Cadence Weapon’s Year of Radical Thinking

Cadence Weapon’s year of radical thinking

By: Tabassum Siddiqui | Photo by: Mat Dunlap

Given the ongoing interminable grind of the COVID-19 pandemic, few of us will likely look back on 2021 as a banner year—but for veteran Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon (aka Rollie Pemberton), the rollercoaster of the past several months included some career-topping moments to balance all the uncertainty facing artists during this strange time.

Winning the Polaris Music Prize after more than 15 years of making music—and two previous Polaris shortlist nods, including in the very first year of the prize in 2006—certainly tops that list, but his critically acclaimed, tough-and-tense fifth album Parallel World wasn’t the only breakthrough after years DIY-ing it within a ruthless industry. Always a wordsmith at heart, the former Edmonton poet laureate (now based in Toronto) drew on his sharp pen for more than just lyrics in 2021, starting a Substack newsletter and working on a book due out this spring that’s part memoir, part deep dive into hip-hop history.

Turns out Parallel World, with its unflinching examination of systemic and societal breakdowns set to moody electronic beats, was only a glimpse into what Pemberton had on his mind last year. In July, he wrote a revealing essay about the financial and artistic fallout from signing a 360 deal with an independent label at 19—a common enough agreement in the record industry, but one few artists talk openly about. The deal, he explained bluntly, allowed the label to profit off not only his music, but every other revenue stream, for years afterwards—an exploitative model that pushed him to the edge of nearly quitting music altogether.

His honesty resonated with musicians, other artists, and fans around the world—and reminded us that Cadence’s secret weapon has always been telling truths, no matter how uncomfortable.

It’s perhaps no surprise his output over the past year landed him on several year-end lists of the best in music in 2021—during a time when we all were trying to wade through the fog, his words and sounds offered much-needed clarity.

As 2021 wound down, New Feeling checked in with Pemberton about landing some big wins in mid-career after playing the long game, how community lies at the heart of what he does, and why coming together might just be the answer to so many of the questions that underpin where we find ourselves today.

Tabassum Siddiqui: You had quite a 2021, with a critically acclaimed album and the big Polaris Prize win—what were some of the highlights of the year for you?

Winning Polaris was the major highlight obviously, but also my first show back at SAT [Société des arts technologiques] in Montréal was a significant moment for me. Signing with Kelp Management was big because I had been doing everything mostly on my own for the past eight years. Getting the vaccine was really emotional for me and my partner. In April, I threw a virtual album release party on Twitch with my fans and that was surprisingly memorable.

TS: The Polaris win in some ways felt very full-circle, given that you were one of the very first nominees of the Prize early on and have been nominated several times over the years—what did it mean to you to win the award, especially now?

CW: It was extremely meaningful to win Polaris at this point in my career. I can’t help but compare the inaugural Polaris in 2006—where it was mostly white indie-rock bands—with this year, where the field was so much more diverse. After Hope in Dirt City was nominated in 2012, I didn’t release an album for six years. I had to rebuild my whole career after my former managers bailed and the label I was on collapsed. I worked tirelessly for years to make it back to this point, so it was incredibly gratifying to win this year.

TS: You mentioned after the win that you hoped to use some of the prize money to organize some voter registration events in the municipal/provincial elections. You’ve been very vocal, and also written about, your thoughts on our political policies and systems in recent years—why has it been important to you as an artist and a person to raise awareness of these issues?

CW: As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, we’re all more connected than we realize. A world where artists are afforded the space to create is a world where everyone benefits. I started thinking more about the institutional forces behind inequality and gentrification—the deeper reasons for why it’s so hard to live in the city these days. Learning more about civic politics was empowering.

Seeing the power of collective action through the Encampment Support Network, Black Urbanism TO, the George Floyd protests and other initiatives really encouraged me to think about what kind of impact I could make by using my personal platform. These upcoming elections are rare opportunities to show our displeasure with the status quo and make a difference. I want to get to the end of 2022 and be able to say that I did everything I could to help improve life in Toronto and Ontario.

TS: As you know, New Feeling is a new music-journalism initiative centred in community-based values, so we’re keen to get your take on what some of the pressing issues are that we should all be mobilizing around. People can often feel a bit helpless to do anything to help foster change—what are some of the steps they can take?

