Over time, the concept of DIY (do-it-yourself) has become something of an aesthetic signifier for musicians, as opposed to a genuine ethos. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for Maky Lavender, the bilingual rapper who has been colouring outside the lines and embracing artistic freedom above all else since childhood.
Lavender drove the six hours from his hometown of Montreal to Toronto for a series of interviews, including this one, stopping along the way to record with producers he met online. For a Francophone crossover rapper, he’s made some notable connections across languages.
He recently spent time in France, moving through Lille, Marseille, and Lyon, connecting with fellow French-speaking artists and producers for a forthcoming compilation album. His collaborative acumen speaks to his ability not only as an artist but as a collaborator, too. Some of his early songs featured several Quebecois upstarts, like Sophia Bel, High Klassified and Zach Zoya, long before they were household names.
Lavender describes his mindset toward collaboration as a manifestation of what he calls “Drake energy,” recalling countless hours spent listening to Thank Me Later, while rattling off a list of budding musicians who would go on to be huge after appearing on the 2010 classic; everyone from Nicki Minaj to Swizz Beatz. He puts the same idea into effect by bringing local collaborators into his fold. “I like to be a point of reference,” says Lavender. “I want to be my own algorithm of Montreal artists.”
Speaking in English and French, Lavender often trades off sentences between languages in his songs. Sometimes, he casually slips into French, in person and on recordings, before you can even register the change. For many, this would be looked at as an asset. But Lavender sees himself needing to conquer two worlds at once. “It’s bigger than me, and that’s why I have to stand out,” he says.
Recently, Lavender’s proclivity to rap in English landed him in the media spotlight when Montreal’s metro system, the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM), cut a promotional video that he made for them from their social media page. Performing at an REM event last year, he can be seen rapping in a car replica and referencing the REM. The clip was posted on TikTok, which was then flooded with comments criticizing Lavender for rapping in English. “I don’t really understand what I did wrong because I was paid to perform by the DIX30 as an event for the train,” he told CBC. “There’s so many companies, so many corporations, I’m the little guy.”
His first introduction to language politics, Lavender grew up watching MuchMusic and was enamoured with English-speaking rappers like Kardinal Offishall. Meanwhile Quebec’s francophone schools and socially-imposed language requirements pressured him to stick to his native French. “It didn’t bother me that much,” he says of his francophone upbringing. “I don’t get mad when they say, ‘Okay, you have to speak French all the time.’ But I realized I wanted to rap, and back then, I wanted to rap in English.” So, he learned English from “music, TV, and girls.” When he moved from Montreal’s traditional Quebecois East End to the Anglo-heavy West End, his English finally settled in. “I lived in two universes, almost,” he says.
Whatever vocal anxieties Lavender once had are gone, or at least masked by his energy as a performer. He routinely takes the stage by himself, acting as his own DJ, engineer, and when the time comes to it, dancer. His self-sufficient spirit could be a leftover from his time taking dance lessons as a kid, where he would be more inspired to freestyle rather than follow an instructor’s steps. He recalls his mom chastising him for his lack of structure and discipline, but this facet tracks over into his music as well.
His beats draw from a limitless cadre of genre. There’s the hip-hop and R&B he’s known for, but he’s also fond of hopping on electronic records and maintaining a punk ethos. For Lavender, genre is never cut-and-dry, only a suggestion. “It’s more like, ‘Yeah, I’m down,’” Lavender says of his explorative sound. “It’s kind of like I’m my own playlist. If I hear it, [and] I like it, I’ll do it.”
He even takes the matters of distribution into his own hands, avoiding labels as a fiercely independent artist. He begins dismissively listing everyone who he would need to go to to release music at a label, from photographers and videographers, to studio people and a handful of assorted distributors. By contrast, Lavender says, “I have the whole thing. I’m the label myself.”
It’s the freedom that allows him to chart his summer and fall release schedule with songs, as opposed to waiting for a label’s approval. Along with the forthcoming Lyonnaise compilation album, he has some bilingual singles that he’s prepared to release throughout the fall, and a series of tour stops lined up, while going across Canada and working with friends and producers he comes across.
Even for a journeyman like Lavender, it seems that the journey is just beginning.