Following Strange Froots' Journey from a Montreal Youth Program to a Senegal Festival Stage
Photo by Mariel Rosenbluth
Queering the Map is an online initiative based in Montréal, QC, where queer folk are encouraged to interact with a map to mark down their important queer moments anonymously, big or small, for the world to see. The map is global, with people from all over the world writing heartfelt posts about coming out, first loves, cute moments, self-realization, but also hardships, heartbreak, separation, and feeling lost. Looking at the globe, it’s quickly clear that areas with the least concentration are populated largely by Black folk and POC, be it the borough of Cote-des-Neiges in Montréal, or the entire continent of Africa. Among the few blips recounting stolen moments, love stories that could’ve been, and fear of being true to one’s self, I added a comment from Dakar, Senegal: “We kinda had a moment. Not a romantic one, just one that felt like ‘In this room, we’re family.’” This is the story of how a trio of queer Black girls making music traveled from Canada to the Motherland to find that family.
BEGINNINGS AND FOOTSTEPS
Strange Froots, our Montreal-based alternative chill-soul group, began as a summer project that didn’t turn out as planned. We first met via Canadian hip-hop/world supergroup Nomadic Massive, a staple in Montréal’s music scene who make border defying music in 5 languages. In 2007, they founded NoBad Sound Studio, a free space for kids under 18 to learn about hip-hop music production, record their own material, and practice writing and performance skills. In May 2014, they set the groundwork for a more female-oriented (and female-driven) series of workshops at the youth center, as the previous influx of kids was mostly male. This is where our future band would meet: Naïka Champaïgne (DragonFroot), a soul singer and guitarist, who had been going to NBS for a year by then; SageS (StarFroot), a producer and singer-songwriter; and me, Mags (PassionFroot), a beatmaker, cartoonist, and Hip Hop Karaoke star.
We were the only three girls who showed up, so the planned workshop series shifted into the formation of a group, and over the next three months we recorded our debut EP. After the release and positive reception of the eponymous record in September 2014, interest in the group steadily increased in anti-colonialist and feminist circles; after all, it wasn’t every day you had the opportunity to book a group of 3 young Black women as your token act (and with a name like “Strange Froots”, they definitely saw the opportunity to flex their “wokeness.”) But even from the beginning we were defying expectations. Instead of having a trio of young activists from a youth center sing about anti-colonialist themes, bookers got three happy-go-lucky girls singing about their lives, dreams and aspirations.
With the exception of our track “The Wanderer,” our repertoire at the time mainly consisted of songs relating to personal issues and finding the confidence to live the life you want, rather than militant lyrics about fighting sexism and racism. In contrast to the other artists on most given lineups, we were often unfairly compared and painted in a more juvenile light. Typical was one article about a festival bill suggesting we were on the low end of the political spectrum: “The four performances – vocalist trio Strange Froots, instrumentalist Lido Pimienta, rapper Alas, and powerhouse headliners Shining Soul – kept with this political theme in varying degrees, from Strange Froots’ mostly unpolitical lyrics to Alas’ proudly anti-governmental anthems.”
This would begin to change in March 2015, at the very first event in what would become the Rap Battles for Social Justice series. It was here that we debuted our first straightforwardly rap song, “The 3 Fates,” a track about climate justice set to a remixed version of Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More”.
Audiences were now seeing the similarities between our group and our mentors in Nomadic Massive: we were doing songs about injustices in the world, and what life is like in for people urban communities getting little support from their governments. The new material was a powerful new direction, even if it begs the question of what’s so wrong about singing about your dreams.
RESPONSIBILITY OF REPRESENTATION
Nomadic Massive has toured extensively around the world, and our mentor from the band, Vox Sambou, saw it fit to set the Froots on the same path. He first landed us an appearance on French television during a segment they were filming in Montréal in summer 2015. Then, going into year 2 of the Froots, Vox began planting the seeds of a plan to travel to Dakar. We all had our individual relationships to Africa, and our music had specific roots in Senegal: “The Wanderer” was based around my beat of the same name that sampled a famous Senegalese song from the 90s, Cheikh Lo’s “Dokandeme,” a Wolof song about the singer’s plight as a new immigrant arriving in Europe.
The idea of traveling to Senegal to shoot a video and to perform was an exciting one, but not something we could prepare alone. We tried to imagine workshops and even a documentary surrounding the trip, in order to gain the favor of artist travel grants. But the limitations set by grants, and our own personal timelines, became too big an obstacle to account for, so the next logical step was to crowdfund.
We officially teased the Senegal project at WE Day 2016 where the band was invited to speak about youth empowerment. By fall, we launched the GoFundMe for #FrootsInDakar as a 3 season long campaign to send us to Dakar to shoot our music video and begin filming our documentary.