CW: Canadian music publications need to actively seek out young BIPOC writers. Representation really does matter. I didn’t know what to expect going into this album run, but I was heartened to see so many amazing BIPOC journalists on the other side of the virtual screen. They routinely had the most thoughtful questions out of all of my interviews and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I also think it’s important to chart your own path as a magazine and not feel obligated to cover what the American publications do. I find that I lose interest when I see Canadian publications trying to keep up with the Americans because they think it makes them look more relevant.

TS: One of the many compelling aspects of Parallel World is the collaborative approach—there are so many fantastic producers contributing, not to mention the few guest spots. Did you have a sense of what sort of production you wanted going into making the record, given that its overall sound is so hard and urgent, or did that sound come about more organically as you went along?

CW: The only songs on the album that were written before the pandemic were “SENNA” and “On Me”—the rest of it was recorded remotely in the summer and fall of 2020. That involved me reaching out to producers and artists around the world, discussing themes with them online and sending files back and forth. The beats I gravitate to are usually hard, minimal and futuristic. These were words I used when I talked to producers about what I was looking for. We would also discuss the overarching concept of the album. There were a couple examples where I would receive fragments of ideas that producers already had but mostly the beats were made specifically for this album.

The thing with me is that I’m always making songs and not always thinking in terms of whether what I’m making will end up on a record. But I’ll notice when songs start to have similar themes and maybe I’ve locked into a particular rhythm, and suddenly I know that it’s Album Time. That happened in a strangely intense way when I made Parallel World. I felt a deep sense of urgency to speak to what was happening in the world.

TS: Your essay on your experience with the music industry and being exploited as an artist went viral—particularly among fellow artists/musicians, who have been dealing with these issues for so long, but many were afraid to speak up. What made you want to write about that topic so frankly, and what did you find interesting about the response?

CW: It’s something that has weighed on me for years. I just woke up one day and decided to write about it—it felt like the right time to speak up. Seeing Britney Spears and her conservatorship drama inspired me a bit. I felt like I had survived what happened, and had gotten to a stable enough place in my career where I could openly speak about it and maybe help other younger artists so they could learn from my mistakes. I also rarely saw artists publicly discussing their contracts. I wanted to demystify that side of things because the secrecy allows the cycle of exploitation to continue.

The response really took me by surprise. I had dozens of artists in my DMs saying that similar things had happened to them with labels. The response was almost totally positive, too. People were really surprised that this kind of thing happens with small indie labels, not just the majors. I think it got folks thinking about the exploitation of musicians in Canada.

TS: Among all the other inequities the pandemic has shone a spotlight on, it’s also revealed many of the issues artists/musicians are facing in terms of everything from the ability to make a living to working conditions—what lessons can the music industry, and individual artists, take from this time?

CW: The number-one thing that needs to change is streaming. The system needs to be overhauled. Personally, I would like to organize a protest where as many Canadian artists as possible remove our music from every platform until things are fairer. The last thing these tech companies want is for us to organize, and I think that’s something I want to remind my fellow musicians of. These corporations are worthless without our labour—we’re stronger together.

TS: After live music was shut down for so long, you played two local Toronto shows right after the Polaris win, went on tour with Fat Tony, and were supposed to play a few shows back in Alberta to round out the year—how was the experience returning to the stage, but also then dealing with restrictions once again?

CW: The July Talk shows in Alberta were postponed because of COVID, which goes to show you how tenuous things are right now. It was amazing to play shows again and share that experience with the people. That’s what I wished for most during the early part of the pandemic, just to be able to play the Parallel World songs for a live audience.

Playing festivals over the summer and the tour with Tony was so cathartic and really fun, but the protocols were exhausting. Touring is hard enough, but it’s just another layer of uncertainty on top of everything else. Now with Omicron, I don’t see how a U.S. tour like the one I just did [this past fall] would even be possible.

The future looks unclear. I had a lot of cool shows planned for February and March [2022], but who knows if they’ll actually happen? It’s really just about carefully monitoring the situation and taking everything one day at a time.

