Three days before her twenty-first birthday, four doors down from her relatively new downtown Toronto apartment, Isis Salam takes a moment to weigh the maze of compound descriptors and hyphenated boxes that are regularly thrown at her. Here’s one typical introduction: an at-risk Nigerian-Canadian alterna-black up-and-coming female-emcee. It’s a mouthful, with hyphens like borderlines in dire need of re-drafting.
Through music, Isis has learned to redefine herself. Not at-risk, but gutsy. Not “alterna-black,” meaning alternative to stereotypical mainstream blackness (a whole other conversation in itself), but Afro-punk. And as for being a female emcee, she is an emcee whose perspectives and stories have found welcome homes in the ears of fans across the country. It is, however, true that her bold portraits of femininity and womanhood, in particular, echo the sentiments of an entire generation of creative young females hungry for an alternative.
Isis immigrated to Canada from Nigeria in the dead of winter at the age of four. After a series of moves, her family eventually settled in the Chalkfarm community at Jane and Finch—a very macho, male-dominated environment, and the place where young Isis first began to develop her own identity and swagger. She admits to being an attention-hungry child, one who quickly learned to associate male aggression and misogyny with respect. She rejected the more domestic or overtly sexualized roles assigned to females in the neighbourhood in favour of a tomboy image.
“I always hated being reminded I was a girl,” she recalls, “because it made me feel weaker.” Isis went out of her way to get as much attention and gain as much respect from her male peers as possible, proclaiming that “at thirteen I was straight gangster, and no one could tell me any different.” She pauses. “I’ve had a lot of bad experiences, and I’ve done a lot of bad stuff. I’ve been to jail, I’ve sold weed, I’ve pimped girls—all before sixteen.”
“I don’t have an older sister. I don’t have any sisters. I have an older brother,” she explains. Though her older brother was, as she describes him, “the good kid” in her family and uninterested in the kinds of activities she found herself wrapped up in, she still considers him an enormous influence. “All he needed was a cape, and he would have been my superhero. He wore the sweater before I wore the sweater. My older brother was my role model.” But, as much as she desired to be just like her elder sibling, she still wanted to maintain some sort of block credibility.
One day, sometime in the seventh or eighth grade, she found her older brother’s rhyme book—pages and pages of song lyrics he had penned himself. It opened up a new world for her. “I remember stealing his rhyme book and stealing his rhymes and going out onto the block and freestyling, like they were mine,” she recounts. “I wasn’t at the point where I was creating yet. It wasn’t about creativity, it was about the attention.” For the first time, boys respected her in a different way than they respected the other girls. She had found a new outlet, and a new claim to fame.
The scene is Westview Collegiate; lunchtime in the cafeteria and the room is filled with noise and music. This is where many young emcees from Jane-Finch cut their teeth in front of an audience of their peers, and where the thrill of attention transformed into a passion for art and performance.
“That is very much part of my earliest memories of hip hop,” she reminisces. “Being in the cafeteria, everybody loud as hell, waiting to get lunch, and this guy is doing this.” She pounds on the table with the flat of her palm, a slow heavy rhythm. “Just banging on the table. When you freestyle, you get into the zone, and you blank out. You actually blank out and words and pictures start popping out at you. It’s the craziest vibe.”
Everything started to shift once she began writing her own songs and lyrics. Her teachers began to take an interest in her creative writing. Poetry and hip hop had her hooked. Her earliest writing dealt with many of the standard clichés and hyper-masculine braggadocio—pimping, drugs, violence—but her artistic and personal standards, as well as her ever-changing sense of self, quickly pulled her in a different direction.
As someone who has grown with and struggled with gender roles and stereotypes her entire life, Isis has learned to navigate between different methods of coping, accepting or rejecting definitions, and rising above. Her songs are now reflections of her growth, varying from the sorrowful to the playful.
She’s grown from an aggressive young tomboy to a confident woman and artist, someone who can feel at ease wearing flowers in her hair and performing to a crowd of thousands at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Her development as a musician has had a direct influence on her recent desire to embrace her femininity.
“I’m about to turn twenty-one, I just bought myself my first pair of pumps,” she laughs, “And I’m loving it!” When she took the plunge into becoming a serious, full-time musician, she made strides by recording and releasing a self-distributed solo EP, “The Last-Minute EP,” and signed up for her very first professional photo spread. “I think it was after the photoshoot,” she confesses, that she really felt comfortable being feminine for the first time. “They put makeup on me, dressed me in pretty stuff, and put my hair up. And I was like, ‘Damn, Isis! You’re cute as hell!’” She laughs. Somewhere between the extreme of the female sexual object and the gritty tough tomboy, she found her own happy medium.