In 2018, DijahSB found themself pressed against the barricade in the crowd for Jay Electronica. They’re a fan of the elusive rapper, so they got there early, prepared for the possibility of crowd interaction. What happened next was a dream for the young rapper witnessing an icon. “I know he likes to be very interactive with the crowd. What I didn’t know was that he also does a segment in his set to bring out a local artist to celebrate them and give them a chance to rap in front of their home audience. He was like, ‘who in the crowd kinda raps.’”
Toronto found its champion in DijahSB. “Everyone in the crowd was pointing towards me. It’s just fate that I was right at the front and was able to jump over the barrier and hop on stage.” Luckily, they had just finished some new lyrics that very week. “That was another way that fate was kind of connected to it all, it came full-circle.”
Although they point this instance toward cosmic destiny, their profile has grown even more since that night in 2018, and fate isn’t the only factor in the equation. In the past few years, their sharp lyrical wit has amassed a ton of attention and accolades. Last year’s concept piece, 2020 the Album earned critical praise, landing on several best-of lists. The same energy landed their sophomore record, Head Above the Waters on the 2021 Polaris Short List. “It was actually a huge shock,” they say of the nomination. “I’m guessing that a lot of it had to do with the progress I’ve made and people have been watching me for a long time, and they were just waiting for me to actually drop a full-body project for them to be able to support it.” Now, on the cusp of winning one of Canada’s music awards, the rapper is poised for bigger and better.
Dijah’s recent success comes after a decade of cultivating their sound. Born Dijah Payne, they would rap over YouTube instrumentals as a pastime in high school. Their early freestyles led to a collaboration with Toronto-based producer Astro Mega. The duo called themselves Class of ‘93. From the two records they made, Payne—then rapping under the name Kzaraw—possessed a voice primed for critical storytelling. Paired with Mega’s nonstop supply of jazz loops, the early music took on the feel of classic 80s New York sound. On “City News,” they lament the casual horror of the evening news, full of bus crashes and police shootings. The song is one of the earliest showcases of Payne’s natural ability to appraise social issues in their music.
After a short hiatus, Payne rebranded to DijahSB (a reference to their favourite Nike SB sneakers) and began releasing EPs independently on Spotify, eventually getting swept into their playlisting, which they say opened them up to new fans. Perhaps fans are drawn to their matter-of-fact nature. Payne doesn’t dance around challenging norms in speaking, in writing or in their music. For DijahSB, metaphor never obscures the message. Much of their recent music directly addresses themes of depression, their experience being non-binary in rap, or the financial precarity of not having enough to make your bills. Their songs can sound like confessing your insecurities over a house beat. Literally dancing away the blues. For them, the act of creating music is a sort of catharsis. “It definitely is and always will be kind of like therapy for me to create. The feeling is indescribable to be honest.”
Their voice, as a non-binary figure in the upper echelons of Canadian rap is genuinely novel. “It feels good to be able to represent a community that is clearly overlooked, and not only be a staple for that, but also genuinely be good at creating,” Payne says. “It’s not like they’re only supporting me because I’m non-binary, they actually enjoy the music as well.” Shortly before our interview, backlash mounted online against rapper DaBaby stemming from homophobic remarks he made at a concert. “I feel like there’s still a lot of work to do to take out the stereotypes and the homophobia and transphobia that comes with the rap community. The whole misogynistic umbrella that a lot of men like to uphold or else they feel like they’re being silenced.”
The measured doses of reality in their lyrics and the emotional toll it takes, stand out against the grandeur and wealth-posturing that defines part of the rap canon. As the chorus of the eponymous “Head Above the Waters” repeats, “When the current gets rough, stay up, keep swimming,” it becomes a mantra for both the speaker and the listener.
Now, despite their newfound celebrity and with Head Above the Waters shortlisted for the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize, Payne is still concerned with the issues that informed their last project. They say the prize winnings would be squirrelled away for rent. (When I suggest a small splurge they say, “I’ll try to ball out a little bit, but I gotta put some of it away.”) And the increased profile hasn’t impacted their critical eye one bit. They are acutely aware of how many hands it takes to make one prize winner. “Being an artist is very front-facing and people don’t see the team behind you at all,” says Payne. They know that despite all of their hard work, a fair amount of luck plays into their success as an artist. “I’m very transparent about my journey for that reason, because I feel like it’s so disingenuous to tell people to work hard. Not even just with music, just in general, ‘oh if you work hard you’ll make it to places.’ There are millions of people who are working hard and still can’t afford rent.”
For now, Payne says they’re “chilling before the storm hits.” By the storm, they mean an EP they have lined up, as well as a string of festival dates including Pop Montreal and of course, the big prize. Amid all the noise and fanfare however, they’re still grateful for the support: “It was just nice to know that my peers and the Canadian music industry actually want to see me shine, you know?”
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