Backxwash to make European debut with two performances at Roadburn
The Roadburn 2023 line-up has been completed, with 25 final additions including Backxwash, Zola Jesus, Nicole Dollanganger and White Boy Scream.
As Ashanti Mutinta prepares to bring Backxwash’s current album trilogy to an end with HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST…, the Zambian-Canadian rapper reflects on religion’s role in her life, the importance of having a creative outlet, and how others have “healed” through her art…
It’s spooky season once again. The nights are getting longer, gnarled pumpkins line the streets, and costumed children are being scared silly by tales of haunted mansions, murderous clowns and small towns where not much happens.
For a young Ashanti Mutinta, however, it wasn’t tales from the crypt that terrified her, but rather what she was being taught every single day in school and by her family: God is watching and he is vengeful. Growing up in Zambia, in a very conservative religious environment, she says the story of Jesus “was embedded into me” and would study the Bible every day, fascinated by verses detailing Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and Abraham almost-sacrificing his son Isaac.
“I find Christian mythology to be pretty scary,” she laughs today, speaking to Kerrang! after her shift at work, before settling down to watch the series finale of The Mole on Netflix. Leaving Zambia at the age of 17, the God-fearing Ashanti moved to Canada to be with her older brother and sister, where she says a profound period of “unlearning” began.
“When I moved to Montreal a lot of my thinking was being challenged,” she explains. “I thought [religion] would be something that would guide me through life back then, but things really changed when I grew up. You realise those practices were put on us by the first missionaries that came through in the 1800s… they used the Bible as their way of colonising. The Bible being used to oppress you is kind of disheartening.”
But just because you’ve ‘unlearned’ something doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten it. The Christian faith played a pivotal role in Ashanti’s formative years, attending church and Sunday school, and praying for forgiveness every evening before bed. It might not come as a surprise, but she doesn’t look back fondly on this period of her life. Admitting that she hasn’t spoken to her family in Zambia for quite some time, there’s a palpable disdain for her childhood experiences back home, which she has channelled directly into new album HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST EVEN THOUGH WE ARE SUFFERING. Taking its title from horror movie Eerie, it’s the third album in a deeply personal trilogy, following God Has Nothing To Do With It Leave Him Out Of It – set in present day – and I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES, which deals with her young-adult years. Her latest album focuses on her time in Zambia, terrified of the big man upstairs, and effectively closing the book on those painful years.
Littered with embittered references to Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, and of course Beelzebub, Ashanti’s deep-rooted yet broken connection to testaments old and new is on display for all to see. Raging against religion is nothing new for artists of a heavier persuasion (as any Cradle Of Filth fan will tell you), but rarely is it so well-informed in its vitriol.
Since leaving her homeland and learning about the 19th century missionaries, Ashanti has re-evaluated her belief system and rediscovered the indigenous practices of her people in pre-colonial Zambia. As a member of the Tumbuka and Chewa tribes, she now draws on both to inform “who I think is holding the dice to the universe”.
HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST… pays tribute to her tribal spirituality and ancestry in its song titles, written in the Bantu language of Nyanja. Although she admits it was also chosen due to it being aesthetically pleasing, it’s hard to argue that the words VIBANDA and ZIGOLO carry so much more darkness and trepidation than the English translations of Spirit and Sugar Water respectively.
“You sometimes see metal albums in Latin,” she chuckles. “Instead of using Latin, I’ve got this language that’s indigenous to me – it’s spiritual and powerful, so I’m gonna use that!”
So what of her newfound spiritualism? Gone is Eden, Noah and mangers in stables, Ashanti says her traditional beliefs have a more natural basis. “We do believe in our ancestors and people that are watching above us, but the manifestations of our ancestors can come in very different forms. I identify more with it and I’m happy.”
Ashanti hasn’t always been happy. Far from it. She has battled depression, drug addiction, pain and heartache that most of us will never know. In the period of time that her new album covers, she dissects the darkest parts of her life with unflinching honesty and raw emotion. But as much as her inner torment has provided a deep well of inspiration, having Backxwash as a creative outlet has proved vital.
