The machine guns and machetes were half a world away, but Shad still flinched at the sound of their wounding jabs.
His parents hailed from Rwanda, but they raised him in London, Ontario. That meant the would-be MC first heard his homeland's piercing violence from the stereo speakers of his family's television. He describes that moment's strangeness in the lyrics of his latest single, "Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)": "And one time after Family Ties/I turned on the news and saw my family die, why?/Pops said there's murder in the motherland/Things about colonialism I didn't understand."
The juxtaposition is surreal---a cheesy TV rerun and horrific coverage of the Rwandan genocide, only a channel click apart. Shad (born Shadrach Kabango) and his parents huddled closer to the screen, learning about the brutish weapons brandished by Hutu solders. But that period also taught the family about their newfound Canadian home.
"It was important for me to write that verse and personalize the song a bit," Shad says of the lyrics in "Fam Jam," adding that he didn't want to cover immigration in broad terms. "I wanted to speak to how complicated the immigrant experience can be. I was shaped by it---my complicated relationship with the concept of home."
During those trying times, Shad and his parents were consoled and supported by their adopted extended family---the local Anglican church. That congregation had stood by the Kabangos since their arrival. Shad says those parishes help newcomers with "everything from filling out papers and non-stop administration forms, to finding a place to stay, to just being introduced to the community."
After acclimatizing, the elder Kabangos longed to see their son thrive in those new surroundings. Shad later enrolled at Wilfred Laurier University's business program. His parents would have been thrilled to see his name on the dean's list. Instead, he was awarded first prize in a competition held by local hip-hop station The Beat.
"Immigrant parents don't necessarily want their kids to have a prestigious job, but definitely a stable one, because they come from unstable areas," he says. "And that was my intention for myself, but I stumbled upon something I really enjoyed and cared about."
Critics describe his career with less modesty. They praised his albums The Old Prince and TSOL, both of which were shortlisted for Canada's esteemed Polaris Music Prize. Shad's new album, Flying Colours, features more True North rap royalty like k-os and Saukrates. But he was equally thrilled to collaborate with Halifax's heir to the producer's throne, Skratch Bastid (who built the beat for "Fam Jam"). "I appreciate and admire the joy behind his song making," Shad says of Bastid's eclectically textured production, adding that passion is part of "the east coast disposition."
Bastid is equally fond of Shad: "He has an uncanny ability to reach the listener on many levels at the same time," he says. "His music can all at once be funny and serious, playful and heavy, instantly satisfying, but rewarding to the ear that digs deeper."
Despite impressive credits like Bastid, the name that stands out most on Flying Colours' liner notes is the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church---the only non-hip-hop related title on the album's list of dedications. "It's a community I'm a part of with a lot of inspiring people," Shad says of the parish, which offers the stability his parents always longed for. "I love the way my church gives back to community, and the way they try to live peacefully in a world that's, well, hard to be in."