Shad "A Journey of Vulnerability & Joy" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you an interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, or perhaps even a recording of Henri Nouwen himself. We invite you to share the Daily Meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them we can reach out to our world with Henri Nouwen, his writings, his encouragement. And of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God. Now, let me take a moment to introduce our guest. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Shad Kabango, best known to fans simply as Shad. He is a Juno award-winning Canadian rapper with four very successful solo albums and many more album collaborations. Shad became a more broadly known name across Canada when he hosted “Q”, CBC’s flagship daily radio program on the arts. Shad has gone on to gain worldwide recognition, hosting four seasons of the Emmy and Peabody award-winning series “Hip-Hop Evolution”. Shad is a singer-songwriter with a deep and prophetic take on the times we’re living in. Always socially conscious, Shad took on the theme of peace in his 2018 album, A Short Story About a War. He’s been a good friend of the Henri Nouwen Society, speaking at our Voices for Peace gatherings. Shad, I am so glad to have the opportunity to talk with you today.
Shad Kabango: Sure!
Karen: When I set out to talk with you Shad, one of the things I said was, I wanted your perspective on our times and how we go forward from this point. So maybe that’s a place where we could start.
Shad: Well, my sense is that a lot is changing really fast and that we’re struggling, well, that we can’t keep up as human beings. And we, and our institutions are not, kind of, equipped to keep up with all the changes. And by that I mean, the way technology is shaping who we are and it’s shaping how we relate to each other. I think we’re also coming up against the limits of a lot of things, obviously environmentally, where we’re realizing that we’re coming up against the limits of how we can live. And again, in terms of our institutions they’re not well equipped to deal with that crisis. Like that’s an international crisis and we still don’t cooperate internationally. We compete between nations. I don’t think that’s going to work. And then we’re also coming up against the end of certain destructive ideas of racial hierarchy and just really coming up the absurdity of the inequalities that exist in our society. So yeah, I think a lot is changing. It seems like a time, it’s like a really important time in history.
Karen: It strikes me, even as you say this, that I think about the words that Esther was challenged with, you know, “for such a time as this. Are you coming to the kingdom?” In some ways I look at your art and I listened to your music and I really hear you way out ahead, prophetically. Even in that album that you released in 2018, A Short Story About a War, there’s a prophetic nature to it. And, tell me, do you yourself feel like that’s what the artist is called to, to speak forward into the times we’re living in?
Shad: Yeah, I do. I think that’s one purpose, artists’ concerns. I’ve heard the saying about a lot of different vocations, but this thing of comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable, you know, I think that’s part of an artist’s function. I think part of an artist’s function is to tell new stories, come up with new ways, basically come up with new ways for us to look at ourselves and each other and the world.
Karen: That’s important.
Shad: That was something I tried to do with this album. Like if you think about the climate now in terms of, discourse, right? It’s just so obviously polarized and it’s difficult for us to hear one another. And I feel like new stories just help us look at each other differently, help us look at the issues differently, help us look at ourselves differently. And by differently, I mean kind of the same old story, that’s kind of at the heart of the struggle that we have as human beings to relate to one another and connect and cooperate. But just a new way of seeing that challenge. I think that’s part of it and yeah, a lot of artists are kind of sensitive to what’s going on around them, right?
I think a lot of that album for me just came out of a sensitivity too. I was living in Vancouver at the time and that’s a very unequal society. And I think I was very sensitive to that. And so this story started to bubble up in my subconscious. I think it’s my mind’s way of trying to make sense of it for me. So it just comes out of a sensitivity that artists have and a desire to, well, we love to be heard and understood. And so, some new stories come up and I think that’s part of the function of artists too… is just to give us new, fresh ways of looking at something.
Karen: Now, one of the things I’ve loved about your work is you’re so collaborative. You are also somebody who, in a way, shares the light and brings light to other artists that you see are speaking in a brilliant and fresh way. And you come together. I love that collaborative aspect of what you’re doing. I want to ask you. This has been an interesting time. We’ve lived through now almost a year of pandemic. It’s not quite there, but that has shut a lot of things down, clearly. Any plans to go touring and all those kinds of things that would have been part of moving forward, had to draw back. What’s been happening for you in the midst of this? How are you dealing with this time? And is it a fertile time for you?
