Taking the mourning and sorrow he heard in folk music from the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, acclaimed Toronto musician and poet Mustafa constructs modern folk adjacent music addressing issues that affect him as a young, Muslim Black man. Hoping to create a similar raft of expression and freedom for those like him, Mustafa harnesses the prowess and power of folk music as a way to give honest and personal commentary on the challenges that press him and his community, offering up his music so others like him can relate while those who are not like him can hopefully learn to understand.
His debut release, ‘When Smoke Rises,’ out via his own Regent Park Songs, is a tender amalgam of his experiences, including the loss of friends to gun violence, the plight of his community and others like it, and a hope for something more, something better.
In his opening track “Stay Alive,” he constructs a narrative of struggle and conflict, a painful plea to those around him to not go down a path you can’t return from. Even more so, Mustafa touches on the pain left behind when you lose someone in such a way as gun violence.
“It just kind of shattered my entire world,” Mustafa says of Smoke Dawg’s murder. “I didn’t even realize how much weight we shared until I had to take that weight on for myself.”
Lamenting and harboring that pain, Mustafa lets it go in his music not just as a healing process for himself, but for others experiencing the same confusing struggles and having to cope with the change around them and lack of support from others.
“All of the deaths that I experienced, I experienced through the time constraints of mourning,” he notes. ”Specifically, for young Black people in inner city communities that die while at war with the state or at war with themselves, I wanted to beautify those departures. Because none of those departures were made beautiful for me.”
Having written for others while trying to hone his own style, Mustafa’s practice and patience has led to a rather mature debut release. Tapping not just his experiences as a young man, but also as a child of Muslim immigrants, Mustafa has taken up a personal appointment to lift others up and to set straight what it means to be a person like him. His faith and religion finds its way into his music in songs such as “What About Heaven” where he reconciles some of his friends’ deaths with his religious upbringing. Ultimately, Mustafa notes he also sees his music as a way to promote positivity and understanding surrounding his Muslim faith.
His honest divulgence gives a voice to those who silently experience the heartache and struggle of underserved communities, religious oppression and general lack of awareness or lack of care from others. And much like one of his musical influences, Richie Havens, whose Woodstock performance deeply affected Mustafa after he stumbled across a recording of it, the 24-year-old artist aspires to do the same for his community and those like it through his writing and music.
“When you see someone that looks like you, that feels like you, embodying the emotion that you are familiar with, it gives you the courage to walk in that path,” he notes.
From writing poetry to dispel stereotypes of what people are like who live and grow up in Regent Park in his hometown of Toronto, to at one point becoming a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Youth Advisory Council, Mustafa has always been propelled to fight for those who are misunderstood or overlooked.
Words: Patti Sanchez