Photo: Brianna Roye
Toronto has one of the hottest music scenes right now and it’s undoubtedly thanks to the help of OVO founder Drake. He’s put eyes on the city, making it easier for artists to break out of the country. But Drake wasn’t the only one working hard to develop the scene.
Ayo Leilani – or as she goes on stage, Witch Prophet – is one of three members that make up the electro-dub rap group Above Top Secret. The MC is joined by producer SunSun and percussionist Brandon Valdivia. They recently put out their self-titled debut album, which was in the works for just over a year, via local label Daps Records.
A few months ago, I was invited over to Leilani and SunSun’s St. Clair home. After a few minutes of wandering up and down the street I finally reached their quiet little home in the middle of Toronto. Instantly, I knew it was the right place, as it was the only interesting and fun house on the block, the only one with vibrant colours. As I hopped up the steps I was greeted by a friendly Leilani as the smell of weed surrounded me.
Leilani told me that they had worked on the new Above Top Secret album for just over a year. For them, 2015 was a crazy year, one where Leilani could live off the money she made from music. Something she has been striving to do for years. Last year was a combination of hard work and opportunities for Above Top Secret.
“We wrote two songs last December and then I had just applied for the Harbourfront SoundClash as a joke,” she explains. “I was just like ‘I’m just going to send this in,’ didn’t tell anybody and then we played a Wavelength show.”
“I guess Johnny Dovercourt must be on the committee for Harbourfront SoundClash because he wrote me, being like ‘Hey, trying to get in contact with you. Can you check your email?'” Leilani finishes. “So I checked the email and it was like ‘You guys are shortlisted. The performance is in a week. Can you do it?’ We were like ‘Shit yes!'”
Leilani has witnessed the scene grow right before her eyes. When she was starting out, it took people years to make a mark on the industry. We got into an in-depth conversation about music in a small room overlooking the street filled with colourful, homemade art. Their cat kept trying to sneak into the room hunting for attention as Leilani talked about how kids drop one or two songs these days and become stars. We discussed how Drake’s influence has changed the way people break into the scene these days. Nothing is the same since Witch Prophet first graced the stage.
“The first performance I ever did was this thing called Skiffle in my Ear,” says Leilani. “It was hosted by Sate. She is an amazing alternative-rock indie artist from Toronto. Black female. Super amazing. I met her probably 12 years ago and it was kind of like an open mic situation. I had gone in to see the show; I was just like ‘What is Skiffle in my Ear?'”
“It was on Wednesday nights in this place called Ciao Edie that isn’t there anymore on College Street,” she continues. “I walked in and there were all these different musicians. Zaki was there. There was all these industry people who are now really up there, they were at this show. I walked in and I watched the performance and I was like ‘wow.'”
“I just went by myself,” Leilani concludes. “And I [said out loud] ‘I would love to perform here one day.’ Sate overheard me and she was like ‘Come next week, it’s every Wednesday. Come, you can get up onstage and sing.’ I came back the next week and it was probably one of the worst performances I’ve ever done. I was really scared and nervous. You could tell in my voice.”
One of the first things I noticed about Witch Prophet was the limited amount of songs she has out. Her solo work at the time consisted of two tracks: “Architect Of HeartBreak” (featuring Stas THEE Boss of THEESatisfaction) and “Funeral For A Killer.” Being so used to the whole ‘mysterious’ trend Toronto artists are going by these days I thought this is what Witch Prophet was trying to do. In turn I found out it was because she is still very unsure of her solo work. Leilani is a very confident woman, but when it comes to performing or doing a solo project she has had to learn how to push past her fears.
“I’ve never dropped a solo project because I’ve been way too scared and self-conscious.” She has wanted to do a solo project since she was 15. Now Leilani has finally found the time to work on her own solo projects just as she has come to the realization that if she doesn’t do this now, she will always regret it. This summer Leilani plans on putting out two EPs as Witch Prophet.
“One is called DNA Activation and the other is HPB,” she says. “So those are both hopefully coming out in August. I’m just going to drop them both because they are both four track EPs.”
Leilani has a very musical and creative mind that pushes her to make sure every note is perfect. “I’m the type of person who will go in to record, listen, and be like ‘I hate it’,” she says. “I love to perform, but I’ll go into the studio and be like ‘I hate this song. Why does it sound like this?’”
Just hearing the passion in her voice, I knew that she really cares about the music. To her it’s not about getting a pay cheque, it’s about expressing herself and creating art. Witch Prophet is a true artist, one who bleeds on the stage.
“I’ve struggled with this release for a long time, out of fear and out of thinking about other people’s judgements and things like that,” says Leilani. “I’m still forcing myself to break through those fears. I hope people recognize that my songs and words are spells. Recognize that the way I write is to create a universe.”