I’ve known Mustafa the Poet, now known simply as Mustafa, for a long time. A lot of people do. If you’re from Toronto – the chronically misunderstood city we’re both from – it’s hard not to know each other, or at least of each other. It would be especially strange, as Torontonians, to not know (or notice) someone on the brink of something great, maybe even bigger than them. Like others from our city, Mustafa is on that list. But unlike others from our city, Mustafa’s been on that brink (or precipice) for a long, long time. Now, we’re finally watching him bloom.
On When Smoke Rises – his eight-track, 24-minute-long debut album – he sings about his foundation: his people, his ends and, most notably, his friends. Working within folk musical traditions, but with genre-fluid producers like Frank Dukes and Jamie xx, the record sounds both new and old, familiar and sonically experimental. (Production on the project also includes samples of Mustafa’s friends speaking to him over voice notes, checking in one another, screaming “AHWOOLAY!” and repping home.) It’s a measured and thoughtful account of what it means to see and love the people of Mustafa’s world – to quote writer Momtaza Mehri, who opened Mustafa’s London concert, glory be to the gang, gang, gang.
Before achieving his current success as a recording artist, Mustafa had experimented with different forms of writing, testing the limits and temperaments of each world and its corresponding scenes. The short version of the story goes like this: as a kid (as young as seven or eight years old), Mustafa’s older sister, Namarig Ahmed, decided to teach her little brother about the healing effects of poetry. Together, they talked, Namarig planting seeds of curiosity in a child trying to make sense of it all. Then, they wrote.
In 2009, when he was only 12, Mustafa got his first feature in the Toronto Star, a huge deal for any budding artist. “He writes poems that make white adults cry,” wrote the journalist, a sentence that would go on to define much of what people would write and sing about him for years to come. For a long time, that sentiment was the subtext of his appeal: to white (and non-Black) audiences, Mustafa was a vessel, and his work offered a glimpse into a part of the city they’d never thought to consider life – let alone love and loss – in. To them, he was a safe storyteller of gritty reality – one they never wanted to see up close.
As he wrote and grew, Mustafa realised immediately that following his unfurling creative path would be lonely for him. He sought solace in his sisters, a trio of built-in besties who’ve supported him and been his counsel at every turn. “It was only the women in my life that created space for me to grieve,” Mustafa tells me, remembering who it was that held him as he mourned loss after loss. “My mother, two sisters, it’s all of you in the community just kind of granting any level of patience or time. Being able to see it.” The people who supported him then support him, still – young Black Muslims, specifically Black Muslim women who find something genuine in his offering. “You see us most. You see us in our process,” he says finally, and I believe he means it.
Over time, poetry became a lifeline to Mustafa. He read and reread stanzas, committing his favourite lines to memory. He went to live performances of all kinds, watching and learning from artists he admired. The more he immersed himself in words, the more he felt the urge to pick up his pen. Then he picked up a microphone. The rest was history. “Since I was young, I was impulsive,” he says. “I wasn’t one to stay in one world.”
Honestly, Mustafa is an amalgamation of cliches. He’s not unaware of this – in fact, he’s learning to embrace it, leaning into what misreadings of him can do to stretch the imagination of what someone like him could do with his life. It’s true: he is a boy turned man, a Toronto kid turned international cover star, and a child and youthful poet turned complex artist and public figure. It’s true that he posts verses from the Qur’an and verses from his favourite songs. It’s also true that he’ll rep his hood in some fresh Air Force 1s after mourning some of his closest friends in front of hundreds of witnesses for the better part of two hours. He’s not trying to be difficult or provocative. Mustafa is honestly being himself, a challenge when considered against his rapidly changing profile. “My art is always [about] what was, what is, [as I] live through it,” Mustafa explains of his motivations, plain and true. The rest was a distraction. “I’m slowly developing wisdom around it and trying to survive it all now.” And part of fulfilling those dreams required him to release himself from the control of perception. What people saw is what they saw. In time, Mustafa realised this truth: a lot of people will not bank on your survival. And so when you do, ‘the rules’ – what a person like him should or shouldn’t do, say or wear – are essentially useless.
Obviously, finding a sense of freedom and peace in that detachment is easier said than done. Mustafa also had the strange pleasure of growing up in the public eye, going from optimistic youth to sceptical adult with all eyes on him. Eventually, he got tired of playing along and decided to stop engaging altogether. “I was like, oh, we really don’t come from the same reality,” he says. “[I realised] I didn’t even want to be here, you know? I realised that [while] feeling displaced from so much.”
