If you were to cross your fingers and wish for a strong end to 2023, you would be hard-pressed to dream up a better run than the one Kayo is on: Fresh off a win at the African Nova Scotian Music Association Awards, where the St. Lucian-turned-Haligonian brought home the honours for Artist of the Year, Kayo—the rapper born Filbert Salton—is about to embark on a West Coast tour with Trinidadian soca superstars Kes and St. Lucian reggae singer Teddyson John. The 35-year-old just released his latest full-length album, the seven-song Trip LP. He has a show coming up at the Marquee Ballroom with Canadian heavyweights Kardinal Offishall and Haviah Mighty. Then, there’s the Juno Wavemakers showcase this Saturday, Oct. 21—where Kayo will share the stage with the likes of Maggie Andrew and Atay & JAX.
Ask Kayo, and he’ll tell you it’s divine timing. That, and feeling more confident in his voice than ever, more than a decade into a rap career that first took off as an international student at Saint Mary’s University.
“It took some time for me for my art to align with who I am in real life,” he says, in a video call with The Coast. “And I think the closer that I got to that, the clearer that message and that vision became—because I wasn’t fighting myself as much anymore. That clarity allowed me to just put my best foot forward as often as possible, as effortlessly as possible, because I’m not forcing anything.”
Raised in Castries, St Lucia, a palm-shaded capital city of 20,000 on the sun-kissed shores of the Caribbean Sea, Kayo’s musical career has been one long trip, indeed. An aspiring rapper in a country more interested in calypso than hip hop, he had to get creative to find an audience: His first taste of radio play came as an 18-year-old in 2007—a collaboration with the all-female jazz group Sisterhood. He’d first caught the performance bug at age 12, a member of the Helen Folk Dancers: A traditional St. Lucian folk dance group that performed for the governor general and at cultural events around the country. But opportunities for a full-blown music career—especially as a rapper—were slim on the island. So, at 20, he left to study marketing at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. It was either there or go to school in Orlando, Florida.
“Moving to Halifax… it was a very creative city, and being here really made me who I am,” he told The Come Up Show in 2012. “Who’s to say what would have happened if I went to the States? There’s so much more competition, there’s so much more… bullshit, for lack of a better word.
“When I came up, I came up with maybe 20 other St. Lucians. So if I needed to be home, I had that sense of home with me. I don’t know what it is here, though. I just find that Halifax is really artistic. It really allows you to just be yourself and really find yourself.”
Kayo found a home quickly in Halifax—befriending not just rappers like Quake Matthews and the late Littles the General, but catching the ear of Classified. He signed to Class’s HalfLife Records, featured on 2011’s Handshakes and Middle Fingers and went on tour all over Canada. Salton shot music videos wherever he could—including in his rented student house on Tower Road.
“My music has always been an art imitates life kind of thing,” he laughs. “We just shot it. To this day, there hasn’t been a conversation with the landlord.”
Tremendous highs followed: Kayo signed a five-album record deal with EMI Music Canada. He got a manager and publicist. Toured with rap legends Snoop Dogg and Xzibit. Moved to Toronto with his close friend and collaborator, Yogi The Producer (Johann Deterville). He travelled to Atlanta for songwriting camps. By the time of 2013’s S.L.A.V.E. EP, Salton seemed poised to emerge as one of Halifax’s next big breakout acts. But behind the scenes, the picture was less rosy: His debut album was sitting on the shelf at his new label. (“I got signed off the record ‘One Night,’ which is a hip hop record, but it’s still very pop mainstream… but the album I [sent to the label] wasn’t hitting them the way I had envisioned,” he says. “It was a little bit of impostor syndrome.”) Then, Universal Music Canada acquired EMI. All of the staff he’d been working on his album with were reassigned or let go. To top it all off, Salton was stuck in bureaucratic limbo, trying to secure Canadian permanent residency.
“It was some of the hardest times in my life,” Kayo says now. “I didn’t have any access to the grant funding that a lot of my counterparts had. It was a real life struggle, trying to be in this country and find ways to sustain my career… There were times where I didn’t know if I was going to eat.”
