Vox Sambou is Merging Hip-Hop And Social Activism in Montreal
The hip hop and reggae artist talks about his new record 'The Brasil Sessions' and why raising disenfranchised youths on art is important.
Vox Sambou and band. All photos by the author.
This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
It's mid-June. Haitian-born, Montreal-based musician and activist Vox Sambou rocks the multicultural stage at Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, the world’s largest French-language music festival. Vox and his band are on fire, captivating the audience with a mash-up of socially conscious hip-hop that integrates Haitian roots music, Afrobeat, Latin grooves, and reggae beats. Vox engages the audience with infectious, memorable melodies and relentless rhythms while speaking to the audience about unity and solidarity; reminding them to honor their elders and remember the legacy of their ancestors. "No matter where you're from or what your story is, your ancestors play a large part in who you are," he says later, during our interview. "There's a lot that they've done to make you who you are today; sometimes we get so caught up in the present, and forget to acknowledge that." A magnetic bandleader, Vox gives his bandmates room to shine, too. "MaliAyiti," written following a trip to West Africa, features David Rhyspan—leader of Montreal's own Trio Bruxo—on keyboard and powerhouse vocalist-composer Malika Tirolien, a centerpiece of Montreal's music scene. The anthemic "Neg Chante" closes the show; Modibo Keïta's trombone evokes the sound of traditional Haitian rara horns. Diegal Leger delivers a compelling Kreyol verse addressing the untold Haitian narrative, the enslavement of Haitians on both sides of the island, and the dichotomies of a country "that suffered many a low blow."
Born in Limbé, northern Haiti, Vox (born Robints Paul) moved to Winnipeg in 1995 where his brother was serving as a Catholic priest. "When the situation in Haiti was difficult, he tried his best to bring our family members over. My mother, my father, and my little niece all moved to Canada." He relocated to Ottawa several years later to attend law school, but Vox finally arrived in Montreal in 2003. "I got into the local music scene when I participated in a hip-hop symposium at Concordia University, then met the musicians who later formed Nomadic Massive, and started collaborating with them." Vox's music encapsulates the very things that make Montreal’s music scene unique: it is multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural in nature. The type of collaborations one can often find here are amongst artists who all have different cultural, religious, and musical backgrounds. He has performed with the Nomads on stages across North America and around the world, opening for Mos Def, the Antibalas, Wyclef Jean and Deltron 30/30. His third album, The Brasil Session, ensures his unique voice holds a place among local and international MCs within hip hop and world music spheres.
Through conversation, we finally arrive at the heart of the matter: what sparked his social-political consciousness? "Growing up in Limbé, everyone was equal," Vox recalls. "But when I left at age 12 to attend a Catholic school for children of a higher social class, that's where I saw there was a division. Speaking Kreyol [Creole] with a different accent, I was treated as an outsider. It was the first time I felt I wasn't an equal." Once he moved to Winnipeg, Vox "discovered the history of the world," realizing that "discrimination goes hand in hand with racism." And as he traveled, he found that classism, inequality, and poverty exist everywhere. These truths make their way into Vox's lyrics: with an effortless, fierce flow, he delivers razor-sharp rhymes in his native Kreyol, as well as French, English, Spanish and Portuguese. His first album, Lakay (Home), released in 2008, introduced his singular musical style and lyrical preoccupations. "Bato", for example, tells the story of the hardships and lost lives of countless "boat people" attempting to escape their countries due to economic and political oppression; "Article 14" deals with the struggle for justice and dignity in Haiti, and contains a sample of scholar Noam Chomsky; and "Ritmwen" (My Rhythm) expresses pride in his roots and ancestral rhythms.
His follow-up Dyasporafriken was released in 2013. "It's a call for solidarity and unity throughout the African Diaspora, no matter where we are. We need to unite in order to survive," Vox says when I ask about the album's underlying message. "Traveling to Africa seems unattainable in Haiti; but through the music, I was able to do it. When I went to Africa I saw how much we have in common, realizing that we should focus on our similarities, and feel connected to our roots. Then we can all live proudly." The track "Blackitude" was inspired by Brazilian poet, professor and activist Nelson Maca. The video was shot in Batey San Luis, Dominican Republic, where Haitian workers were once slaves on sugar plantations, and where thousands still work undocumented and discriminated. "Fui" narrates the dream of a place where there is no violence, no hunger, no discrimination and no pollution—a stress-free zone where everyone has the same rights, and all people respect each other. With the new Brasil Session, which was recorded in Sao Paolo, he revisits tunes from previous albums with the feeling of a live recording. The album features Vox's core group of long-time collaborators: Malika Tirolien (vocals), David Ryshpan (keyboards), Diegal Leger (bass), Christopher Cargnello (guitar), and Jean-Daniel Thibault-Desbiens (drums), with the addition of three Brazilian musicians: MC Rael, Cauê Vieira Pinto (saxophone and flute) and Felippe Pipeta (trumpet.)
Unsurprisingly, Vox is passionate and community-oriented. For over a decade, he has been running the non-profit organization La Maison des Jeunes de Côte-des-Neiges with the objective of helping teens in the multi-ethnic Montreal borough. It's a cultural community center where young people (aged 11 to 17) from diverse cultural groups come to play, learn, and make friends. Adjacent to the center is No Bad Sound Studio (NBS), established by the center in 2007, which provides young aspiring musicians a place to develop their musical and creative talents. NBS offers youth a variety of music workshops such as beatboxing, rapping, singing, music production, DJ-ing, and performance skills. The studio releases professionally produced CDs with young artists working directly with industry pros to develop musical projects. Hired as a youth worker at the center in 2003, Vox was asked to take over as its director two years later. “What keeps me there to this day [is] seeing the positive impact of our involvement in the community—instilling pride in their identity and where they're from, and offering some of the skills they need to go to college. We see them as our little brothers and sisters." He’s also committed to building bridges between Montreal and grassroots community projects in Haiti. He co-founded Solid’Ayiti, a collective of Montreal artists and activists formed in 2010 following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, aspiring to foster solidarity and sustainable collaborations between Montreal and Haiti on issues of self-sufficiency, independence, social justice, and peace. By releasing "DiscriminaSida" on World AIDS Day 2009, he drew attention to the discrimination and lack of basic resources and information regarding AIDS prevention in Haiti.
"Vox is the proudest Haitian I know," says bandmate Diegal Leger. "He has influenced my own explorations of Haitian identity. I admire his single-mindedness of focus when it comes to the plight of the Haitian people, and his conscious choice to use his God-given talent for catchy melodies conveying the powerful message of unity and pride in our African ancestry, purposefully in Haitian Creole.”
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.