“Since I was young, I was impulsive. I wasn’t one to stay in one world” - Mustafa
Mustafa recites to me a poem by Mark Strand, one that he says perfectly encapsulates his relationship to the city, and of the melancholia that follows him. To be a wandering artist is to intimately and repeatedly learn that life goes on without you. Mustafa learned that much. Each return brings Mustafa to an increasingly transformed city. It brings him to his favourite people, all of whom have figured out a day-to-day routine that doesn’t involve him. It’s a peculiar sort of theatre when he’s home, but he plays his role all the same. “Wherever I am / I am what is missing,” Strand writes. “We all have reasons / for moving / I move / to keep things whole.”
Last May, in the lead-up to releasing When Smoke Rises, a moving debut informed by tragedy, Mustafa was processing. Coming off the high highs and low lows of previous years, the record was an attempt at striking balance. He’s been working on an ever-changing project since 2016 – back then, it had been something about “fallen angels”, a musical expression of a repentant sinner. I can’t imagine how many iterations there have been since that one, how many forms and inspirations it took before landing on When Smoke Rises. When I ask him how he finally landed on a thematic arc, he answers me simply. “I had to write When Smoke Rises about my friends,” he says. “They’re all I have. And my world matters a lot less without them.”
Eight months and a dozen trips round the world since the album served as his reintroduction to the world. Mustafa has matured a lot and aged a little, gaining new perspectives on life and his place in it all along the way. Yes, he’s writing songs and singing them to and for the hood, in Toronto and beyond. And yes, he’s friends with Peckham royalty Giggs and superstar model Bella Hadid, and has names like Angelina Jolie confessing their appreciation for his music before quietly attending his show. (“I was trying to be the first adopted Muslim on [Angelina Jolie’s] roster but God had other plans for me,” he jokingly tweeted.)
Since the album’s release, any last vestiges of predictability in Mustafa’s life have all but disappeared. Flying between Toronto, LA, New York, London and Paris, he’s rarely still long enough to feel anything but gratitude and exhaustion. These days, he’s learning about different kinds of feelings, and surrendering to the experience of it all. That includes the good, the bad, the contradictory, and the unanswered what-ifs that always felt just out of his grasp. He’s learning how to let go of his old life in order to settle into the inescapable now.
“There’s something about [the grief on the record] that makes me feel like I’ve been trapped by my own sorrow. Like, maybe I’ve magnified it” - Mustafa
2018 was, in no uncertain terms, the most turbulent year of Mustafa’s life. Professionally, he was coming off a smooth and respectable introduction into the music industry. “Switching to songwriting had its obstacles,” says Mustafa, who acknowledges that it’s kind of a cliche for spoken-word poets to switch over to making music. “The push was that I wanted to become something else. Songwriting... it’s what moves me now.” Since making the leap, he’s worked with a wide variety of artists: The Weeknd, Daniel Caesar and James Blake, to list a few. He’s even had his words embroidered into designer threads by way of a 2019 collaboration with Valentino, helmed by creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli.
On a personal level, things were more complicated. On June 30, 2018, Smoke Dawg – one of Mustafa’s childhood friends and a fellow member of Regent Park’s Halal Gang collective – was murdered in Toronto, days before he was scheduled leave for a trip to London. (It’s worth noting that London is one of the few cities outside Toronto where Mustafa and his Halal Gang brothers found new stomping grounds.) His death was a tragedy that left a cloud over the city and an irreplaceable void in Toronto’s rap scene and energy.
In an interview with me following the loss, Mustafa and his friends SAFE, a singer from Toronto’s Esplanade area, and rapper Puffy L’z eulogised their friend, citing that summer as the irreversible turning point in their shared and individual relationships to Toronto. “In the last few weeks of his life, he was so warm, so present,” he recalled, thinking of their shared memories, abruptly cut short. “He told us he loved us. He was looking up, in every way.” Before the world knew the loss of Smokey, Mustafa had already mourned the loss of his friends Santana, Yusuf Ali and Ali Rizeig. “[Ali Rizeig] would say we don’t talk about Santana enough or Yusuf enough,” he told writer Kelsey Adams after Rizeig’s death in 2017. “It’s important for us to remember the way that they took them from us.”
In 2016, I profiled Mustafa for a now-defunct American lifestyle magazine, and met Smoke Dawg for the first time. That afternoon, I learned something that was clear to anyone who met the pair: the two were brothers. When one was weak, the other was strong – in that way and in many others, they were always in sync.
That day, the photographer on the piece, Mark Sommerfeld, captured a moment that turned into the cover of Mustafa’s debut – an unassuming behind-the-scenes shot of the two, kicked up and laughing together. Just like that, an ordinary moment became history. An instant of joy transformed into a moment that would now forever represent Mustafa’s grief. That, like many other coincidences and choices in his career this far, is something he’ll be forced to reckon with as time goes on. He’s made his peace with that.