Shad: It’s been hard. It’s been hard just as a social creature. I miss people. When I think at the end of the day, “oh, how was today?” Well, usually I feel pretty fine about it. But at the end of a week or so I do miss people. I get tired in a strange way. I get tired, not from not getting enough rest, but I get tired from not getting enough of the things that give me energy, which is people. So I do miss that. Yeah, I’m a very social person by nature and collaborative, like you said. So, yeah, I miss that. As far as inspiration goes, I’ve been missing some creative inspiration precisely because of that, because I’m not in touch with people. But on the other hand, there’s been a nice freedom at moments to respond creatively in whatever way just sort of comes to me. By which I mean, because I have a career as a rapper, it’s like, I get into the cycle of doing that professionally.
Like, you know, I make an album, I tour the album, then I maybe have a bit of a fallow period and then I’m doing it again. Whereas now, because those, you know, that routine is gone, I found myself like writing more kind of essays and just making silly stuff on Instagram to entertain people. You know, just really creating whatever I intuitively feel like creating, which has been cool to get in touch with and just get in touch with the fact that, left to my own devices, this is just what I’ll do. If you give me time, I will just like really want to connect with people and want to share something that I’ve made. So it was cool to get in touch with that. But no, I wouldn’t call it a particularly inspired time for me creatively. I really don’t. Yeah, I don’t have too much energy to create because I don’t get energy from people.
Karen: Well I will say that your Instagram postings are quite brilliant. They are quite, they are really fun and interesting and exciting and I will want to post links for everyone. I want them to discover who you are. You know, we’ve got an audience that goes right around the world. And I’m sure you’re well known, Shad, right around the world, but connecting you to our audience and to an audience that’s hungry for meaning as well in this time. I really identify with what you just said about, you know, people feed my energy and I miss that so much. Can I ask you though, during this time period, something really began to focus in and it was exactly about something you said earlier on the inequities, the unequalness in our society. And we saw with, banners and marching and wonderful leaders, the whole theme of “Black Lives Matter”. How has that spoken to you? I mean, you’re a person. I look back on what you’ve written. “This is my life’s work. I don’t write verses I’m talkin’ right versus wrong. There’s a fight going on trying to find the right purpose, trying to find the right person who’s at the end of my search.” And I just, I would be very interested in hearing from you on this very subject and what it’s done for you and what you’re thinking.
Shad: It’s been amazing to see because it’s definitely new in my lifetime in terms of like how this movement for “Black Lives” has reached the general consciousness, you know, and become accepted as something to say, as something to champion, as something to, you know, to take very seriously. Like it’s really, I just think it reached a tipping point. Watching NBA games, for example, this year, and just seeing, you know, “Black Lives Matter” across the middle of the cord on the back of the jerseys. Like this is really unprecedented stuff, as far as this tipping into the mainstream, and I’m cautiously optimistic. Like all black people are, but, well this is different. This is new. And part of me thinks that, well, once people see it – truth – it’s hard to un-see it, if that makes sense. Like, you know, once that cognitive dissonance is brought up to the surface, it’s like, it has to be resolved one way or the other. And so I do think, well, I hope that’s where our society is at. You know, you look around and you see the inequalities. I mean, we all knew that this was it right. Like we both live in Toronto. If you ask somebody, oh, what’s the most, what’s the poorest neighborhoods in Toronto? Well, it’s neighborhoods that are racialized neighborhoods with a lot of black people. Like we all knew this stuff. But that cognitive dissonance of like why, and is that okay? And, you know, like once that’s firmly in people’s minds, I think it has to be resolved. At least that’s my hope. So I think that’s where we’re at now.
And in American society, it’s obviously even more pronounced, but it’s no different here of course. And, and I think that, yeah, in North American society, if not around the world, it’s like, that’s just, well, it’s kind of in the mainstream consciousness now. It’s not just with black people or kind of on the margins. It’s, you know, it’s everywhere. So to me, that’s encouraging. Something I’ve never seen in my lifetime and odd that it came up during the pandemic. You know, it’s not what I would have expected, but maybe it’s the fact that people were just at home and had to look at something online. And so we’re all kind of looking at the same thing, you know, for once.
Karen: We can’t, one thing is we couldn’t look away. We couldn’t look away from George Floyd. We couldn’t look away from what was going on. I think all of us share a concern that something which we often see happen is something’s on the front page and it moves through the paper and then it’s on the back page and then it’s gone. I think we have to choose to be sure we are willing to look hard and long and the thoroughly and the part of the change. I think what’s been exciting is to be, to see people marching all around the world, to see people caring, but then bringing it home and saying, what part will I do? And how will I be part of this? And what is God asking of me in all of this, which is, you know, I think an incredibly important question for us. As we’re coming into the 25th anniversary of Henri Nouwen’s death, which will be next year, 2021, I am struck that we are going to be celebrating and acknowledging what Henri was offering us as a spiritual master. That was a timelessness, a depth of significance to his voice. Especially as he, in a sense, came to grasp belovedness, his belovedness, and the belovedness of every single other person. And I’m curious about whether Henri has had any impact on you, whether his writings have been any kind of a resource for you.
