‘I definitely pull inspiration from the dark side of things,’ says SAFE.
It’s not immediately apparent from his music. Couched in downtempo beats, it seems at first listen like a fitting soundtrack for a quiet evening alone. Don’t let that quality, however, distract from the subject matter. On his debut full-length, Stay, for example, he tackles deeply emotional affairs, such as the bittersweet excitement of leaving home, and the challenges of maintaining a long-distance relationship (along with the heartbreak of its eventual collapse).
The album, which was released in May, was recorded around the time SAFE first left home. Born Saif Musaad, the 22-year-old musician grew up in Toronto’s Esplanade neighborhood, where he formed local rap collectives 176 and ‘Halal Gang’ with friends. ‘We were just having fun in the studio putting things together,’ he explains, almost as if his success happened by accident. People started tuning in, however, and he quickly became something of a hometown hero: a truly Toronto-bred artist inseparable from his community. He even caught the ears of fellow Torontonian, Drake, and his business partner Oliver El-Khatib, both of whom he counts as friends and supporters to this day.
However, ‘it came with the wrong attention, as well,’ SAFE says, explaining that when his music started taking off, he ‘felt a lot of envy and jealousy coming from the people I kept around me.’ He continues: ‘At first we were just kids from the neighborhood who just wanted to make music for fun, but when it started becoming serious a lot of people that were around didn't understand if they really wanted to do this. They saw that this was becoming a thing, and it started becoming messy.’
It came to a head when, in 2018, his close friend (and fellow Halal Gang member) Smoke Dawg was shot and killed
outside of a nightclub in Toronto.
That year, SAFE relocated to New York. ‘I just felt like to be able to feel free, I had to step outside my upbringing,’ he says. Still, it’s never easy leaving home, especially for an artist so involved in the local scene. In May, he dropped his LP, which, he explains, is about ‘living in Toronto and wanting to stay, but knowing that I have to leave.’ It’s a difficult subject, and it seems like almost a relief for him to have finished the album: ‘It's amazing to finally get that chapter of my life out of the way,’ he admits.
In an interview with VICE
from soon after Smoke Dawg was killed, he explained that, ‘Where we come from, our lives are cut short. I’d be a fool if I thought about five years from now.’ Now, however, his thinking has changed: ‘I know a lot of people love what I do with the R&B stuff, so I really gotta go hard with that and just create the best body of work I can,” he says. “I know I've got to stay in that direction until I'm solidified, and then from there I can clear out with other things. But I definitely see myself killing the R&B game.’
Images courtesy of Mihailo Andic