FAM JAM

Canada’s hip-hop anthem for immigrants paints a sunnier picture than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s

On Saturday, July 1, Canada celebrates its 150th birthday. The occasion has prompted some bizarre marketing missteps, including one from Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons: a poutine donut that will only be sold in the US.

It has also unleashed what journalist Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times, notes as a national fury of self-critique. To celebrate Canada Day is confusing because, as Marche argues, the country can’t agree on what it is.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, echoing Canadian philosophers, has said that the country has no core identity, and that it’s a post-national state. Marshall McLuhan said that “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”

That rings true to this expat. To most people I know, there is no quintessential Canadian “thing” or image (but many stereotypes and tropes), and the holiday stirs up a combination of feelings, including serious pride in the country’s relatively progressive stance toward its borders, and its recent resettling of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, tempered with the knowledge that, especially for people of color and Canada’s First Nations, the celebrating is fraught.

That said, to anyone who grew up in one of the country’s diverse cities, the video below, for “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins),” by Shad, a Toronto-based rapper, and featuring a multiracial family dance party in a community center basement, complete with paper plates under stress tests, and aunties on the dance floor, will be familiar. Immigrant or not, they will likely have attended many parties like it held by communities of people from everywhere. More than hockey or Roots t-shirts that say “nice,” the scene feels iconic.

Amanda Parris, an artist and scholar and host for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, put together a playlist of hip-hop and R&B songs for the Canada 150 festivities and included this gem. Released in 2013, it’s Canada’s version of a hip-hop anthem for immigrants, but unlike the new, dark, and angry “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” a song and video co-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and inspired by his hit Broadway show Hamilton, Fam Jam is joyous. It’s a recreation of the parties Shad and his family attended with fellow immigrants when he was a child, so the story is set to ’90s-style hip-hop. Shad plays himself and his uncle by turns.

Notably, as Parris writes, the song has layers; it “retains a nuanced and critical lens that asks questions about colonialism, immigration policy and the ongoing discrimination many face once they’ve arrived.”

Shad, who started life as Shadrach Kabango in Kenya, born to Rwandan parents, grew up in the mid-sized city of London, Ontario. Called the “thoughtful rapper,” he holds a graduate degree in Liberal Arts, and is critically acclaimed for his songs that, while playful, are also socially conscious. When the Fam Jam video was released, he wrote on his website that Canada’s diversity “is often and rightly celebrated, but the innumerable stories that comprise our treasured multiculturalism here in Canada can also hold a lot pain, as well as some complicated questions around what it means to succeed, and what it means to belong.”

Canada has difficult issues to confront, but thankfully its citizens are talking about them openly and with civility.

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