Music city

Eriana Willa. Photo: Jeremy Brake

Diverse, vibrant, and unique — Halifax’s music scene has transformed, thanks to rising stars like Eriana Willis and Keonté Beals

Eriana Willis was that little girl in church who sang the same song every Sunday.

She showed up for every talent show and relished every Christmas concert. In high school, Willis got involved with school-based musical theatre. Eventually, she connected with Broadway in the Hood (BITH), a non-profit theatre organization based in Las Vegas, making theatre accessible to all.

In 2016, Willis took part in a performance exchange between BITH and Halifax that had her on stages in Vegas and at home.

Then, in her late teens, Willis started posting covers online, which led to opportunities to perform. Sharing those stages with other artists gave her the inspiration to tackle songwriting on her own.

She’s been writing ever since.

Now 21, the Dartmouth native with North Preston roots is looking forward to what’s to come.

“I don’t have any music out, which is something that kills me on the inside,” says Willis, who’s also in her fourth year at Dalhousie.

Album or not, Willis graced the stage in Truro during Nova Scotia Music Week. The event, she says, was a “great experience.”

“I watched a lot of performances,” says Willis. “And everybody was giving 110 per cent.”

She also noted the festival had something of a different vibe this year. Historically, it’s not uncommon for artists of colour to be packaged together on an industry stage.

But this year, event stages presented an eclectic mix of artists and genres. The change is something she’d like to see more of.

Willis would also like to see Nova Scotian performers succeed outside the province’s borders. “We have so much talent,” she says. “I want to see us branch out. I want to see more collaboration within the community.”

She counts herself fortunate to have worked with Cyndi Cain, the province’s “Honey Bee of Soul.” Cain was her choir teacher back in the day.

Recently, Willis has been working with producer Jamie Fitzpatrick, one of the folks behind BNV Media, a Halifax-based podcasting agency. “I have a few solid songs that I want to turn into a mini-project,” she adds. “I’m working on a few things getting released.”

When it comes to collabs of her own, the wish list is growing. Halifax-based and Kuwait-raised Syrian Lebanese rapper Shanii22 nears the top of her list. And Willis names Uniacke Square’s Kye Clayton, alt-pop songstress Nicole Ariana, and R&B powerhouse Keonté Beals in short order.

Of Beals, a triple-winner at 2021 Nova Scotia Music Week, she adds, “he’s good people.”

Keonté Beals

Turning tides
Keonté Beals has a lot on the go.

On top of the award wins, he has new music on the horizon. I tease him about being an overachiever when he tells me he actually recorded two albums while making his debut work KING. But audiences will reap the benefits of that commitment soon.

And he says to expect surprises from his company, KBeals Entertainment, in 2022.

Reflecting on the local industry, Beals says he’s noticed an increased openness and appetite for diversity over recent years, too. When he started out, he and Reeny Smith (singer, songwriter, producer, friend, and collaborator) had to jockey for limited stage time.

These days there seems to be more space for a variety of artists and genres.

That’s something that the person behind the local Instagram account, HalifaxMusicArchive, has noticed too. (Unravel Halifax has agreed not to use their name.)

“A positive change is that the various lines between music scenes (hip-hop, punk, indie rock, pop, metal, etc.) seem to be becoming blurred,” the Instagrammer says via email. “It is not uncommon now to see various music genres/scenes represented in a single show.”

This kind of diversity offers more artists more exposure and builds a stronger music community.

The account, created in 2015, bills itself as an unbiased record of local music, past and present.

“I’m not here to decide what can or cannot be posted; I’ll share it all!” says HMA. “I want everyone to feel included … It’s about the local music community as a collective.”

The change is part of a cultural shift that followed George Floyd’s murder.

“People aren’t taking any shit,” Beals says.

As a result of that terrible killing, it’s harder to get away with bad behaviour. That extends to festivals and events being held accountable for upholding inequality and benefitting from marginalizing some performers.

The noticeable shift to NSMW’s lineup seems to indicate that diversity was an issue in the past. But the tweaks to programming suggest event operator Music Nova Scotia (MNS) isn’t just paying lip service to the moment.

“They put a lot of effort into diversifying our lineup and making sure that there is a place for everyone,” says Meghan Scott, newly elected president of the MNS board. “I think we had at least at least a half dozen new Canadians.”

She’s referring to Music Nova Scotia executive director Allegra Swanson and other staff.

“It was extremely important to us … to present a diverse lineup, and I’m really proud of that,” adds Scott.

Beals is encouraged by the change, at least for now. “Diversity is in,” he says. “So, I just hope that it’s something that continues to move in that direction.”

Beals encourages younger artists to grab the chances suddenly coming within reach.

“So many opportunities for funding now are directly targeting African Nova Scotians,” he says. “That’s something to take advantage of. It’s not something to let pass by.”

And who’s next?

“We have a lot!” Beals says. He namechecks locally-based, Nigerian-born hip-hop artist and filmmaker Harmz. And he’s got a lot of love for another Nigerian-born act, aRENYE, local phenom Zamani, and Willis, too.

“She’s pretty great,” he adds about Willis.

Advocates of Truth, another locally-based African import that mixes R&B, hip-hop, and African rhythms into an Afrofusion of sorts, also have his attention. “Those are my boys,” he says. “They’re overachievers, too.”

Editor’s Note: In the print edition of Unravel Halifax, an out-of-context photo caption caused some readers to misunderstand Beals’s views on the music scene and the growing diversification of opportunities. See a clarification and apology here.