More tragedy struck. In 2017, Salton’s father, Gilbert, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. (“As scary a time as that was for my family, we were able to beat it and save his life,” Kayo wrote in a Facebook post.) But in the summer of 2019, the cancer returned. Kayo had flown home for what he thought would be “two or three” weeks of rest; once he got home, his family discovered the cancer had progressed to Stage 4.
“My mission changed,” Kayo tells The Coast. “My focus was just on being there for my family.”
Back home, between appointments in Trinidad and time with family in St. Lucia, Salton was able to bond with his father. He passed away in September of 2019. But beforehand, they chatted about everything: Life, music, the passage of time.
“That whole time that I spent with him brought me closer to him than I ever was in my entire life,” Kayo says.
Back on the beaches he’d grown up on for the first 20 years of his life, Kayo found new sonic inspiration: Musical doors he hadn’t opened before; new ways of blending the sounds of his island upbringing with his favourite genre. He stayed the rest of the year, into 2020—and then COVID-19 hit. Apart from the rare departure when travel restrictions lifted, he remained in St. Lucia until 2021.
“It was a double-edged sword, because again, my primary genre is hip hop, right? And St. Lucia is still not necessarily a perfect incubator for that genre,” he says. “But I’m grateful for the time that I spent there because from that—and even as a result of not having access to the resources that I would have over here—I had to learn how to engineer and record my own music; I had to learn how to do my own artwork; I had to learn how to shoot and edit my own videos. A lot of the skills that I acquired during that time were as a result of just survival—having to figure out how to keep the ship afloat.
“But even just the vibe, the energy, the culture… I feel like the time that I spent in St. Lucia made me feel freer, musically, to tap into a lot of these different elements of my musicality that have always been there, but have not necessarily been fully harnessed [before]: A lot of soca elements, reggae elements, Afrobeat elements—just different rhythms, different vibes. The lingo, the style, a lot of things I really picked up again from being back in St. Lucia.”
For an album of songs written and recorded in bits and pieces over the past half-decade, Kayo’s latest offering, Trip, feels very much meant for the moment. A blend of hazy, Post Malone-esque R&B (“Purgatory”); uptempo Afro-rhythms reminiscent of Wizkid (“Get Away”) and guitar-infused calypso-meets-rap (“Pigeon Point”), it’s perhaps his most cohesive work to date. It’s wavy; moody as the ocean storms that brood over St. Lucia—and Halifax, too, for that matter—from late summer to fall.
“Even if the songs are from different points in time, the message that I’ve been wanting to get across is something [that has been] in my heart for a very long time; it just took some time to get to a place where I could actually effectively package it into a cohesive body of work,” he says.
Kayo’s momentum has been building, too: After two of his songs were chosen for NBA 2K21’s soundtrack, he was named ANSMA’s 2023 Artist of the Year earlier this month. He’s also up for a trio of awards at Nova Scotia Music Week next month—for DJ of the Year, R&B/Soul Recording of the Year and African Nova Scotian Artist of the Year. The chance to share a Juno Wavemakers showcase with friend Maggie Andrew this Saturday has been a plus:
“That’s the homie,” he says. “We always hang out. Halifax is a small scene, so I met her at TMG Studios a couple years ago, through Neon Dreams… but also through mutual friends, it’s a tight-knit circle of creatives, and we just hang out and have fun. We all went to dinner last night.”
The chance to reconnect with Kardinal Offishall for a free concert next month is another blessing: The two linked up in 2015 for Kayo’s single “NAGATO.” More collaborations are in the works with other artists that he can’t divulge yet, but is looking forward to. A deluxe version of the Trip LP is coming, too.
Does he wish things had unfolded differently earlier in his career? Not really, he tells The Coast; he’s happy where he’s at these days. His fiancée just moved to Halifax. There are family and friends here.
“I feel like God kind of closes doors at times to make room for whatever blessings are in store for you. And I just move in that,” he says. “I appreciate where I’m at—that I’m here for a reason. And trust that the steps that I took to get me here are the similar steps that are gonna take me to wherever it is that’s next for me.”
As ever, the trip continues.