“Now I’m allowing myself the freedom to explore so many things I never explored when I was a young person” - Mustafa
“There’s something about [the grief on the record] that makes me feel like I’ve been trapped by my own sorrow. Like, maybe I’ve magnified it,” he says. For others, it seemed, grief had an end. There was a mourning period, and then it was laid to rest. It didn’t work quite the same way for Mustafa.
He realised other things, too: for the first time in his career, Mustafa wasn’t the most beloved kid phenom. Now, he was loved by some and hated by others. Some called him a hypocrite and some called him a saint. Both labels made him uneasy. “I’ll read a comment about how close I am to my faith and then post a story about how I’m a street nigga to counter,” he tells me. “I’ll see people trying to place me in the same conversation as socialists and Marxists and although I honour [them]... I can’t ever claim [that].” How does he counter that pressure of visibility? “I post a story in my friend’s Porsche, talking about copping a silly crib,” he says, a small smile growing on his face. He shrugs. It is what it is.
He chooses to laugh at the absurdity now. As a first-generation Canadian born to Sudanese parents, Mustafa has been known to wear a thobe – a flowy one-piece kaftan, commonly worn by Sudanese men. When he does, people call him a sheikh. “In Sudan, people wear a thobe and get pissy drunk,” he tells me and the small audience that we’ve amassed in the Regent Park community centre where we’ve come to talk. “It’s not a religious thing.” He pauses, exasperated. “Actually, can you write that?”
Throughout our conversation, Mustafa leaps from topic to topic, promising to return to each. First, he tells me he’s curious about love and romance, and how he’s trying to be more curious about joy. He’s thinking about masculinity and what it means to be a person who lives. It’s all new ground, and he’s not sure how to manoeuvre it yet. “I was making myself feel so self-conscious about those things,” he says. “Now I’m allowing myself the freedom to explore so many things I never explored when I was a young person.”
But the longer we sit, the clearer it is that he’s all grown up. Slowly but surely, more and more people are gravitating towards us, listening in on the conversation or adding their own two cents. He doesn’t quite know them all, but he knows their people – the hood has moved on, after all. The kids he knew were now seniors in high school, flexing and experimenting with their own things, too.
“You’re an OG!” I joke as I watch him parlay with the third group of people, excited to spend some quality time. “Nah, for real,” he replies, deadpan. As we talk, kids run around the community centre and I instinctively gesture for them to quieten down. “I can’t even do that anymore,” says Mustafa. “I’m hardly here, so when I’m here... I want the memories to be nice.”
And as we walk, talk and eventually paint and eat – thanks to the wonders of Daniels Spectrum, a cultural hub and pillar of the local community – he commits fully to that idea. When teenagers come up asking what it’s like being him – or, more specifically, being friends with Tyler, the Creator – he answers patiently. He philosophises on what makes a “real n*gga”, the difference between respect and love, and how it feels to be a man. We float through the centre, migrating from group to group of people excited to see Mustafa for the first time in a while.
“I haven’t been to the city since the show,” Mustafa tells me of his December homecoming concert, one that was almost cancelled before he took the stage. When I ask him if he’d ever live in Toronto again, he responds with an emphatic no. “Never,” he says decisively. “Once I’m here longer than 48 hours, it’s a problem,” he says, only partly in jest. But for as long as he can (really, for as long as he can bear it), he’s savouring the peace. Learning the choreography of his new life, Mustafa’s no longer scared of stumbling, or having anyone see him miss a step or two. These days, he’s seeing more clearly than ever.
“I wrote a piece a long time ago. It was something about ‘our streets reek of fallen fires, we know this heat really well’, something like that,” he says. “I remember driving and thinking of that piece.” One day, as he was driving with a friend, they witnessed a house fire. As smoke overtook the home that he saw disintegrating, he looked over and saw silent tears on the faces of two women watching it all burn. He remembers how eerily serene the whole scene was. “I was like [to my friend], ‘This is not odd to you? Seeing the smoke calmly go into the air?’”
He was transfixed. Mustafa couldn’t stop staring, watching the smoke choke out a home that once was. “I thought about Smokey, and how smoke rising can be calm. It can be meditative.” Perhaps there was something in that engulfing smoke that taught Mustafa about death and rebirth. Maybe it was something about the power – and powerlessness – of watching your world burn down before your very eyes. To know, once and for all, that all you can do is sort through your grief and figure out a way to live, still.
Hair YANN TURCHI at BRYANT ARTISTS, make-up AURORE GIBRIEN at BRYANT ARTISTS, set design OLIVIA AINE at ARTLIST, photographic assistants CLARA BELLEVILLE, CHIARA VITTORINI, ADELINE CARE, styling assistants ANDRA-AMELIA BUHAI, AROUA AMMARI, INDIANA ROMANA VOSS, ANAIS WEISS, set design assistant NATHAN GENESTIER, digital operator MARIE-AMÉLIE at DTOUCH, production KITTEN PRODUCTION