TS: As if you’re not busy enough, you’re also writing a book, due out this year. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process, and what made you decide to take on more of a long-form writing project?

CW: I’ve finished writing the book! It’s called Bedroom Rapper and it comes out with McClelland & Stewart in May 2022. I started working on it in late 2019, but wrote the majority of it during the pandemic. My process involved a lot of getting up early, filling up a pint glass with ice water, and just letting it rip before my typical everyday obligations started knocking on my door. I’d be writing the book in the morning and afternoon and then recording Parallel World at the studio at night.

Writing this book was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It involved a lot of research, going through emails from a decade ago, retracing my steps. It was interesting to take inventory of my entire career at a moment when the whole world felt frozen in time. I’m used to the flow of making a record after doing it for over a decade, but writing a book requires an intense level of sustained focus that’s unlike anything I’ve ever had to do before. I’m excited for people to read it!

In with the New: 2020 Reader Survey Results

in with the new: 2020 reader Survey Results

featuring Cadence Weapon, Dusty lee, and paul carpenter

By Katerina Stamadianos | Illustrations by Melanie Nelson

In late June, New Feeling launched its first Reader Survey. The earliest iterations of New Feeling’s organizing membership had convened two months prior, and the team was looking to confirm some of the motivating assumptions that had brought the group together in the first place: that people value music made in so-called Canada; that people find importance in independent and representative music journalism; and that, as it stands, the wider music media apparatus in Canada is falling short.  

The Reader Survey was also intended as an extension of the very principles that led to New Feeling’s conception as a cooperative organization. We believe that a successful publication is one that is both responsive and accountable to the community. The Reader Survey is a small (and imperfect!) way of kick-starting the process of collective ownership over New Feeling’s direction and dream.


The Reader Survey was completed by
144 individuals over a two-week period. The survey was shared on New Feeling’s Twitter and Instagram accounts and each question was answered voluntarily.

I am one woman. While this analysis is not entirely scientific, it is still based on a careful reading of each response. The survey incorporated a mix of qualitatively and quantitatively measured questions – sometimes, readers were asked to provide numerical rankings, and in other cases, they were asked to offer their thoughts. 7 major themes emerged from the survey, which will individually be explored below. 

I am indebted to The Creative Independent’s “Music Industry Investigation Report,” whose format I loosely follow. 

Just under 50% of respondents called Toronto home, 57% of respondents identified as male, and the majority of respondents identified as English speakers.This raises a challenge to not only the survey responses, but our reach and accessibility. These numbers bring awareness to our network as writers, since the survey was distributed on social media before the launch of our first issue (and subsequent increase in audience attention). Further, the survey was only available in English, potentially limiting our capacity to engage with French (and other language) speakers.

As noted by Dusty Lee in an interview below, Canadian music journalism is predominantly white and male (in readership and writership). The coverage of francophone artists in anglophone Canada is inadequate. We hope and intend to do our part to shift this landscape.

People care about music made in Canada, but aren’t given enough meaningful opportunities to engage with it.


72% – Yes
17% – Unsure
11% – No

When asked whether “Canadian music” matters to them, 72% of respondents answered in the affirmative. However, only 29% of respondents found Canadian media coverage important to their enjoyment of new music. Further, 53% of respondents did not consider the amount of coverage Canadian music and artists receive through the music media to be substantive (while 36% of respondents remained unsure).


53% – No
36% – Unsure
10% – Yes

Even more telling, 82% of respondents did not believe that the coverage of Canadian music and artists through the music media is representative of the country’s diversity. 


82% of respondents said no; 9% were not sure; 9 said yes.

This data, considered in tandem with the survey’s various qualitative and anecdotal responses, suggests that while listeners value music made in Canada, they are not given substantive opportunities to engage with it in a manner that aligns with their preferences, interests, and values. We explore this observation below. 

A Note
As with the following “reader insight,” we do not want to overstate the importance of “Canadian-ness.” New Feeling is not interested in reporting for reporting’s sake, but rather, finding new ways to engage with the country’s immeasurable talent.