There was a lot of community excitement around our expanding plans. We cemented our new social justice focus with the release of EP number 2 in July 2016, Blossom This Froot for Thought, The record featured a Black uprising anthem “Afro Punkass,” a studio version of “3 Fates,” and a queer remix of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” we called “Getcha Froot On.”Montréal’s tight-knit young QTBIPOC world was looking to us with high hopes as a turning point in the city’s booking habits, where artists representing our community were far and few between.
“Yes, there is a certain responsibility to fully grasp what it means to be all three of these identities of Black, queer, woman,” says DragonFroot. “There is a need to comprehend and feel how each of these oppressions shape me as an artist, how it crafts my art, my vision, and how people will perceive it.”
“Whenever you are showcased, you are a representative example of your various public identities,” adds Starfroot. “As an entertainer, my goals are to inspire the people in my communities. As a person, I just want to keep hearts warm and shining.”
Despite our newfound buzz, fundraising for Froots in Dakar still proved an enormous challenge. We had an online campaign, but also ran a monthly fundraising event to amass the necessary money. We relied on shows in half-empty venues, donations from family members, and some very generous strangers. We were making it happen, but sacrificing so much time to focus solely on securing resources was mentally, physically, and creatively draining.
EXPECTATIONS V. REALITY IN SENEGAL
I am of Senegalese and Ghanaian descent, and had visited those countries every few years with family before our trip. But two out of three of us had never been outside the Americas, let alone been to the Motherland. DragonFroot is from a Haitian-Quebecer background, and StarFroot was raised in Montréal by her Jamaican mother and her family. Each of the Froots has a drastically different relationship to Africa, and it is often reflected in not only our art, but in our interactions with discussions pertaining to the diaspora.
Common to the whole group, however, was that this would be everyone’s first time going to Africa as queer adults. Senegal is very non-secular and patriarchal, and homosexuality is punishable by law. All of this, combined with media portrayals of homophobic countries, forced us to carefully consider how to modify our behaviors during the trip.
Just imagine it: a group of North American queers, some with tattoos on their arms, some with piercings on their faces, some light-skinned and biracial, arriving to rock a hip-hop festival right after Ramadan is over. The makings of a great Netflix original.
StarFroot recalls how during the trip, she was called white multiple times. “In predominantly white communities here, I’ve been called Black or mixed, but never white, so this came as a surprise. It made me reflect on the ways I’m perceived by others, especially in Black communities, and the amount of privilege I hold as a light-skinned individual.”
Upon arriving in Senegal, the band was greeted by PapaFroot – my father and the band’s host for the month – and GuanaFroot, my younger sister and aspiring photographer named for the local melon hybrid the household was treated to every night for dessert.
As far as wardrobe went, there are only so many things one can wear in 40°C weather; as long as nobody left the house in pum-pum shorts, style changes were a non-issue. Our piercings and tattoos also flew right under the radar. While noticeable tattoos on women are still rather taboo, the group may have been given the benefit of the doubt as Westerners, and nose/lip piercings were more common. Ironically, when StarFroot got henna done on her arm, her mom back home scolded her, thinking it was a permanent tattoo. It was a much bigger reaction than any of the Senegalese folks had to anything else!
Our first music outing was a jam session set up in Rufisque by producer Father Babs, MC P.P.S the Writah, and Montrealer Lil’ Deezy, who happened to be traveling at the same time. When we arrived we had to pack in tight: imagine 8 guys all sitting in front of Father Babs’ laptop, leaning against the walls, soda pop in hand, and maybe 5 more waiting outside the tiny room.
Not being well acquainted just yet, DragonFroot managed to break the ice when she spotted a guitar in the corner of the room and started playing. Eventually P.P.S began to freestyle in a mix of Wolof, French, and even a bit of English, and more people joined the cypher for a truly authentic and magical time. After some time trading beats on SoundCloud and harmonizing over freestyles, it was tea time, or rather Touba time. Café Touba, Senegal’s signature spiced coffee beverage, was introduced to DragonFroot and StarFroot, the latter taking a great liking to it.
P.P.S explained how Café Touba was an integral part of the culture, and was often a symbol of what he calls the leisurely Senegalese lifestyle: with unemployment on the rise and city infrastructures always being redone, there wasn’t much else to do but “chill out, play some chess, and have a coffee.”
“I sensed from the beginning that Senegalese people would be friendly,” says Starfroot. “But they were much more than that. I was certainly not used to the pacing of things. However, it was a welcome surprise. I’m used to the quick-paced lifestyle I have here in Montreal, but I found that spending time drinking café touba, bissap, or gnamakoudji, while making friends and new cultural connections renewed socializing as a priority for me.”