“It’s therapy to me to get this stuff out… and it’s much cheaper than therapy,” she laughs. “I watched a documentary with Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples and one of the things Vince said was, ‘If I’m not rapping about something that personally happened to me, I won’t be able to write about it.’ I’m the same way; I find it so uninspiring for myself.
“When I did [2019 album] Deviancy it was a political record and when I was coming to the next one, trying to write a political record again just sounded as if I was reading leftist tweets in a rhyme-form. There are certain people that would do it far better than I ever would. When I did [2020’s] God Has Nothing To Do With It… and it worked out, it felt like I still had more to say and created this universe for all these pieces of work to live in.”
Indeed, despite now on the third record in this personal hellscape, there is still much trauma and turmoil to explore.
Embarking upon a self-destructive path of drink and drugs in her early 20s, Ashanti revisits her life of excess in KUMOTO (Hell), spitting, ‘Was trying to be a rolling stone at like 21 / These drugs was all up in my nose I looked 31,’ amidst tales of ‘twitching’ in the kitchen and starving for methadone. With hindsight, it’s a bleak existence, but as she says, “When life is moving that fast and you’re surrounded by people, you don’t have time to zoom out and think it was a bit of a mess.”
Despite reading on internet forums that “you should only take molly three times a year otherwise you can burn your serotonin”, Ashanti was a much more frequent user, and began drinking every day before class, which soon turned into carrying around a vodka bottle and swigging straight from it.
Eventually, though, she realised enough was enough, and stopped cold turkey. “I didn’t feel like [the drug taking] was that bad in my mind, the more destructive thing for me was not taking the time to feel anything – you don’t have time to feel when everything is moving so fast. It wasn’t like I was physically addicted to the drugs, it was more like a mental feeling. The thing that people say about molly is that you can’t get physically dependent on it, but you can dependent on the feeling of it, and mixing that with alcohol wasn’t the best for me. I’m bad with drugs. I’ll leave that for other people.”
Putting an immediate halt to artificial highs can come with its own problems, however. And when those wide-eyed, jaw-clenching moments of ecstasy fade away, clouds begin to form. Originally thinking it was just a bad comedown, Ashanti spiralled into a deep depression from which she thought there was no escape, and even formed a plan to end it all. Rapping on JUJU (Witchcraft) that ‘Between you and I, I survived my own suicide,’ today she is surprisingly candid in her recollection of that day.
“I was on a lot of drugs for a year, and once I got off it I didn’t really feel good about myself,” she begins. “I was in such huge depression, it wasn’t a good part of my life, things were just bad. I had a plan that at the end of the day I was going to try and kill myself. There were a few attempts before that were not successful, but this was the time I was going to do it.”
Having made “all the necessary steps”, at the final moment, Ashanti stopped as her younger brother had just moved to Canada too, and she knew she couldn’t leave him. “I was going to stay on for a month, which became two, then six, then a year. A year became two years. I even forgot about it one time. It got to a time where I wasn’t thinking any bad suicidal thoughts about myself.
“My brain was so foggy for the next two or three years, it was hard for me to even come up with thoughts. Just being able to get out of that slump was a win for me.”
Following such a tragic story of someone at their lowest ebb, perhaps the most harrowing and heartbreaking lyrics you’re likely hear this year come in the second verse of KUMOTO. Concerning itself with Ashanti’s ‘evil deeds’, the second verse tells of a time she’d prefer to forget. Throughout our conversation, even down the more morbid avenues, the rapper has been animated and laughing, but as we discuss her experiences in sixth grade she slows down, considers her words carefully, voice on the edge of cracking.
“I was young and stupid,” she begins. “I used to hang out with this girl. I used to wonder why she’d always sit alone and shit like that, but she had this crazy-bad disease of her immune system. I was dealing with wanting to be liked so I found this group of dudes who used to be really mean to her and one time I was hanging out with them and wanting to seem cool so I joined in on making fun and shit. Then over the next few weeks and months she stopped showing up to school, we’re wondering what’s going on, and we found that she died.”
