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Charmaine is Working on a Master Plan

The pathbreaking rap artist and Juno Award winner on motherhood and making the most of her versatile talents.

by Daniel McIntosh

Photos by Vonny Lorde

In many ways, Charmaine has had a charmed career. Her first industry talent show landed her a key introduction to a Warner executive, an engagement which then led to her first single. That song, “Bold,” went on to earn a Juno Award in the newly introduced Rap Single of the Year category in 2022, making her the first person ever to win the award. It’s been a whirlwind few years. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I still can’t,” she says. “Winning a Juno was always on my list, but I thought it would come maybe two, three years down the line. For it to come from my first song—I couldn’t believe it to be honest.”

Sitting down with RANGE at a coffee shop on the outskirts of Toronto, she introduces herself with an easygoing smile; the charisma that earned her a record deal and all those laudations is clearly still at work. Complementing an all-black outfit with a stack of dark curls framed by ornate gold hoops—suitable for a star on her off day—her look betrays the stylish embellishments that show up in her pictures, on-stage outfits, and live shows. Her image, full of audacious costuming, glossy neons, and bright pastels, is something of an homage to Charmaine’s own north star, Missy Elliott. “I grew up listening to Lil Jon, Missy, Crime Mob, all these southside rappers,” she says. “I feel like I draw most of my influence from there, which is why it sounds like it doesn’t belong in Toronto.”

But perhaps within the city of immigrants, she fits right in. At the age of five, Charmaine emigrated from Zimbabwe to the U.S. Her family zipped around the Midwest before settling in Nashville, where the music of the Dirty South left its indelible mark on her taste and the music she creates. When the family moved to Toronto in her early teen years, they fell on hard times. It was under that duress that Charmaine penned her first lyrics. Far from a rags to riches story, hers is one of consistent work ethic and a desire to doggedly showcase every talent she has to offer.

Now, in reflection of those early days in Canada, she says she neglected her early talent. “I knew I had some type of musical talent, but I never really cared to explore it,” she says. However, now, with a Juno award under her belt, firmly entrenched in her music, and expanding her empire to a beauty brand, her full-throttle approach has deeper implications as well. “Now that I have my son…it’s more so to show him that if you have a talent, you’re supposed to use it,” she says, acknowledging motherhood as a motivator. “I can’t really teach him that if I don’t do it myself.”

Her first album, Hood Avant-Garde, was made by simply being in the studio and writing what felt right. That studio lockdown was generative, forcing ideas onto the page and onto recordings. This time around was different. “I feel like the way I work on my music, the ideas that come usually all intertwine together by the end, so it makes sense for a project. But there was no plan to make a ‘certain kind of album.’ I just went with the flow.”

On her follow-up to Hood Avant-Garde, Charmaine is recharged, bringing together both sides of her sound in a taut sonic experiment. The title, Press Play, tells listeners all they need to go along on the journey, but was also something she told herself when making this body of work. “I was wrestling with the fact that… ‘Do I want to do an all rap album? Am I mixing in my R&B? What do I want to do?’ I just got to a point where I wasn’t going to give people any expectations—I want them to press play.”

The process of punching in and collecting what comes forth—it’s the journey, not the destination—is central to her creation. In the booth, she’ll draw from a rolodex of cadences for her rhymes, picking which flow works for which beat. “Then I’ll go back in and fill it in with the lyrics, because when I can hear how it could sound, it helps me visualize the end product better,” she says.

The result is an encapsulation of Charmaine’s stylistic versatility up to this point. “You hear rap, you hear R&B, you hear fun,” she says. “You get grungy, sweet, and vulnerable—you get everything!” One early single, “JEEZ,” brings it all together, showcasing a playful, inviting presence that can dive into a maelstrom of staccato flows and engaging punchlines.

Mid-album cuts like “STAR69” and “ADDICTED” contain remnants of the R&B darling that won her a talent show and put her on the radar of Warner Music at 17. Elsewhere, she sees the record laying the groundwork for further exploration. “There’s more to me, and more that I want to show people. I would love to do a country-rock song. Or even a rock-rock song—Evanescence, Paramore, I would love to,” she says with a laugh. 

“There’s more to me, and more that I want to show people.”

The range and freedom to create and publish her music on her own terms is a result of her newfound independence—she walked away from her label a couple years ago. She now self manages her own press, marketing and promotion, an asset she wouldn’t trade for the world.

As a signee, her music had to fall into certain categories or fit into a certain release window, something she doesn’t have to deal with as an independent artist. “I can take it into my own hands and be as independent as I want to be,” she says. “If I want to sing a ballad and put it out, I could do that. If I want to rap a whole album, I could do that. If I want to do Afrobeats or country music I could do that. And I love that.”

By divesting from her label, Charmaine once again took her future into her own hands, preferring independence and originality over a prepackaged release system, sound, or ideology. As such, Press Play was recorded in a DIY studio with bare-bones equipment. “I recorded this entire album by myself except for one song. And I mixed it all completely except for one track,” she recalls. “And it was a very challenging process. I was a little hesitant to do it, but I think it was more so wanting to see for myself and also show people you can do a lot more than you think.”

In that, Press Play becomes more than an independent artist creating art on their own terms—it’s a commitment to self-direction, resilience, and authenticity. “The point is to see what I could do by myself, and for people to hear what I can do. I’m very proud of it.”