Poet turned musician transforms grief and loss into music

When Smoke Rises by Mustafa
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Mustafa‘s album debut was shortlisted for Canada’s 2021 Polaris Music Prize (photo by Samuel Engelking)


“I want people who look like me, who have experiences like mine, to see me do this so they can see themselves in this genre.”

They dubbed him Mustafa the Poet when – as a 12-year-old – he started pouring out rhymes on the streets of his tough Toronto Regent Park neighbourhood. A dozen years later he’s being touted as Mustafa the musician releasing an acclaimed debut album last May (but not before penning tunes for fellow Black Canadians – chart-toppers Drake, The Weeknd and others).

When Smoke Rises is an eight-song, 23-minute collection of potent lyrics and self-described inner city folk music sung in Mustafa Ahmed’s affecting, soft and husky vocals. He’s telling stories of life and death from his hard scrabble childhood. The “Smoke” in the album title names his good friend, Canadian rapper and band mate Smoke Dawg who was gunned down in a daytime shooting by unknown assailants at age 21 in 2018. And there were other close friends who also died young in Canada’s first social housing development which has a history of systemic and generational violence.

These losses and unresolved grief lie at the heart of a vulnerable work which the musician started writing in 2019. Mustafa told Toronto’s NOW magazine, “It was too overwhelming to attempt to write through it. I almost felt like this journey wasn’t meant for me. Perhaps these stories were too fresh in my memory to write.”

“We are [all] victims of the same system and it’s difficult to see that when you still haven’t grieved fully.”

In the song Capo (featuring the UK’s Sampha) he sings:

Growin’ up in, in, in, in my hood
You know what I’m sayin’?
I’ve lost a lot of people

And I can’t let it go
This feelin’ I have won’t settle
Won’t stop rainin’, we’re at sea level
And this pain is never gentle
It anchors me into the rubble

Inner city folk music

For the Black Muslim offspring of Sudanese parents and growing up poor, the folk music genre isn’t an obvious choice when rap and hip hop are the dominant channels for dissent and addressing struggle. But Mustafa cites artists like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as influences as well as Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens).

“In the beginning, I didn’t think I belonged to it,” he told The Guardian newspaper last June. That view changed when he saw a video of Black American folk singer Richie Havens deliver his standout performance at Woodstock in 1969.

“As people of oppressed backgrounds, it’s necessary we’re able to centre ourselves in genres where we don’t see ourselves,” he said. “I want people who look like me, who have experiences like mine, to see me do this so they can see themselves in this genre.”

However, there’s no mistaking Mustafa’s sounds for the ringing guitar-and-vocal protests of the 60s. Under the able guidance of ace Toronto producer Frank Dukes, the album has a low-fi and contemporary feel. Dukes uses two kinds of samples to subtly colour several of the tracks: spoken word by some of Mustafa’s friends as well as Sudanese and Egyptian song phrases inspired by Smithsonian Folkways anthologies. Two other London-based musicians James Blake and Jamie xx also did production duty.

The result is a warm and deeply felt set from the talented Mustafa – a young man with insight and maturity beyond his years. He leaves no doubt that he’s both poet and musician as well as an artist to watch.


When the Smoke Rises was shortlisted for Canada’s 2021Polaris Music Prize

Remember Me, Toronto is an 11-minute film produced by Mustafa the Poet in 2019. The promo material for the film says the film “is a project created for artists in this video and everyone in the Canadian hip hop communities. It discusses the losing of people due to the increasing gun violence and homicide rates in Toronto over the past decade. Mustafa aimed to discuss the systemic structure working against the lower economies of Toronto and wanted to give these artists the opportunity to “rewrite their memories and the memories of those they lost.” In the film, the artists reflect on the intergenerational nature of trauma and gun violence. Noah “40” Shebib scored the movie.”

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26 February 2022

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Mustafa’s ‘When Smoke Rises’ Is a Softly Stunning Debut

by Mankaprr Conteh / Rolling Stone

The more you listen to Mustafa, you begin to realize that the juxtaposition of the gritty street life he depicts and the gentle music he makes shouldn’t be much of a juxtaposition at all. Half of the singer-songwriter’s debut project, When Smoke Rises, has been released as singles, with music videos capturing the brick and concrete exteriors of Toronto’s Regent Park housing project, where he was born and raised. In the video for “Stay Alive,” a searing portrait of his community and his commitment to it, black and brown men in chains and hoodies make elaborate hand gestures to the camera as Mustafa pleads for their survival. He offers himself to them to ensure it. “Just put down that bottle, tell me your sorrows,” he sings. “I care about you fam.”  His folk-inflected music, tender and calm, and these videos, serene and defiant, honor his neighborhood with the softness so often absent in attitudes and policy towards poor people.

Read more


Mustafa Honours His Grief Through Beautiful Poetry on ‘When Smoke Rises’

By Papa Minnow / Exclaim

On debut album When Smoke Rises, Mustafa uses his acclaimed poetic ability to deliver a raw and emotional story about the dangers and hopes of living in Toronto’s oldest social housing project, Regent Park. Those same dangers led to the untimely losses of his friends Ali Rizeig and rapper Smoke Dawg, who was the victim of a shooting outside of a Toronto nightclub in 2018. Still dealing with grief, Mustafa uses his gifted poeticism to express his feelings of pain, hurt and hope, and he masterfully crafts it all into a timeless journey for the world to hear.

Album opener “Stay Alive” serves as as a window into Mustafa’s soul as he elegantly sings over a sombre guitar about the struggles of surviving to see another day. It’s in this musical approach that Mustafa is able to harness the immense power of his storytelling as honed through his poetry, which he first earned praise for as a child. Driven by slow-burning, guitar-driven tracks, the album flows gracefully, with more percussive numbers such as “The Hearse” providing a nice change of pace. 

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Mustafa the Poet confronts grief and dispossession over understated production with folk-music overtones

By Adlan Jackson / Pitchfork

When Smoke Rises is Mustafa Ahmed’s first full-length album as a solo artist, but it’s just the latest volume in his growing library of dispatches from Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood. Ahmed, a founding member of rap collective Halal Gang, used to be known as Mustafa the Poet, having gained recognition for his earnest spoken-word verse at just 12 years old. These days, he is tight with Drake and FKA twigs; he’s narrated a Valentino ad and written songs for Usher and Camila Cabello. But the topics that marked his poetry as a young teen—violence, death, grief—have remained constant in his artistic output, and they stay central on When Smoke Rises, named in honor of Smoke Dawg, a fellow Halal Gang member who was murdered in 2018.

With subject matter like a still-recent death, the journey from poetry to pop music can be treacherous; the medium necessarily requires Ahmed to polish his stories until they’re glossy enough for radio play and A&R meetings. Thankfully, he has a knack for it. When Smoke Rises deftly translates Ahmed’s poetry to melody without blunting the truth of the narratives at its core. The music is delicate: Ahmed’s singing voice is bassy and warm, and soft acoustic instruments adorn the understated production. The nylon-stringed guitars and piano of beatmaker Frank Dukes’ celestial lo-fi lend a sense of eternality. Elsewhere, submarine synths from Jamie xx and fellow folk futurist James Blake evoke the gnawing immediacy of loss. The vacillation between the two moods is a worthy imitation of the seesaw of grief between abstract and all too real.

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