Shad: Yeah, actually, my wife and I are reading one of the books that you gave me right now. We’re reading it. We read together a once a week, just as a way of slowing down and connecting with each other and connecting with our core values. And we’re reading Here and Now.
Karen: Oh, lovely.
Shad: And actually there’s a section that we were just reading about, I think it’s in the section about hospitality and hostility. And it talks about poverty of mind and poverty of heart. And I really loved that. It’s something that I’ve thought about in my work just as a performer, as an interviewer, and also just kind of as a public person. I’ve felt this consistent challenge to empty myself. You know, like on one hand, we get elevated as performers, as entertainers, as artists. But really what people want is our emptiness, and they want our poverty of mind and heart, right?
Like that’s really what we give to people. Like, if you love an artist, it’s because you like their vulnerability, you like their questions, not their answers. So it’s something that I’ve thought about before and kind of a consistent challenge I felt for me and my, my work. I mean, certainly as an interviewer, it’s much the same, right? Like you have to, it’s not a complicated task, but it’s not an easy one. You know, you have to empty yourself to create space for somebody else. So yeah, I really loved reading that because it, like, confirms something that I have been thinking about for a long time throughout my career, really. But the way that he put it using that term “poverty” is such a nice, pointed, challenging way of saying it. You know, in our society that’s all about, ultimately all about like accumulation and accumulating wealth in one sense or another. You know, whether that’s like education and competence and confidence and wealth in the mind, or you know, a strong reputation, or a strong, you know, sense of self or something.
So, yeah, I just liked that word, poverty. You know, throwing that to us, is a really strong, like counter-cultural challenge. I just thought it was a beautiful way of putting it.
Karen: It’s interesting because, even as I listen to you, I am so struck by you in your work as an artist, you really are a standard bearer for, as they called it, a standard bearer for positive rap. But it goes so far beyond that. You’ve just got so much to say. Our audience needs to know about this “Hip-Hop Evolution”, which you have. You’re literally through four seasons. Are you doing a fifth? Is 2021 going to bring the fifth season of this? “Hip-Hop Evolution”, by the way, has won Emmys and one Peabody. It’s something people need to see. It’s fantastic. But are you going to do a fifth season?
Shad: Yeah, I hope we can do a fifth season. We put up the fourth one at the start of 2020, and then everything shut down, obviously. So, yeah, if we can resume filming, that’d be awesome, and be able to make another season. But that wouldn’t be done for at least a year. So I don’t think there’d be anything new until like 2022, even if we made it, if we did get the chance to make more. But I think the break would be good anyhow, because the show’s kind of historical in the sense that it covers 1972 and then the mid 2000’s. So I think if we were going to start to cover beyond that it’d be nice to get a little bit more distance anyway. So I think this is a good time. Fortunately, this kind of just makes sense as far as a time to take a break, but yeah, I’d love to be able to make more and release them in 2022 or 2023, and cover, you know, into the early 2010’s, maybe.
Karen: That’s exciting. That is exciting for your fans and for everybody. And you’re an astute voice in this area. Now another aspect of life for you is you’re a growing family. You’ve got a baby on the way. Is this your first or your second?
Shad: So actually the baby, the second one just arrived. So we have one two years old and one two months old.
Karen: Wow. How does that shape your thinking? I mean, that’s part of the future, isn’t it?
Shad: Yeah. You know, the funny thing is that it makes me laugh because I just feel like it makes me less productive. I feel, content is probably the best word I can come up with? I mean, it’s just the sense of like, I don’t really need much else. I enjoy my kids in a really simple way and my family and definitely de-centers work. If work was ever at the center of my life, this definitely de-centers it. So, yeah. But I think more than that, I just do really feel a deep sense of just kind of settledness and contentedness with having them around, which has been great. And I guess, I think a lot about what their work is going to be, you know? I think they’re going to have a lot of work to do. I’m just trying to do as much as I can. And then, wow, leave the rest of them. They’re definitely going to have no shortage of things to do, which is a heavy burden. But on the other hand, it’s also purpose. So, you know, that’s not all bad.
