Watching Malaika Khadijaa perform is like getting a masterclass in tenderness. The 19-year-old Toronto-based singer/songwriter is already garnering attention in local showcases. Her music mixes modern indie and R&B with Afro-Caribbean influences as she explores family history, emergence into adulthood, and her maturing artistry on her debut EP, 18.
At an open mic in Toronto one fall evening, she strums an acoustic guitar while singing an original, “Need Me.” She then covers the 90s fave “Ex-Factor” and makes Lauryn Hill’s brutally honest lyrics hit like a gentle breeze. “Music is just poetry and a melody put together and given out to the world,” Khadijaa tells RANGE after her set.
Khadijaa is inspired by Hill’s vulnerability, and most of her biggest inspirations were releasing music before she was even born. Her father introduced her to calypso from his native Antigua. She cites Miriam Makeba as another influence, which makes sense, seeing as she shares a name with her widely acclaimed song “Malaika.”
“Nyota,” the lead single from 18, gets its name from the Swahili word for star. The accompanying video features the artist wrapped in warm shades of silk, offering the viewer a hand to hold. She navigates a dark period in life surrounded by the brilliant guidance of family and friends. Khadijaa introduces us to her perfect blends of acoustic alt-rock with R&B sensibilities, showing her roots through angelic vocal harmonies.
The EP catches us up on her life thus far. “Need Me” begins on her eighteenth birthday, when a friend didn’t come through like she thought they would. Her lyrics examine changing relationships and her small town upbringing in Whitby, ON, a suburb east of Toronto. Her song “Let Go” signifies turning over a new chapter and outgrowing a confining life. “You find comfort in doing the same old thing, sadly we’re not 15 anymore,” she sings. “I’ve got to see what it’s like on the other side, and try things I don’t like.”
Khadijaa began playing live music at 15, commuting to the city to take part in the local music scene any chance she could get. She cut her teeth performing at showcases like Honey Jam and Manifesto. Her music recently caught the attention of ArtHaus, the label backing Adria Kain and Serena Ryder, where she performed an acoustic version of “Need Me” from their studio. “I pride myself on networking and putting myself out there, knowing what’s going on in the scene as well,” she says, wearing her sister’s tee over long sleeves for an iconic layered look.
18 is full of graceful, reflective monologues about family values. “Olive Tree” is a shimmering track about her grandmother, Olive, where her voice shines over a sunny, breezy soundscape. She honours her supportive extended family by incorporating their real teachings. “R4C (afterword),” an acronym of “ready for change,” includes a voice memo of her grandpa’s imparted wisdom. “I’m just testing the waters to see what I like,” Khadijaa says. “I want to soak up everything.”
Sitting among her masked classmates, Khadijaa shares immense gratitude for opportunities to support and be supported by other artists, because that’s how she got her start four years ago. With more experience under her belt and new music on the horizon, Khadijaa is one nyota to watch as she rises.