RFE2022 • CHARMAINE (Toronto, ON)
SUNDAY, AUGUST 21 • 8:35PM • KOOP TENT
Charmaine was living in a run-down Motel 6, crammed into a single room with her parents and three siblings when she wrote her first song.
“I’d always been musically inclined growing up,” says the Zimbabwe-born, Toronto-based rapper, “but I never took it seriously until we lost our house. That was when I decided music was going to be the way I lifted my family up to a better life.”
Fast forward to the present and Charmaine is one of Canada’s most buzzed-about new artists, with an exhilarating blend of brash hip-hop swagger and addictive R&B appeal that already has critics hailing her as rap’s Queen of the North.
“As women, we’re always put into these boxes and taught to compress ourselves in order to fit society’s expectations,” says Charmaine, “but that’s not me. I’m here to encourage women to do what they want, when they want, how they want, and to not give a damn what anybody else has to say about it.”
Born in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, Charmaine relocated to the United States at the age of five, bouncing around the Midwest with her family at first before eventually settling in Nashville for a large chunk of her childhood. Living in the American South was an eye-opening experience, but by the time high school rolled around, Charmaine was already on the way to her next culture shock, this time heading north of the border to Toronto, where life would soon take a dark turn.
“After we moved to Toronto, my dad got laid off,” says Charmaine, “and pretty quickly after that, we lost our house. We went to a shelter and then ended up living in a motel, all six of us in this tiny little room with just a hot plate for a kitchen.”
Throughout her family’s frequent moves and financial struggles, Charmaine had always turned to music as a source of comfort and stability, something she could rely on for emotional support no matter how difficult things got. Now, sitting on the motel floor with a notebook in hand, she turned to music as a life preserver, penning her own songs and scouring the internet for performance opportunities in the hopes of writing herself a ticket to a brighter future.
“I’d never sung anywhere other than talent shows at school before,” Charmaine recalls, “but I read about this showcase downtown at Lee’s Palace where you could perform in front of an A&R person from Warner Music. I didn’t know if I’d ever get another opportunity like that, so I submitted an audition tape and got accepted.”
Charmaine sang two songs at the showcase—Beyonce’s “1+1” and “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys”—and the crowd went wild. Even better, the rep from Warner Music loved her performance and offered to help mentor Charmaine as an artist. While it all seemed like a dream come true at the time, the next few years would prove to be anything but a fairytale, and as her personal and professional struggles mounted, Charmaine decided to walk away from the music business entirely.
“I just wasn’t ready,” she explains. “I was still a teenager and I hadn’t lived enough life to write the kind of songs I needed to write. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I looked the part, either. I wasn’t the skinniest girl in the world, and I didn’t feel like my body fit the mold of who could be a star.”
That all changed a few years later when Charmaine gave birth to a baby boy. As a mother, she realized it was her responsibility to make the most of her God-given talents, to set an example for her son by putting in the work and following through on her dreams. With little more than ambition to her name, she quit her job and began writing again, drawing on all the trauma and triumph she’d experienced in her life to craft the kind of music she’d always wanted to create. It was a risky move, to be sure, but the payoff arrived quickly, and in the span of just two months, Charmaine had managed to land herself a coveted deal with Warner.
“By that point, I’d grown out of my insecurities and was done doubting myself and my appearance,” she explains. “I felt confident enough to make the music I wanted to make, and whether people loved it or hated it, I knew it was 100% me.”
Collaborating with acclaimed producers/engineers Michael Lantz and David Ariza, Charmaine began work on Hood Avant Garde in late 2019, pushing her sound in an adventurous new direction that mixed the ’90s hip-hop she grew up listening to with the southern rap she fell in love with while living in Tennessee. The resulting tracks were playful, experimenting with unexpected cadences and cheeky sound effects, and the lyrics brimmed with poise and bravado.
“I’d been a singer for most of my life, but the more I rapped, the more I felt like myself,” Charmaine explains. “It was almost like therapy, because it taught me to embrace all these parts of my personality that, as a woman, and particularly as a black woman, society had told me I needed to hide.”
Charmaine may have started with nothing, but with Hood Avant Garde, it’s clear that she’s coming for everything.