Before artists such as Drake and The Weeknd became global ambassadors for Canadian hip hop, Wesley Williams (better known as Maestro Fresh-Wes or Maestro) was holding it down in the music industry.
Known as the “Godfather” of Canadian hip hop, Maestro Fresh-Wes rose to fame in 1989 after releasing his acclaimed debut album, Symphony in Effect. With the successful single “Let Your Backbone Slide,” Maestro became the first Canadian rapper to have a Billboard Top 40 hit.
Though known for party jams, Maestro’s work has always been socially conscious. This can be heard on his 1991 sophomore album, The Black Tie Affair. One of the standouts from that record is “Nothing At All,” a meditation on systemic racism in Canada.
As we scan this land
That we live in, with racism
I’m watching it decay every day…
We got to roll with force
Cause the Klan also move in the Great White North
We got to hurdle the system
Cause hate penetrates multiculturalism
Maestro does not hold back in outlining his experience of being Black in Canada. But he also makes connections between Black and Indigenous struggles.
Listen, I want an explanation
Why are Mohawks being kicked out of their reservations?
And being put in misery
You’re stealing the land to create sporting facilities
The Native man of the land is who you’re killing
And then got the nerve to celebrate Thanksgiving
Claiming every man is equal
I hate to see what ya’ll got planed for my people
Here, Fresh-Wes is referencing the police and military siege of the Mohawk community of Kanehsatà:ke in 1990 during the so-called “Oka Crisis,” a conflict over the Municipality of Oka’s plan to expand a golf course over unceded land, including a burial ground.
To mark the 30th anniversary of “Oka,” and as global movements to end systemic racism rage on, I had the opportunity to speak with Maestro about his music and the song “Nothing At All” specifically—and what they can teach us today, if we take the time to listen.
Sean Carleton (for CD): With everything that is going on right now–Black Lives Matter rallies and global protests to defund the police and end systemic racism—it’s a great time to revisit your song “Nothing At All” that talked about a lot of these issues in the early 1990s.
Wesley Williams (WW): Hey Sean, no problem. Always glad to chat. And, hey, I’m speaking to you in June which is National Indigenous History Month—and “Nothing At All” talks about the connections between anti-Black racism and the oppression of First Nations people and what it’s going to take to overcome all that. So, I want to start off by acknowledging the reality that these struggles are connected, you know?
CD: Absolutely. In particular, “Nothing At All” makes references to the so-called “Oka Crisis” in 1990, and this summer marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the standoff. So, this is a great time to revisit your song and its message and legacy.
CD: Many people know you best for your hits like “Let Your Back Bone Slide” and “Stick to Your Vision,” but there has always been a socially conscious current in all of your work that does not get as much mainstream attention. Does that bother you? Why do you think that is the case?
WW: Yeah, I mean, some songs are just overlooked. That’s the way I see it. “Back Bone Slide” was a party jam on a party record, and that was the introduction to me as an artist for a lot of people. So, you have to keep that in mind from a Canadian perspective, a mass appeal perspective. My first album, Symphony in Effect, was the jump off album for my next record, The Black Tie Affair, which included “Nothing At All.”
After the first record, I had more room to explore socially conscious themes. You need to remember that. Now some of the biggest hip hop artists in the world are Canadian, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I came up, it wasn’t like that. It was a struggle to be heard, played, and listened to—and socially conscious commentary tends to get overlooked and forgotten.
CD: Tell me more about the origins of The Black Tie Affair and “Nothing At All” in particular.
WW: Yeah, The Black Tie Affair—“Black” symbolizing Black people and “Tie” for the unity amongst Black people—you know, it was more of social commentary record. That’s also why it was important to have so many guest features and collaborations with others in the Black community on the record, and important to have songs like “Nothing At All,” which featured George Banton on vocals.
But it’s not just that song or record. I have another song, “God Bless Da Child,” which came out in the early 2000s, and there’s a lyric that says: “Canada be hesitatin’/First Nation hatin’/Apartheid’s dark side/Go check them reservations.” And, recently, I got a feature on a song called “The Truth” with David Strickland where I am giving support to the Indigenous community and making links between struggles, you feel me. So, I’ve been consistently saying this the 1990s, the early 2000s, and today. I’ve been making those connections between Black and Indigenous solidarity.