“I feel too much of Canadian music journalism still has this underdog voice to it. There’s this weird feeling I get reading it that it’s attempting to legitimize itself through conspicuous celebrations of Canadians that have “made it” and Canadian achievements (the JUNO especially). I’d far sooner read about what’s interesting about artists and not reasons why I should be pleased Canadians are gaining success.” 

Readers want regional coverage – outside of major cities. 

“Less Toronto, More Canada.”

“Explore the other provinces please.”

You probably didn’t need a survey to tell you that Canadian music media is biased towards Toronto and Montreal. While the Big City has historically benefitted from an influx of artists and music-related infrastructure, the internet has effectively obscured what was once a regional reality into something more akin to preferential treatment. One of the most prominent trends to emerge from survey responses was a keen interest in learning about the music being made outside of major cities.

An Artist’s Perspective: PAUL CARPENTER (Top men, wide Eyed)

Photo: Paul by a pal

NF: When it comes to Canada, the east/west, urban/rural divides are palpable. What do we miss when we focus on urban centres, and in particular, the Toronto and Montreal corridor?
PC: In only giving serious consideration or coverage to major city centres, or specifically what we consider cultural hubs or places with the “cool” factor, we lose out on opportunities to discover an immense wealth of interesting flavours of music.
With every smaller city or region that produces a local scene, there exists music that you simply can’t find anywhere else. 

And as for the east/west and urban/rural divides, I think that makes it much harder to allow an even focus, as the codification can create a sense of things being inherently better or worse, which is not necessarily the case. For example, just because a city has more to offer does not necessarily mean that there inherently exists more support for artists in the scene. In a smaller scene, there can be fierce and loyal devotion to particular artists that you might not be able to find in a big city. 
NF: What would equitable, meaningful coverage of the music made across Canada look like?
PC: I would love to see greater emphasis put on celebrating small scenes across Canada as I think it would mean fans get greater access to a treasure trove of new music they wouldn’t have known about before. It would also mean great things for artists who exist within small scenes, meaning greater exposure outside of the range that they normally would be able to spread. 

As it stands, the majority of bands and artists that I’ve known over the years who have ambitions of “making it” feel as though it’s only possible to do so by relocating to a major city, where they’ll be competing in a saturated market to grab a foothold. With higher costs of living it makes it that much harder to devote yourself to the craft without making serious quality of life sacrifices.  

I’d like to think that by fostering greater importance on local music across Canada there could be more support in smaller communities for both local and traveling bands. This could also give greater access to bands who might otherwise STAY strictly local to venture further afield.
If artists knew that they could exist in a small community while still having access to coverage it could make it much easier to get solid promotion while on the road. More robust support for local scenes would then ostensibly create more viable stopover points for traveling artists. This could make it easier to go cross-country and know that you’ll be playing every night, potentially actually coming home with a marginal profit.

Our values drive our listening – and our reading.

In considering which factors contribute to their enjoyment of new music, 65% of respondents found it important that the music aligns with their values. In fact, an alignment with progressive values was the most prominent variable attributed with the enjoyment of new music across the survey. 


65%: the music aligns with my values; 59%: critical analysis; 58%: live music; 54% genre; 47% localness.

Prompted with the question of what they would like to see more of in Canadian music media, an overwhelming number of respondents requested diverse artist coverage, in particular calling for stronger representation of BIPOC, trans, non binary and women artists. Beyond artist coverage, however, many respondents also called for stronger representation in those same areas across Canadian music media writership.  Tying this to the observation that most respondents did not consider Canadian music coverage to be representative of the country’s diversity, it is clear that the wider industry has not caught up to readers’ concerns surrounding equity and intersectionality.

Genre matters.

Genre preferences can vary widely from one person to the next. After all, they’re just that – preferences. But when we consider the question of what genres are overlooked in Canadian music media, clear trends emerge beyond personal tastes. The Reader Survey confirmed our suspicion that the same individuals interested in reading an interdependent publication are inclined towards independently-oriented music, with respondents requesting coverage of oft-overlooked genres such as punk, electronic, and jazz, and music that more generally blurs genre lines. 

Across the survey, listeners identified a lack of critical coverage of independent rap and hip-hop music in Canada, and conveyed their sense that the country’s music industry apparatus fails the genre’s artists. If the Reader Survey is any indication, the appetite for experimental, innovative hip-hop is undeniable – and underground, “street rap” is especially overlooked by the Canadian music media.