This horrific incident is immortalised in ferocious, self-hating delivery of, ‘Fast forward to her funeral in an open casket / I looked her mama in the face as I'm moping sadly / I see the body, look away in a slowly panic / That was the last thing I said I hope I choke on that shit.’ A committed, no-nonsense honesty trying to exorcise the demons within.
“Going through that experience of that person not being there anymore, and the last thing that you ever said to them was not so good, and the way you treated them, and having to live with that was pretty heartbreaking for a 12-year-old.
“You can’t take that back.”
Putting the most painful aspects your life story to tape is a deeply intimate and revealing experience, yet six of the 10 tracks on HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST EVEN THOUGH WE ARE SUFFERING feature guest collaborators. From classical musician Morgan-Paige to rapper Censored Dialogue, they add not just a different sonic perspective but also someone that Ashanti can connect with on a personal level. Perhaps none more so than British grind-merchants Pupil Slicer on NYAMA (Demon) about Ashanti’s experiences as a trans woman.
Ashanti came out as trans at the age of 25, eight years after leaving Zambia. And while the bohemian streets of Montreal should provide a safe space for all people, NYAMA deals with what happens when something bad does happen as well as the unsolicited, unhelpful advice of carrying a gun for protection.
“I love Pupil Slicer and I think they’re going through a similar experience of being a trans person,” she says. “NYAMA is about existing in a trans space and when something goes wrong you don’t have anyone you can trust, but the advice that people tell you is, ‘Oh, get a gun to protect yourself!’ But it’s also battling between the idea of what happens when you do get a gun, if you’re going through some mental things then the gun might be a catalyst for you to actually hurt yourself.”
Ashanti always knew in the back of her head who she really was, adding that she was “that weird kid” and “pretty effeminate” growing up. “It didn’t help that I couldn’t get shoes at the time, so my mum gave me these shoes that she said were unisex but if you look at them now they’re definitely girls’ shoes (laughs). It always existed but coming fully out was when I moved to Montreal, where I discovered a few things about myself.”
It’s perhaps too much of an existential question to answer in the confines of a Kerrang! Cover Story, but considering the idea of being comfortable in one’s skin and if she finally knows who she is, Ashanti believes she has “a pretty good idea now” and “much more sure than I was seven or 10 years ago”.
Her life’s journey, from childhood fear and despair to adult acceptance, is mirrored in the positive, upbeat finale of MUKAZI (Woman), which she describes as a letter to her younger self, urging her previous incarnation to fight on with 'I wanna tell you that you made it alive’ while also recounting her success in the rap scene, forgiving her father, and declaring her love to partner Chachi.
“This is the most positive that I’ve ever felt,” she smiles, comparing her three records to a horror trilogy. “The first movie, even though it ends on a note where you think you’ve survived this encounter, it still exists and the baddie comes back in the second movie. In the third one, you finally manage to kill the antagonist and there’s no sense of him coming back. I’m in a much better space than I was all those years previously.”
Explaining that her own ‘big baddie’ in “life in general and everything that happened”, now the villain has been vanquished and the final instalment has been realised, are her wounds finally healed?
“I think for now I’m good with it. I want to try my hand at maybe other styles of music, I want to try some horror synth or something like that. For now, I need to take a break on spilling all the details. I need to take a break on talking about myself. Maybe in the future I can talk about something completely different. I don’t want to put out the same album for the rest of my discography.”
“If you’ve been following this journey, this is my send-off,” she concludes. “All of this was so unexpected. When God Is Nothing… happened, I thought it would be a throwaway EP, I wasn’t even going to promote it, but having people relate to that and use music as a place of healing is something that touches my heart and I’m happy that they took a chance to go with me through this project. Now I’m finishing it off the way it needs to finish.”
The end is nigh. But it’s also just the beginning.
HIS HAPPINESS SHALL COME FIRST EVEN THOUGH WE ARE SUFFERING is released October 28
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