So, when people come to me now and want to talk about systemic racism and the connections between anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, it’s like an insult to my intelligence. People, not just me, have been making those connections for decades. Only now people are listening. And, that’s a good thing. But it’s not new. People need to know the history. Systemic racism doesn’t just exist in the United States; it’s here in Canada too, and always has been. It’s time to wake up to that fact and change the situation for the better. It’s the only way. That’s what I want to see in terms of solutions. Those issues stemming from the oppression of Indigenous peoples are at the root of Canada’s problems. We got to stay focused on that.
CD: That’s really what you were saying on “Nothing At All.” The message was: we need to grapple with racism in Canada and devise ways for ending it, together—and that includes acknowledging the ongoing effects of colonialism as well as anti-Black racism. How did you learn to make those connections?
WW: I’m a student, Sean. I’m a student of hip hop and history. I was watching the news and reading the papers. I also studied my sisters and brothers in New York; I studied what they did. They were talking about lived experiences, things they were witnessing. My context was similar but different—and I wanted to fix my own backyard. Like, the police and military being used by governments against the Mohawks on their own land? All for some condos and a golf course? What’s up with that, you know? That didn’t sit right with me.
And, history is the key. Understanding why things are the way they are is the key to changing them for the better. You feel me? That’s the answer. If you want to fix things, then you need to understand the history first.
CD: What or who was influencing you to think that way?
WW: As I said, I’m a student. I study history. I study hip hop. I was building on the foundations put in place by some of the giants, specifically Public Enemy. That’s who I learned from, Chuck D and Public Enemy and brothers like KRS-One. Those guys were like big brothers to me. They helped bring me up in the industry and taught me a lot. I learned about the importance of picking up books and reading and understanding the world around me—that’s how I started to pay attention to other struggles like that of the Mohawks.
Public Enemy taught me the importance of always being a student and about the power of knowledge itself. And, for some reason, they picked me to get involved with, to represent my country and talk about my experiences. They brought me along and showed me the ropes. That was huge. I quickly realized, I’m not just here to do party records. I have a responsibility to be a voice for good, like Public Enemy, and that meant speaking out against anti-Black racism and Indigenous oppression.
CD: 30 years later, it must be satisfying—and somewhat frustrating, too—that the message of a song like “Nothing At All” is still applicable?
WW: A bit. It’s a mixed blessing, you know, to have a social commentary song be both timely and timeless. I wish things were different though, for sure.
CD: The verses on “Nothing At All” are quite critical and hard-hitting, but the chorus of the song is hopeful. You say, “I tell my brothers and sisters to read the signs/To open their eyes cause it’s time/To get together, no time to stall/Cause without togetherness, we got nothing at all.” Why was that message so important, and what do you think of it 30 years later?
WW: If you listen to a song like Sam Cook’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” where he’s like in distress and you can just picture what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement, what made him come up with a song like that? You know? But in the last two lines he’s saying he just feels like he’s got to carry on, ‘cause a change is going to come. So, all the way through he’s saying you feel like you’re down and out but there’s still hope for change. You have to get back on your feet and fight. And, at the end of the song, there’s this ray of light, this hope for change. You’ve got to carry on, despite the struggles and all the hardships. That’s what all these artists—Cook, Bob Marely, Bob Dylan—did so well. They didn’t just make records, they made history. You have the opportunity to say something, and that’s what I try to do in my music, even today.
And, right now, there is a ray of hope. With everything that’s going on, there’s still hope for change. If people’s entry to social consciousness about racism or whatever is right now, that’s still something, you know? You can always learn. We can work with that. Better late than never. This can be the entry point, but we need to bring the lessons of the past with us in our movements for change.
I hope people can do that, you know, be students of the past. Learn about “Oka” and Indigenous history and Black history, the history of hip hop too. There might be people who, as a result of what is going on, want to learn about Malcom X, or listen to Public Enemy—even me. That’s a good thing. Listen, learn, and be a student. Always.
When we come together collectively and listen and learn from each other’s struggles, we can make this place better for everyone. That’s what I was saying in the early 1990s. That’s what I’m still saying today. Without togetherness, we’ve got nothing at all.
You can read more about Maestro’s life and career in his book, with a forward by Chuck D of Public Enemy: Wes Williams, Stick to Your Vision: How to Get Past the Hurdles and Haters to Get Where you Want to Be (McClelland and Stewart, 2011).
Sean Carleton is a coordinating editor with Canadian Dimension.