An Artist’s Perspective: CADENCE WEAPON

Photo: Cadence Weapon by Justin Aranha

NF: Does Canadian music media substantively cover rap and hip-hop scenes?

CW: I don’t believe so. A certain segment of Canadian rap that is more alternative gets covered adequately but there seems to be an aversion to covering “street rap” that comes from Canada. Maybe it’s a lack of knowledge or appreciation for trap / drill in Canada, or writers being uncomfortable about what they rap about, but Canadian rappers like NorthSideBenji and Lil Berete only seem to get token coverage in Canada. [This] might be why both of them have aligned themselves more with UK outlets like GRM Daily and Fire In The Booth. There’s also basically no press coverage for Canadian rappers from outside of Toronto. I’d like to see more coverage of Indigenous rappers.
Canadian journalists should be searching for new rappers to expose to a larger audience. Maybe this could be helped by publications actively scouting for young POC writers.

NF: Can you speak to how the larger issue of industry-wide support for rap and hip-hop in Canada may intersect with the state of Canadian rap and hip-hop coverage? How may this be different from, say, the United States?

CW: In America, regional rap is regularly played on the radio. Some cities have multiple radio stations that only play new rap. They have multiple festivals. In Canada, we have one station in Toronto that might play maybe the top three or four mainstream Toronto artists all day. This trickles down to awards that only nominate rappers who get played on the radio or have major label backing. There’s OVO Fest and Manifesto but not much else. Streaming programmers will only put Canadian rap on three specialized playlists and only those top three or four mainstream artists can make the jump out of being ghettoized and stuck on the Canadian-only playlists.

There seems to be a fear of supporting Black music in Canada.
There’s the issue of the industry being reluctant to support Canadian rappers until they get cosigned by another country first. Canadian journalists seem reluctant to take a chance on something unless it’s been vetted by the Americans already. In Canada, subgenres and styles of rap are not as stratified as they are in the US. There are so many types of rappers who get covered there and writers have a better institutional knowledge of where they fit into the larger picture of rap. You wouldn’t write the same way about Tyler The Creator, Noname, Kid Cudi, Vince Staples and Smino, for instance. In Canada, it’s still either alternative or street with no degrees in between. As a result, I’ve often felt misunderstood by the media in Canada.
NF: What needs to change going forward?
CW: More POC writers, more diverse publications. I think the biggest problem is a knowledge gap. Every music journalist in Canada should be engaging with rap music.
Ignoring trap today is like ignoring jazz in the ’60s. This is the music of our time and your average Canadian music journalist has largely ignored it. We need more independent publications like New Feeling giving writers the opportunity to promote more diverse tastes.

Let’s do it ourselves

Local, “underground,” music can be considered a regional distinction. It can also be classified as a genre, or at least an umbrella term under which several sounds fall. But we can also look at the local, the underground, and the DIY (do-it-yourself) as community-oriented concepts rooted in connection, care and collaboration. Local scenes are avenues by which many musicians pursue their artistic visions and express themselves, and local spaces are often safe havens through which marginalized artists, such as queer and trans musicians, flourish. 

When asked “What do you want to see more of in Canadian music journalism”…
“Connections and community! Show how people work together and collaborate. Solidarity with and between artists.”
“Greater emphasis on locality, guides on how to support a local scene.”

Across the country, local scenes and spaces are under threat. Recognizing this unfortunate reality, many respondents to the Reader Survey urged for a more symbiotic relationship between music publications and local art. Several readers suggested “scene reports” as a potential avenue to strengthen this relationship and an opportunity to expand the reach of Canadian music coverage beyond large metropolitan cities.

