When Smoke Rises draws upon the lived experiences of a young black man living — and trying to stay alive — in Regent Park.
Regent Park is one of Toronto’s oldest social housing projects and a neighbourhood with a storied history. It’s also home to one of Canada’s freshest and most celebrated rising stars: Mustafa Ahmed. The 24-year-old musician and poet (who previously performed as Mustafa the Poet and now goes by Mustafa) first rose to prominence a decade ago when he was in grade school for his spoken-word observations of life within his community. For When Smoke Rises, his first full-length album as a solo performer, Mustafa once again draws upon the lived experiences of a young black man living — and trying to stay alive — in Regent Park.
Death and loss inform much of When Smoke Rises, starting with the album title, a reference to his deceased friend and rapper, Smoke Dawg, pictured with Mustafa on the album cover. The song “Ali” is dedicated to Ali Rizeig, another young black man shot to death while inside his home in 2017. Yet, amidst all the grief and sadness circling these songs, When Smoke Rises is a record that’s brimming with tenacity and perseverance. In his remarkably beautiful and soft singing voice, Mustafa offers up messages and prayers of strength, resistance, and resilience to his Regent Park family. On the riveting and moving opening track, “Stay Alive,” he urges others to “Just put down that bottle, tell me your sorrows” and do what it takes to stay alive, and all while he finds himself fighting against the tide that’s dragging him in the opposite direction. The higher the stakes and the greater the urgency, the more hushed and controlled his performance becomes. His voice bears the emotional scars of a young person who has seen a lifetime’s worth of tragedy and sorrow by the time they’re 20.
What connects and resonates most profoundly about When Smoke Rises is Mustafa’s commitment to honouring his fallen peers by remembering and celebrating their life and potential rather than the gun violence that took their lives. He doesn’t hide the truth or sugarcoat it; he also doesn’t excuse it. “There’s a war outside / And I can’t lose all my dawgs,” he sings on “The Hearse,” “I can’t choose / Right or wrong.” Instead, he chooses music, poetry, and art, and he chooses life: “And I tell you how I feel / In case it’s the last time / You know the odds / You know the flaws / It’s all by design / And you’ll go anywhere / Though it ain’t safe / just know that I care / I’ll always care / and I’ll be awake,” (“Air Forces”). Through his music and words, Mustafa offers his friends and family the greatest gift he can: eternal rest and remembrance.