heard in the song “Is it you,” and rhythmic drumming that deftly moves between propulsive rock back beats and the kind of half-swung beats that are commonly associated with J Dilla’s production and the sonic palette late ‘90s Neo Soul pioneers the Soulquarians, as best showcased on song “Everybody.” The songs often have jam-like elements, as if the listener is hearing a group of master musicians improvise on the spot. Experimentation is a key element on this record, with shifts in sound, tone, and genre occurring sometimes mid song. “Shaw Street Castle” is a smooth R&B jaunt that juxtaposes charismatic vocals with country-style slide guitar, and adds a gospel organ that creates a sinister atmosphere that at times evokes Mr Bungle and Screaming Jay Hawkins. When asked about the band’s diverse sound and the broader experimentation with commonly identified “Black” musical genres, Matthews said: “We came with so many different traditions already within Black music. we were just trying to create our own version of that fusion.”
The EP, however, is not without its flaws. The jamming and experimentation means that songs occasionally meander without clear direction. There are times when the songs seem to pull back from fully embracing the loud and experimental tendencies like a carpenter who is intent on sanding down the rough edges. This choice indicates a hesitancy on part of the band members to not fully abandon the pop appeal of the day. It seems that the mainstream Canadian musical landscape was not ready to embrace an all Black rock band that came from such an “alien” place relative to the type of music and aesthetics that were expected of Black and white musicians respectively. “If I was comparatively to look at R&B that was coming predominantly out of the United States and what was coming out of Canada, there was always an approach to the music that was more immediately pop [here],” Matthews says. “And I think as a genre that has to do with understanding how much smaller the Canadian market is overall for everybody. That strategically, what folks would try to do was to reach that mainstream audience.” In many ways this dissonance and slight adds to the raw garage rock appeal of a band on the cusp of a musical breakthrough. One cannot help but wonder what the group would have gone on to do if the musical landscape that surrounded them was more accepting of a band with their kind of sound, ideas, and ambition. “I think at that time, logistically, the struggles that we were facing were probably what it meant to just be doing something that nobody was going to sign on to,” Matthews says, thinking back to that time period. “Having a vision and saying, ‘what this band needs to succeed is big support,’ which is why we wanted to sign to a major [label] and also existing at a time when the majors themselves were starting to shift in regards to the new avenues that were opening up and probably not being ready for that at all.”
Blaxäm’s members would go on to other projects in Toronto and the wider Canadian music scene. Kanakis would play in the soul group jacksoul and would become a respected producer; Savage would continue on as an active member in the jazz community until his death in 2009; Lumumba, Eccleston, and Maracle would continue on as prolific session musicians, playing with countless acts of all genres; Mathews remains a respected singer and community advocate. While the majority of the members would leave behind a brief but powerful foray into the the rock genre,it is clear the the fuzzed-out alternative psychedelic soul sound of the album showed us a glimpse of the style that vocalist Saidah Baba Talibah would later go on to hone and perfect throughout her career. A style, sound, and aesthetic that she has become one of the biggest proponents of in Canada as SATE. “My sister was the one who launched her own project because she had always she was always holding this desire to blend her experience and the part of Black Sabbath that she loved,” Matthews says warmly, “that amplification. That is something that I think is so interesting, in particular about rock music. It’s an amplified expression and so I think it marries well with giving voice to Blackness number one.”
It should be noted that Blaxäm was not the only Toronto band experimenting with a fusion of largely Black art forms with harder forms of rock. The most prominent example of this would be Jamaican-Canadian rapper Michie’s Mee’s group Raggadeath who were active between 1995 and 1997. Their distinctive musical fusion of Jamaican dancehall, dub, hard rock, and alternative metal created a highly innovative sound that (alongside Welsh band Dub War) anticipated bands such as Skindred, Zeroscape, and the some of the more aggressive trains of reggae-influenced electronic music that would come out of the UK in the following years.
An increasingly diverse population and a sustained grassroots push towards inclusivity from underground punk scenes over the past two decades have led to far more visibility. Black artists in Canadian rock who are approaching the genre in unique ways and from different philosophical frameworks have slowly been gaining more attention from mainstream channels. Black artists are taking back the power in rock and the industry is catching up. In the ‘00s bands like the Carps would carve out a dance-punk sound and k-os would occasionally venture into alt-rock troubadourism from his unique place as a hip hop artist. More recently, a band like OBGMs who’s sound has evolved into a fusion of the rhythms of various forms of Black music like new jack swing, soca , UK Electronic, and fuzzed garage-punk in a manner that does not sacrifice the core aspects of either.
The record is the product of a number of unique tensions, contradictions, and harmonies: A fledgling Canadian music industry that was willing enough to sign such a distinct band that had their own sound, but also an industry that inherently saw Black-led rock bands as commercial risks and oddities, despite essentially inventing the genre. With so many barriers stacked up against them, it’s no surprise that an experimental group like Blaxäm only has an EP to their name in their seven year existence, which has affected how their music is remembered and celebrated today. Additionally, the social histories written in the days since about ‘90s CanRock tend to favour the narratives of crossover success of “independent” and “DIY” musicians and their native scenes, and don’t know what to make of a band whose creativity wasn’t later affirmed by the market. By contrast, Blaxäm put their Blackness front and centre, not just in their name, but in how their music spilled out joyously beyond the margins into an amplified expression that continues to echo.