An Artist’s Perspective: Dusty Lee (Slash Need)

Photo: Dusty Lee by Maya Fuhr

NF: What is the relationship between the audience and performer in the DIY context?
DL: It’s exactly the same as the mainstream, but the performances are better. 
NF: What role do you think independent media should hold in covering and engaging with DIY art and communities? 
DL: I have a lot of mixed feelings about this, and that’s mostly because I remember NOW Magazine promoting a secret Not Dead Yet S.H.I.T. show at Double Double Land in their magazine and the turnout was so huge it was essentially what shut down the place.
Some things are not for everyone. Some things in the DIY underground community need to stay underground, contained and protected by word of mouth. But I also recognize that’s gate keeping and with such a small amount of resources in Canada for artists and musicians.
I do know that when I was 15-25 I deeply relied on independent media coverage of music and art communities. All I did for a long time was listen to music featured on blogs. Growing up in London, if things like Silent Shout and Gorilla vs Bear etc didn’t exist I don’t know what would have become of me. I definitely felt inspired by learning about all these different scenes and ways of creating. When I started to book shows I’d just surf Silent Shout and find new performers I hadn’t met yet. It’s harder these days to know what’s happening, who’s making what without shows or touring or independent media. Even harder to get better at your practice if you don’t have a community to share and engage new ideas with. 

There’s plenty of media for straight white male WASPs. When it comes to independent media, it should be about whose voice you hype and broadcast. Whose issues and scenes are important? Those people better be Black, Indigenous, POC, LGBTQ2+ youth that don’t have regular access to the mainstream media platform. 
NF: Who is DIY for? Why do you do what you do? 
DL: DIY is about making your dream world and desires a reality, especially when no one else is gonna do it for you. It’s a reminder that something interesting can happen at any moment.

Tired of the same old

The average New Feeling reader is not all that interested in some of the most prominent formats and features of well-known music media outlets, which tend to perpetuate cycles of popularity through year end lists, awards coverage, playlist creation, and more. In most cases, variables (see graphic) related to mainstream success were noted as “not important” to the listener’s enjoyment of new music. 


87%: Popularity; 70% Year End Lists; 82% Playlists; 45% Numerical Reviews; 80% Awards; 42% Aesthetics

When asked what they would like to see less of in Canadian music journalism, respondents did not hold back. In different words and through different examples, readers expressed a general dissatisfaction with the forces that contribute to what can often appear to be cyclical coverage of the same artists – PR partnerships, corporate sponsorships, and risk aversion, to name a few. On top of the sidelining of underground and underrepresented artists, respondents noted that these practices have resulted in stale journalism, where writers avoid criticism, offer “blanket positivity,” and elevate “indistinguishable indie bands.”

In with the new (feeling)

Music media has experimented with various formats of content production in recent history, though the industry has largely trended towards a predominance of shorter content posted at a higher frequency. This often includes news or tabloid-style items. When asked to select which formats they would like to see more of, a slightly higher proportion of respondents (28%) requested “more robust monthly content all at once,” while 22% preferred shorter daily content. 52% of respondents selected long-from articles and artist profiles – a finding that aligns with several of the written responses to the survey requesting meaningful and conscientious journalism. 


22%: Shorter daily content; 28%: more robust monthly content all at once; 45%: weekly roundups; 52% long form articles and profiles.

When asked what they looked for in music criticism, 70% of respondents indicated that they were interested in critique – positive or negative. However, only 18% of respondents were interested in music criticism that utilizes a rating or scale system. This implies that respondents are keen to read reviews that engage meaningfully with the content at hand, as opposed to a prescription of what is “good” or “bad.” Well over 70% of respondents seek out criticism that connects music to its historical or cultural context, as well as the personal contexts of the musicians at hand.


70% – Critique, even if it’s a bit negative.
76% – Connecting the music to a larger historical or cultural context.
71% – Context specific to the music.
40% – Description of methods, gear, production.
45% – The perspective of the writer.
18% – A rating scale.

The above analysis is not an exhaustive index of the ways listeners perceive and interact with Canadian music media. Even still, its instructive of the work music journalism must do to catch up with the average socially-minded reader, and the gaps in the current landscape that we can work to remedy. As a cooperative and as a publication, we are committed to using the findings of this survey to support New Feeling’s editorial direction and cooperative activities. This process is already underway and visible in our new issue, The Fear, with much more to come. 

A big thank you to the readers that completed the survey, and for those who continue to engage with New Feeling as it continues to grow. We couldn’t have – and will not – do this without you.

Special thanks to Paul Lawton and Katerina Zoumboulakis