Karen: Yeah. Good to equip them with courage, with wisdom for that, you know. It’s right, we are responsible for the next generation and for making sure that they have the courage to take the load when we’re ready to pass it over to them. Can I ask you, what are you writing about in this crazy year of 2020 when so much has happened and the pandemic has, you know, exposed such inequalities? What are you, what’s shaking you and what’s next for you?
Shad: I’ve been working on an album here. It’s almost done. I really wanted to make a fun album after the last one being really heavy. I really wanted to make a fun album. I really like entertaining people and making people feel better and making people laugh. And so I really felt, when the last album was done, the freedom to really tap into that instinct and in a fresh way and just make something fun. But then the world is what it is, and there’s a lot on my mind. So I think it’s kind of a fun album about how our humanity is eroding, if that makes sense as a concept for an album. That’s basically what it’s about. I’ve been thinking about, actually something I wrote in an email to you a little while ago. About just these different ways that these different dimensions of our humanity, parts of our humanity, whether that’s spirit or connection to nature or connection to meaningful work, connection to each other. These different parts of ourselves and parts of our life and parts of our humanity that, well, I think are floating away from us and leaving us with emptiness. You know, like the opposite of wholeness, the opposite of shalom. So, but trying to make it fun and funny and exciting to listen to. So that’s been the challenge creatively, and that’s been fun. I like a creative challenge, so trying to make an album like that.
Karen: It’s interesting because, you know, we know it’s a nine-month event to birth a baby. How long does it take you to birth an album?
Shad: Well, it takes me longer than a lot of folks. Typically I put albums out every three years. So usually, you know, one year between albums is like touring. Another year is writing and recording and then another half a year or so after the album is done, getting everything organized to release it. So, yeah, usually it takes me about a year to make an album, to write and to piece it together. I’m not trained as a musician and I’m not a trained in the studio. So it’s a lot of trial and error for me and collaboration, as you said, to try and put something together. So it takes me a little longer than some.
Karen: Good stuff comes out, obviously. I mean, it’s award-winning wonderful content with depth to it. By the way, you know, you talked about like having fun. I loved your official video on your website and people have got to see it. It’s just charming, but it’s so full of… it makes me smile. It just makes me smile. It’s full of laughter in life. And I love where you’re coming from. Actually. I just find it very life-giving, and yet in the midst of it, there’s such profound things you’re saying that you really… you know… I always believe laughter opens and that opens us up to receive truth. I believe, you know, somehow we, when we relax and we smile and we ponder, we’re also wide open to hear deep stuff. And I think that’s something that you do with a really wonderful balance. I really see it in your work and I love it. And I say “bravo!” on this side. Yeah, bravo!
Shad: Well, thank you. I’m very tempted to break interview protocol and ask what your sense of the times are. I’m very curious.
Karen: Well, it’s interesting because you know, the restrictions. I really identified with what you said about people. I get fed by people. And it’s interesting how, you know, this is wonderful, I enjoy the conversation, but there’s something about that human contact. I’ve got to admit I’m living on my own. I miss the hugs. I miss the physicality of people too. I literally had to get a kitten so that I’d have something to, you know, interact with physically. And that meant a lot to me. I think the times are… I’m just amazed at… in the midst of a pandemic that we could end up bringing up something so important, this, the whole inequality that has, that is seen around the world and say “Black Lives Matter.” And we have got to bring about change. I’m amazed that happened at this time.
I felt like the plate was full with the agony of what we were going through and yet, no, it was suddenly like we could focus in a fresh, deep way. And I have really been excited about that. And I’m wanting to see how I can be part of moving things forward, and, you know, not letting go, not letting it slip away again. That’s important. It’s funny, one thing I was reminded of: Henri Nouwen marched for peace. He cared about issues like this. He cared about social justice. And then I was thinking, yeah, but did he, did we actually move the ball forward? In some ways you’re concerned for peace, for the environment, for justice. I want to be part of a generation that moves it forward as we prepare for your children, which would be my grandchildren. I mean, that’s the age difference there. I want to be sure we don’t drop the ball here. In the last couple of years, one of the things that spoke deeply to me was the Parkland young people. I was so moved by their articulation of the issues. I thought, wow, I wasn’t that clever at that age. And I was so spoken to by how they’ve brought leadership and the generation coming up, that’s bringing leadership, that’s able to voice this. And I just don’t want them to let it go. And I want to be part of helping them hold it and bring it forward.
