Backxwash on Witchcraft, Pink as Power, and Being a Badass Bitch
Backxwash is a badass bitch. There’s no doubt about it. The Montreal/Ottawa-based rapper has been captivating audiences with her powerful and unapologetic performances, with Bandcamp recently naming her 2019 album DEVIANCY one of the best of the summer.
When I saw her perform at Hot Tramp Festival for the first time, I was blown away. It was the most powerful performance I had seen in a long time. I (very nervously) asked her after her set if she would be interested in an interview. Any anxiety I felt melted away immediately when I realized that she was the sweetest person I had ever met. We set up a date a few weeks later to take photos and talk about her musical journey.
Sitting at my kitchen table on a sunny autumn afternoon, I asked her to describe herself to someone who had never heard of her before.
Backxwash: I am Backxwash! I am your resident angry rapper [ laughter]. I’m here to bring my message, and am trying to make difficult topics in your face! But also trying to make them as casual as possible. Describing yourself is pretty tricky [laughs].
Malaika Astorga for Pink Things: It’s definitely hard to do! But that was great. Can you tell us a bit about the different places you’ve spent time in?
Backxwash: I grew up in Zambia, and lived there for 17 years. I came to Canada to go to school for Computer Science, and to live with my siblings. One day I decided that the town I was in was preventing me from expressing myself, so, I decided to buy a one-way ticket to Montreal. I’ve been in Ottawa recently, but I’m planning on coming back to Montreal more permanently.
Pink Things: Wow! Computer Science is a whole other world. How did you decide to go to school in Canada?
Backxwash: My dad encouraged me to go to school in Canada, in part because of the ramifications of colonialism in Zambia. It’s a bit strange because for the scales to be tipped in your favour, you have to leave your country. But they’re not even being tipped in your favour, you’re just dealing with a whole other world.
PT: When did you start making music?
Backxwash: The first time I heard hip hop was when Mo Money Mo Problems came out. I was into R&B, but this was different. It was so exciting and edgy. From then on, I was known as the kid in the neighbourhood who rapped.
I was around 12 or 13 when my brother brought home a pirated music software. The computer I had wasn’t strong enough to use it, so I would plot everything out without hearing how it sounded together. When I exported it at the end, it just sounded terrible [laughs]. When I was 14–16, I was rapping and producing music for others as well.
When I came to Canada, I got the, “If you continue to do this music stuff, you’ll be damaging your career,” talk from my parents. I stopped making music for a while. When I moved to Montreal, I was starting to figure out a lot about myself and slowly began writing again. The two intersected. I thought about getting back into music, but I wasn’t sure what to rap about. I ultimately decided to rap about my experience because it’s authentic.
I put out my first EP F.R.E.A.K.S., and I liked the way it sounded, but I didn’t love my vocal performance. I was feeling nervous in the studio because I wasn’t comfortable yet. The more comfortable I felt in the studio, the better my vocals would sound. So I just kept working at it, and Black Sailor Moon came out after that. For those EPs, I used to work with a different producer for every beat. This time I worked with two producers who have the same politics and values as I do. I felt comfort in the fact that I knew that the people I was working with understood that aspect of my work. I was ready to make my album.
PT: Knowing what intentions are going into your work is really important. Putting in the right energy is essential. You’ve talked a lot about witchcraft in your music and press. How do you integrate that into your life and music?
Backxwash: The experiences I would have as a witch are very similar to the experience I would have as a queer person back home in Zambia. They persecute witches the same way they persecute queer people. That intersection, being queer and being an African person that practices witchcraft, is really interesting.
I feel like everyone has different kinds of witchcraft. I come from the Tumbuka tribe. Most spiritual practices that an indigenous person from Africa would do were classified as witchcraft. It’s very spiritual from a pre-colonial sense. We have something called Vimbuza. It’s where a masked person dances, and you are intoxicated by the dance. This dance is a way of healing you from your sickness. But to call that witchcraft… it doesn’t make sense.
The song DONT COME TO THE WOODS is a bit satirical. I’ve never met a witch who rides a broomstick. It’s taking that concept and playing with it.
PT: The magazine is based on pink, we but like to interpret it on a more conceptual level. We feel that pink can exist beyond its stereotypes, and we hope that the colour can help push and shift any negative stereotypes. That being said, how has pink been in your life?
Backxwash: The first thing that comes to mind is how it’s a bit terrible that the colour has been co-opted by trans exclusionary feminists. For example, when you go to a women’s march, and you see everyone with their vagina hats. Especially when those people are approached politely to try and discuss how that can be exclusionary, and they still don’t want to listen… it’s a bit wild to me.
On the other hand, I liked pink growing up because I was trying to separate myself from the boys. The boys would never touch pink. It’s a girly colour, but something was empowering about wearing pink during those times. Being able to embrace pink.
It’s a double-edged sword because I don’t think I’ll be able to buy or wear pink right now because it brings up TERF memories… but on the other hand, growing up, it played a part in my life because it was such a rebellious colour.
PT: Yeah, you pretty much wear all black now. That’s sick.
Backxwash: Yeah, but it’s pretty hot in the summer [laughs].
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.