By the end of the night, nobody wanted to leave. We were used to being hammered with questions about pursuing a musical career in a man’s world, but here we didn’t feel like it had anything to prove, and were there on equal footing with the men that easily outnumbered us, despite the cultural or linguistic barriers. Of course, there were some funny instances of dated chivalry, such as finding a nice stool for StarFroot to sit on around the communal bowl of thiebou guedj (rice & dried fish) instead of a cinder block “because she’s a lady.” It felt more like a family cookout than it did a studio networking session, and it couldn’t have felt more natural. This was definitely the highlight of the trip, a warm feeling of comradery and art washing over everyone.
Next came a swap meet set up for female artists, entrepreneurs, and content makers from Senegal and all over the world. The event was part of the 12th annual FESTA2H International Hip-Hop Festival, where we’d later would be making our official international debut. We were introduced to the better known local acts, such as the group Gotal, and MC Mina La Voilée. Sarahmée, another Montréal femcee of Senegalese descent, was on the festival lineup, and showed up to the swap meet with the Quebec ambassador.
As the day went along, trading books for beads, hats for hoodies, and Facebook handles for WhatsApp numbers, our gaydar couldn’t help but go off at several times of the day. From hyper-masculine presenting female artists at the snack bar, to flirtatious but innocent invites to “swap clothes,” we quickly realized: the queers were here, and in that community, or at least in that room, there was a lot less to fear.
They definitely weren’t toting any rainbow flags. But at the very least, it felt less like they were all in hiding or in quarantine, and more like they were deeply in tune with themselves enough to know who they can express certain ideas with, or how to match their aesthetics with their gender expression. It was a great sight to see a room of majority Black women in all shapes, sizes, styles: from the high-femmes to the streetwear butches, urban hijabis, and the traditionalists, there was something for everyone.
Finally, the big day arrived. We were set to perform near the end of the first festival slot, so when the concert started late, we figured that our set would be pushed back accordingly. As we’re leisurely watching from the crowd about 30 minutes in, StarFroot, returning from the restroom, informs us we have 15 minutes to get ready and get on stage. Then the DJ said he didn’t receive our tracks, then we had an impromptu radio interview right behind the stage. It all really brought the idea of the “Café Touba” lifestyle home.
After the stress, the intro to our opening track “Afro Punkass” finally began to play and we entered the stage, faced by a crowd who had never heard of us. But a couple songs in they quickly warmed up to us, and were enthusiastically dancing to “Getcha Froot On” with us. It was a feeling of immediate acceptance and validation that we weren’t expecting, and didn’t know we needed.
After four weeks, the trip came to an end. Our ambitious itinerary had to be significantly shortened, but it was for the best. We adapted to a more realistic pace in a new environment, and it allowed for a lot of reflection on what this trip was supposed to mean to each member of the band. “I felt a sense of belonging and cultural things that reminded me a lot of Haitian culture. It just reinforced the Black diaspora for me and my inner connection with myself and my surroundings,” affirms DragonFroot. Our future documentary will go further into what we learned on our Senegal trip and beyond.
Upon returning to Quebec, there was a sense of a return to normalcy, since there was no longer a big campaign to push at every show, not as much merch to have to sell, and no more monthly shows. Without the impending doom of deadlines, catching flights, and financial goals, the only immediate project left was our recently completed music video for “The Wanderer.” Created with Malick Sy in Senegal, and queer Quebecker director Marie-Michèle Cyr, the video follows 3 Black girls on their own separate paths to define what it means to be of “The Motherland.” The trailer is out now and the full video will be released June 23.
What’s next for the Froots? With so much time spent on molding our art into what was expected of us, we lost our sense of self somewhere along the way. Members of marginalized groups in public positions are seen as having a duty to be spokespeople, and their individuality is allowed to suffer as long as it’s for the greater good. “An artist is here to reflect on the times,” explains DragonFroot. “Representation of POC is very important; it saves lives and I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t represent that. It is also simply me. That being said, our music isn’t always political and that is okay because it can be very draining mentally for it to be. We just wanna jam out and have our QPOC jam out too and be able to have fun, but still look up and be like ‘They look like us, that’s awesome!’”
Social media is desensitizing us to anti-POC cruelty, queerphobic hate crimes, and the government’s neverending police women and their bodies. We’re often shamed for the ways we try to cope, find joy in our lives, or simply talk about our personal feelings.
Strange Froots has been hailed as a group that holds out the microphone for their peers that can’t be heard, but it’s time for the talking stick to make the rounds, and turn this panel into a conversation. We’re continuing work on the documentary, but it will be at a healthier pace. We are taking a step back from the spotlight to work on create the material we want, and not just what is expected of us. We want to write from the heart, not just our identities.