Shad: Yeah, it is really. As you’re talking, I’m reminded of a scripture in Isaiah I think I was reading last week. And I’m not sure at all if this is what was intended in it, but there’s a verse that says something to the effect of “even our righteousness is like a dirty cloth”. And what it made me think of, was it made me think of our systems, again, the interconnectedness of all these things, all these different dimensions of our humanity, all these different systems in our society that are interconnected. And really the challenge that’s in front of us as far as addressing racial inequality or any of these issues. You know, because it’s so systemic, right.
Shad: And all of this stuff is so deeply ingrained. And I guess what it made me think of is how, you know, this is really a collective project because we’re such an individualistic society. You know, we can be tempted to want to purify ourselves, you know, to try to like, make sure we are anti-racist. But we can’t, like, it just, that verse made me feel like, you know what we actually can’t be, unless we all are. Because this is so embedded in our systems. We actually have to not just free ourselves from this, but free each other from this or else it doesn’t work, you know? It’s just, I guess, another lovely reminder of how these different aspects of who we are are connected, and how each of us, you know, we’re all wrapped up in each other’s story. And so these projects that we’re undertaking right now that, you know, they really are collective and communal. And there’s something I think that’s beautiful about that and deeply good about that and kind of shakes us out of this Western idea that we can, you know, that it’s about our individual sin, our individual redemption. You know, no, this is like, we actually have to all do it, you know, or else we’re all implicated.
Karen: Very well put. That’s right. We’re under that light of God’s honesty and all of this, I think, you know, which is so, so critical. Can I… this is going to be a crazy question… but given where we are going into this time of year, we’re going into 2021, do you ever make resolutions? Do you ever think in terms of what will this year be for me? One of the things I’ve always loved about the fact that the new year happens in January is that for me, the new year always began in September. I mean, if you’ve gone to school, that’s when the new year began. But I always think it’s a time of new beginnings in the midst of our darkest hour, literally. And I love that about where new years begin. Do you have any thoughts looking into the year ahead?
Shad: I don’t have any resolutions yet, but I do believe in New Year’s resolutions. Just because I believe in momentum, you know, and galvanizing momentum, and marking things, marking time. And we do that with the church calendar, but we can also do it with the New Year and some of these dates on the calendar too. You know, I just, I believe in that. Yeah, it’s great. It’s perfect. So yeah, I have nothing yet on my agenda, but I do always try to think of like, yeah, what the new year could be about for me and, and try to like, yeah, use January 1st as a way to kind of like launch into it.
Karen: It’s interesting because I think we live on the shoulders of many, you know, people who have influenced us. We also live on the shoulders of our own lives. You know, we’re here at this moment and there’s a stepping forward. I always love being with people who are in the process of becoming. That there’s a next thing. There is the reality of a responsibility that so much has happened in your life. You have incredible credibility. You have incredible gifts, and you have all sorts of recognition for that. But it’s almost like you’re standing on a new open field and you say, “God, take me forward, take me into it and use every part of me.” And I picture God using you Shad. I think you’re a gift to all of us. I really do.
Shad: Thank you. I appreciate that, Karen. Thank you. That’s very encouraging. Yeah. And launching into it with, like Nouwen said, with that “poverty of mind and heart”, right? And saying yes, like, yeah, I’m open to being foolish. I’m open to losing everything, you know, like, with a renewed sense of that every year is so good too.
Karen: Oh, it’s the brave ones that are willing to walk out on the tight rope and say, I can lose it all. And I believe you have that gift. And that’s what makes you such an outstanding artist. I really see that in you and I see it. I also get excited to see the doors that God will put before you Shad. You can be trusted with doors because you’ll go through them and you’ll be sincere and honest about what’s there. May there be blessing on your household, on those two little people that are there. They’ll mark the time for you. The year will happen with incredible speed. It’ll be no time at all before the youngest is walking and the two year old is fully into the terrible twos probably, but whatever. Yeah. Thanks so much for giving me this time. I’m really grateful. And I’m grateful that you could find the ways in which you are hearing Henri speak. I found that really powerful, too, very useful. And I’d love to continue this conversation throughout the year. Perhaps we can come back and check in at some point and hear how it’s going.
Shad: I would love that.
Karen: Aw, great. Thanks so much.
Shad: Really appreciate it. This is great. Thanks.
Karen: Take care.
Karen: Bye. Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope this interview with Shad has challenged and encouraged you, and we also hope you’ll share it with others who are dear to you. For more resources related to today’s podcast, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’re going to find additional content, book suggestions, links to Shad’s site. And additional material might include books to get you started in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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