Advocates of Truth

Telling truths
The overachievers in question are brothers Moses “Rajab Ally” and Galina “Gallyna” Korongo.

Originally from Congo, they came to Canada nearly six years ago after moving around Africa after fleeing violence at home.

Although the pair has been playing individually for years, they now combine their talents as Advocates of Truth. The brothers vary musical styles with afro-inspired beats.

“We mix everything,” says Rajab, who was primarily a hip-hop performer. “R&B, hip-hop, jazz, whatever. Everything.” Gallyna brings his sweet R&B flavours, seasoned by years showing off in church, to the group.

Shadarack Kayombo Kadiata, who primarily plays the guitar for AoT, is also from Congo (though he connected with the brothers here). Shadarack, as he’s known, is a multi-instrumentalist who landed in Halifax in 2019 during December’s freeze not long before the pandemic hit. To say it’s been an adjustment is an understatement.

The man behind the beat is Andrew Dahms, a veteran of the local music scene. Dahms has been playing Afrobeats for close to 15 years, long before the sounds we’re popular outside of Africa.

“The second you hear an Afrobeat song,” says Dahms, you realize “its place should be in pop music. That’s where it should sit. It has a lot of the subtleties.”

There’s some controversy around using “Afrobeats” as a catchall for what amounts to regional styles of African pop. Especially considering Afrobeat is a genre birthed by Nigerian musical icon Fela Kuti by mixing influences of Fúji and Highlife music with American jazz and funk. But, that nuance could be its own story.

According to Dahms, music described as Afrobeat has been popping up more and more in the clubs, moving from Africa into Europe. Now North American audiences are starting to pay attention.

“Anywhere in the world tonight, whoever is playing DJ music at a traditional club where they want to dance, there’s going to be Afrobeat songs now,” he says. “And that wasn’t always the case.”

Dahms believes that’s a beautiful opportunity for AoT as one of the few local Afrobeats bands. “I’m excited that the path is being laid,” he adds. “It’s getting recognition all over the world.”

Staying hungry
Here in their adopted home, AoT is seeing musical opportunities grow.

“The diversity of the province is starting to open up,” says Rajab, noting that there are more chances available for artists that fall outside of the more mainstream, rock, folk, and fiddle music, even hip-hop, often associated with Nova Scotia.

“They reach out to us, now,“ he adds. “Which is really cool. When we were starting, it wasn’t that way.”

“Music doesn’t have any limits,” says Gallyna. “Now big artists playing the biggest records, they’re playing Afrobeats these days. Like Drake.”

For Dahms, it’s a full-circle moment. “It’s just beautiful, fun music. I’m excited for us to break the doors off this.”

Dahms sees the band as leaders who can help push the music locally and beyond. And while he’s feeling confident in the band’s abilities, he acknowledges they can’t do it all on their own. Especially as the world moves from pandemic to endemic life, accessing help will be necessary.

The band credits Beals for connecting them with the African Nova Scotia Music Association, which has offered strong local support. They’re also thankful for other artists and industry folks who have helped them out and the chance to perform on Music Nova Scotia’s stage again this year.

But is it enough?

“I’m going to be the jerk to say that we’re not getting enough support,” says Dahms. He’s not upset about it, though, because every artist seems to be experiencing the same thing. “I don’t think it’s any one association not supporting artists. I think it’s just a really fucked-up time.”

In the past, if Dahms saw a band had a good show booked, he’d wonder how to get in on it. He may even offer up a spot on an upcoming stage in trade. But these days, he just wants them to have a good show and make some money.

“There’s not a lot to chew on right now,” he says. “So we’re all a little starving.”

Erin Costelo. Photo:
Mat Dunlap

You suck until you don’t
For Halifax-based singer, songwriter, and producer Erin Costelo, a lack of venue space is part of the problem. Halifax, and Nova Scotia as a whole, have a stage-supply problem.

“A scene needs a place and venues for artists to repeatedly fail,” says Costelo, who often mentors emerging talents. “You got to suck until you’re good … The more venues there are, the less competition there is to get on stage, and the more people that do, the better the scene we’re going to grow. If there’s a way for the government funding bodies to support venues, that would be a really, really great thing and, in turn, funnel that money to artists as well.”

Scott agrees. “There are some smaller stages where artists are able to get started,” she says. “But there needs to be room for growth because, at this point, there aren’t enough performance slots. Having that buffer of a bunch of different venues in the city would promote growth.”

Through her day job as sales and events manager at Lighthouse Arts Centre (in the former Convention Centre site), Scott is working to help provide that buffer.

But as essential as the new arts centre is, it’s not the entire solution.

Whatever happens, Halifax Music Archive believes youth like Willis, Beals, and AoT, alongside acts like General Khan, Sluice, and Shanii22, will make the change.

“As someone who fell in love with local music by attending all-ages shows, I’m eager to see where younger artists will take the local music scene,” says the Instagrammer. “I’m here to enjoy the ride and eager to share new music.”

And while Costelo sees the importance of exporting Nova Scotian artists to the world, she hopes local artists can have rewarding careers at home, too.

“There’s no reason that people should have to move away from Nova Scotia to be able to have a career and make a living,” Costelo says with a nod to cities like Nashville. “To create Halifax as a music city and Nova Scotia as a province that supports its musicians would be such an amazing thing that will, in turn, draw people and tourism to our province.”

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